November/December 2014

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 16 of 79

15 NOV-DEC 14 / CINEMONTAGE by Edward Landler A n adaptation of Frank Norris' novel McTeague, published in 1899, Erich von Stroheim's Greed depicts the life of a physically powerful but mentally dull man who leaves his brutish work in a Sierra Nevada goldmine to become an unlicensed dentist in San Francisco, where he marries the daughter of German immigrants. Together, they descend into brutish poverty. The film was released 90 years ago, in early December 1924 in New York City, in 10 reels — roughly 120 minutes (at 20 fps, the projection speed of most silent films by that year). The preceding January, Stroheim had presented his first cut of the film, prepared with editor Frank E. Hull from over 85 hours of footage. This version ran 42 reels — about nine hours. How Stroheim's attempt to create a trenchant perspective on American society was reduced to its final release length was a major struggle over creative control in the growing studio system. The result of this clash between artistic ambition and the business of making money strengthened the dominance of the front office in Hollywood. Born in Vienna in 1885, Erich Oswald Stroheim was the son of a Jewish hat maker. Before coming to the United States in 1909, he served in the Austro-Hungarian army, but not as an officer. By 1914, he had made his way into the movie industry in Los Angeles and had tacked a "von" in front of his surname. This allowed others to speculate that he was gentile, an aristocrat and a former officer in the Imperial army, and he offered no denials. Stroheim worked as production assistant, technical advisor, assistant director and bit player in many productions, including D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). A conspicuous role as a leering Prussian officer in a World War I movie called For France (1917) led to similar parts in Griffith's Hearts of the World (1917) and Allen Holubar's The Heart of Humanity (1918). Stroheim the actor was soon touted as "the man you love to hate" for his characters' flagrant evil-doing, like throwing a baby out of a window and tearing the buttons from a nurse's uniform with his teeth. Universal Studios' Carl Laemmle then gave him the opportunity to direct his own screenplays. Stroheim took on this role with relish and rose to prominence as a creative filmmaker with a meticulous eye for detail. His three films at Universal — Blind Husbands (1919), The Devil's Passkey (1920) and Foolish Wives (1922) — all revolved around married American couples in Europe, social innocents in contrast to the sophistication bred by experience in a centuries-old culture. The filmmaker gained, too, a reputation for extravagance by building on the Monterey Peninsula a full-scale reproduction of Monte Carlo's main square for Wives. Six weeks into production on his next picture for Universal, Merry-Go-Round (1923), studio executive Irving Thalberg replaced Stroheim with Rupert Julian. The director had gone over budget creating a detailed reconstruction of pre-war Vienna on the studio lot and shooting huge amounts of footage besides. Six weeks after leaving Universal, he THIS MONTH IN FILM HISTORY The Gutting of 'Greed' Greed, MGM/ Photofest

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of CineMontage - November/December 2014