November/December 2014

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16 CINEMONTAGE / NOV-DEC 14 THIS MONTH IN FILM HISTORY bounced back with a three-picture deal with the Goldwyn Company, the first being his adaptation of Norris' McTeague. Influenced by French novelist Emile Zola, Norris helped establish naturalism in American literature by describing objectively and graphically the elements of heredity and environment that shaped the character and fate of his novel's subjects. Stroheim wanted to incorporate this kind of social perspective into movies by filming the entire story as related in the book in its actual locations. In this film, he hoped to observe the very American emphasis on money and making it for its own sake that diminished the humanity of our culture. Goldwyn allowed the director to manage the details of the production on his own. He built no sets and rented a building to serve as production offices and as interiors in the same San Francisco neighborhood where the murder that inspired Norris' novel had occurred. He shot there and all around San Francisco from March through June of 1923. In July and August, the movie's harrowing climax was filmed in the searing heat of Death Valley, and production wrapped with scenes shot in Placer County, known as "gold country," in September. To achieve the realism the film demanded, the sharp and consistently deep-focus photography was shot by Ben F. Reynolds, who worked on Stroheim's three Universal pictures, and William H. Daniels. Daniels went on to become one of Hollywood's most noted cinematographers, lensing 21 films starring Greta Garbo and winning an Oscar for The Naked City (1948), shot mainly on New York City streets. Seeking naturalistic performances, the director asked his cast to live in the very locations in which they would act. Englishman Gibson Gowland, who was in Blind Husbands, elicits a sympathy that makes McTeague believable, while Zasu Pitts, gradually slipping into grasping pettiness as his bride Trina, creates one of the screen's great tragic characters. Pitts, with over 200 credits between 1917 and 1963, became one of the most recognizable supporting actors in American screen comedy. When Goldwyn executives balked at the 42-reel version of the film in early 1924, the director agreed to cut it to a reasonable length for exhibition, and returned to the cutting room with editor Hull. Years later, Stroheim told biographer Peter Noble, "When I arrived at 24 reels I could not, to save my soul, cut another foot." He had hoped that this five-hour cut could be released as a two-part film. But, in April, right after he completed that version, the Loew's Inc. theatre chain bought the Goldwyn Company, merged it with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions, and created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Studio boss Mayer hired Stroheim's Universal nemesis Thalberg as production chief, and neither of them wanted to release what they considered an overly depressing movie. Stroheim said, "When I began working on Greed, the slogan of the Goldwyn Company was 'the author and the play are the thing.' However, when the Goldwyn Company became…Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer…their new slogan was 'the producer is the thing.'" The filmmaker begged his friend Rex Ingram, director of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), to cut Greed to an acceptable length. Ingram, along with editor Grant Whytock, who had already edited seven pictures for Ingram and two with Stroheim, cut the film to what some claim was 18 reels. But Whytock, in an interview filmed for a 1979 BBC documentary about Stroheim, stated that they got it down to a two-part, 15-reel picture totaling three hours and 15 minutes. The editor described the first part of the picture as "quite humorous at times," which would have helped audiences accept the tragedy of the second half. When this version was screened for executives in New York, he said, "It was well-liked by everybody including [Loew's Nicholas] Schenck." While European studios were not averse to releasing two-part films in the early 1920s, the leadership at the new MGM was totally opposed to it; they were only interested in trying to recoup the nearly half-million dollars already spent on the production. Mayer and Thalberg brought in writer June Mathis and editor/title writer Joseph W. Farnham to cut Greed by a full hour, down to 10 reels. A major scenarist of the time, Mathis had adapted The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and was then working on the production of Ben Hur (1925). Though the director retained the screen credit stipulated in his original contract — "Personally Directed by Erich von Stroheim" — Mathis' name preceded Stroheim's under "Screen Adaptation and Scenario by." Farnham was credited as editor, and Hull's name did not appear at all. Greed was the last of the former's six editing credits, but he continued to work as a title writer in silents and as a dialogue writer for talkies. One of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Farnham received the only Oscar ever given for Title Writing for his body of work (13 films) in 1928, including King Vidor's The Crowd and Buster Keaton's The Cameraman. These ultimate editors of Greed — with input from Thalberg — pared the film to a series of major plot points. The material grounding the characters in a fully realized Greed, MGM/ Photofest

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