The legend of Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 film Greed, the tragedy of it, says that the director’s first complete cut of the movie (often called the “holy grail” of cinema) ran nine and a half hours long and that he held only a single screening of it for a select audience of twelve people, all of them obliged by his intensity to watch it in a single day; and they say that Stroheim himself sat there straightbacked throughout, unflinching, squeezing the grip of his cane. Intense. And the way it gets spun from there is that everybody came out of the screening room changed, rapturous, vindicating the huge costs—financial and otherwise—that he’d poured into the project (Stroheim reportedly collapsed on set, early in the production, after a succession of 20-hour days).
The consensus among that early audience was that Greed confirmed a kind of artistic leap forward in cinema—a heroic feat of “untruckled” artistry that, as the legend goes, was then decimated by the suits at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for whom artistry took a distant backseat to commerciality, and who snatched the film away from its director and handed it to some tactless brute of an editor; a guy who’d read neither the novel nor the script on which it was based; a guy who, as Stroheim said in a letter to biographer Peter Noble, had nothing on his mind but a hat.
A guy who ruined his movie.
Hacked it down to two-and-a-half hours.
Replaced whole scenes with summarizing intertitles.
The film was released this way and trashed by critics, who called it vulgar for its depictions of alcoholism and violence and poverty and theft.
After flopping with audiences, too, the film was disowned by its director, who cried injustice, claiming that the other seven hours of footage were “burned [by the studio] to get the forty-three cents worth of silver out.”
That’s the legend.
And some of it actually happened that way.
Norman Mailer says in The Spooky Art that for lots of writers, particularly young ones, the biggest obstacle toward getting anything done is their own imagination. It’s too fertile. They get partway into making something good when suddenly they can’t resist the impulse to backtrack and include some shiny new element they just thought of.
That impulse can be enough of an obstacle for a writer, whose tools cost virtually nothing, but with a filmmaker like Stroheim—for whom, as biographer Arthur Lennig points out, greatness had to mean bigness (a legion of characters; the sets all ornate, vast, exotic; a runtime of two movies in one)—that burden of a too-fertile imagination quickly turned toxic. In his quest to make a longer-than-average movie, with the colossal expenses inherent to that kinda venture, Stroheim was still prone to shooting thirty takes of something, or obsessively re-touching the set design and wardrobe, writing whole new scenes on the fly and throwing them in.
So he might definitely have been a genius, but he was also—by merit of a perfectionist’s temper—almost constitutionally ill-suited for making movies; at least in the 1920s, when even just rolling the camera cost money, and full features were sometimes shot in two or three weeks.
So let’s just begin with this: Erich von Stroheim’s movie was taken from him—but he wasn’t a victim.
Feeling stifled by executive input at Universal Studios, where he’d just been directing Merry-Go-Round until producer Irving Thalberg fired him for taking too long and spending too much money, Stroheim jumped, in 1922, for The Goldwyn Company. There, in a 26-page contract that allowed him a little more creative authority in exchange for fewer resources (along with stricter budgets, deadlines, runtimes and the like), Stroheim embarked on Greed.
Von Strohiem’s contract was to be for one year, running from December 15, 1922, and he would direct three films…Each picture was to be between 4500 and 8500 feet in length and to cost no more than $175,000 unless Goldwyn agreed to more. If production rose above this figure any excess would be deducted from his share of profits, which was to be 25 percent…Von Stroheim agreed to have a complete work print within 14 weeks of the start of each production, and that “none of the said pictures shall be of a morbid, gruesome, or offensive character.”The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood by Richard Koszarski
He ignored all of that.
Clearing Greed’s enormous script with the studio, the budget was doubled from $175,000 to $347,000 (about $5 million today). Arguing that, by shooting on location, he could spare them the cost of building sets, Stroheim left for San Francisco with the studio’s blessing.
In the ensuing seven-month shoot, he collected 446,103 feet of film.
But Stroheim was a finicky and indecisive editor and after several months of splicing Greed together, exhausting the patience of his superiors, he assembled a nine-hour cut, the deified “holy grail,” and screened it for a few people.
He had no intention of ever releasing it this way, nor even of pitching it as a complete feature. He basically just dropped the outtakes and aligned the footage as it appeared in the script.
All he wanted to do was show people what he was working with. He wanted to generate some positive conversation and, ostensibly, ease the worries of higher-ups at the studio—who were beginning to worry.
Stroheim’s nine-hour cut of Greed was an act of defiance.
The producer who’d just fired him from that last picture, over at Universal the year before, was a guy named Irving Thalberg (bad heart, died young, also famous for making the Marx Bros wait so long outside of his office that they broke in one day, got naked, and roasted potatoes in his fireplace). Thalberg was now, in 1924, a big-wig at MGM (Goldwyn himself got muscled out in ’23), and while he had great respect for Stroheim’s artistry, he also knew that Stroheim was temperamental, entitled, that he didn’t give a shit about budgets or schedules.
Stroheim respected the art, essentially, but not the business.
Stroheim was a director, Thalberg felt, who needed to be reigned in. And, having cracked the whip once before by firing the guy for taking too long with Merry-Go-Round, he mighta felt like he needed to flex some authority with Greed as well.
Stroheim, it seems, intuited this, and positioned himself accordingly.
Thus, by screening a nine-hour cut of Greed and garnering tons of praise for it—ensuring that the word about town was, “Stroheim’s got a great new film coming out, and it’s fucking long”—Stroheim’s hope was that audiences would be expecting, and looking forward to, a sprawling, cerebral, challenging movie, and that, in accordance with that expectation, Thalberg would be forced to let him out of yet another contractual agreement: the runtime.
Harry Carr, who attended one of these nine-hour screenings (contrary to lore, there appear to’ve been several), saw through Stroheim’s tactic.
I saw a wonderful picture the other day—that no one else will ever see. It was the unslaughtered version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. It was a magnificent piece of work, but it was 45 reels long. We went into the projecting room at 10:30 in the morning; we staggered out at 8:00 that night. I can’t imagine what they are going to do with it…Episodes come along that you think have no bearing on the story, then 12 or 14 reels later it hits you with a crash…[It] is the greatest picture I have ever seen. But I don’t know what it will be like when it shrinks from 45 to 8 reels.
A couple months later, March 1924, Stroheim presents MGM with a 22-reel version of Greed, about five and a half hours long, saying that he can’t cut another frame.
And so this is where it happens.
Another pair of editors intervene, but to no avail. They all manage to trim a little off the top, but it remains far from any kind of commercially-viable runtime.
The studio takes over, refusing Stroheim’s suggestion that they simply turn it into two movies (he wanted to screen them in one night, with a long intermission for dinner). They hand the movie over to an editor of their own.
And so Greed, as conceived by its creator, was lost.
Thirteen years later, Erich von Stroheim gives one of his greatest performances as the warden of a P.O.W. camp in Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion. Stroheim’s character, Captain von Rauffenstein, is a decorated soldier who has fallen from glory: injured, removed from the frontlines, made into a bureaucrat. Now, stiffened by a neck brace and covered in long elegant gloves that hide his burns, he grows flowers in his chambers and talks softly with prisoners, respectfully, and in his love for the military (made more tender by the fact that he can no longer fight for it) there’s a melancholy that probably no other actor could so persuasively conjure as this guy, our ill-fated Stroheim, for whom the loss of professional authority, of his vocation, was a forever-fresh wound that was probably also exacerbated when he found himself on the elaborate set of a younger, freer, more respected director (i.e. Renoir).
The acting jobs, fortunately, kept coming.
Later, toward the end of his life, Stroheim accepted (reluctantly) a role in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard as Max von Mayerling, the loyal butler of a washed-up movie star of the silent era, played by Gloria Swanson. The butler is militant, stoic, and is revealed, at film’s end, to be more than his employer’s servant. He’s her ex-husband. A great filmmaker from that same generation. A ruined maverick. One of the many geniuses that Hollywood built up and tossed aside.
Both of these characters are disciplined, punctilious, reserved. Both harbor a great pain.
Billy Wilder’s decision to cast Stroheim as a gothic caricature of himself (a role for which Stroheim would receive the only Academy Award nomination of his career) seems to have cemented his image as a persecuted genius, mournful beneath the scowl, broken down.
Quite different from the guy who’d first set out to make Greed all those years before.
It’s a poetic and painful ending that, had he not been forced to live through it Personally, we can easily see how Stroheim might have written it for one of his characters.
Playing the armchair psychologist, though, we can see, in the film, that Stroheim didn’t just sow his own fate by shirking rules and making enemies. A close look at Greed suggests an awareness of what the movie was really about.
Which was himself.
Stroheim as Movie, Movie as Stroheim
Greed is based on a novel by Frank Norris called McTeague.
Its eponymous hero works in San Francisco as an unlicensed dentist. Eventually, he marries his friend’s cousin.
Her name is Trina.
When Trina wins a $5,000 lottery, it looks like she and her husband are set for a smooth life. But, subject to what Stroheim calls an “evil” in the blood, McTeague succumbs to the same violent alcoholism that destroyed his father.
Trina, meanwhile, becomes a fetishistic hoarder of her money, lying in bed with her gold coins while barely clothed, clutching them to her chest.
McTeague kills Trina one night and takes her money and flees. His old friend Marcus, Trina’s cousin, joins a posse that follows Mac out into the plains of Death Valley. McTeague and Marcus duke it out in a long flailing fight during which Stroheim, off-camera, was goading them to basically really kill each other (which, with temperatures occupying a high of 141℉ and a low of 91℉, might well have been in the cards), and when the fight’s over, and Marcus is laying there dead, McTeague finds that, at some point in the scuffle, Marcus slapped a pair of handcuffs on both of them.
Shackled to the corpse, with no water, we fade out on the idea that McTeague will die out here.
The movie opens with an epigram from Frank Norris, author of the source material.
I never truckled, I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn’t like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the truth; I knew it for the truth then, and I know it for the truth now.
And while that does come from the author of the source material, it doesn’t come from the actual source material. It comes, instead, from an essay Norris wrote called “The True Reward of the Novelist,” wherein he spells out what an honest writer (ideally) will be able to say of his collected works at the end of his life.
It’s a comment about the integrity of the storyteller.
Now, consider the function of an epigram: it’s a quick bite of text that encapsulates or underscores a story’s theme, its moral, its subject matter.
The quote that Stroheim uses here for an epigram is about storytelling and, since none of the characters in Greed are storytellers, it’s safe to presume that Stroheim is talking about himself, the director.
Thus, the epigram suggests that the point of the story is its own telling; the movie, somehow, is about itself. Perhaps in the same way that we now often remark that a figure like Kim Kardashian is “famous for being famous.”
The next card says, “Personally Directed by Erich von Stroheim.”
Apart from the poetic irony of Stroheim appending a statement of emphatic ownership to a movie he ended up disowning, the card suggests something more intimate than authorship. To do something “personally” is to do it in the flesh, and this invocation of body and self suggests something more intimate and, if you’ll forgive the image, masturbatory.
Which brings us to the next card:
“Dedicated to My Mother.”
My mother. Shirking the idea of filmmaking as a collaborative effort, Stroheim is suggesting that the film is so clearly his own that, even after a title card showing an entire cast of actors, no audience would even think to ask whose mom this is referring to.
What we’re seeing here at the beginning of a ruined movie is the pride of a filmmaker who doesn’t know it’s been ruined. The rest of the movie, therefore, is seen within the context of a shattered hope.
David Thomson says in Sleeping with Strangers that one of the things cinema seems to rebel against is the idea that most of us are probably not very good at sex. Or that sex itself isn’t all that spectacular or exciting. And if you’ve ever watched a celebrity sex tape you might have noticed the disparity between the initial thrill of finding it, and the subsequent boredom of watching it. It’s humdrum and awkward, nowhere near as carnal or intimate for us as it is for the people on screen (nor is it supposed to be).
But we still wanna talk about it afterward.
Probably it’s because the sex tape itself is less interesting than the idea of this celebrity being in a sex tape. We get to see the naked, silly, ill-paced yearning and bucking of people who are otherwise so spotlit and austere, wealthy, appropriate.
By that token, what’s more interesting than Greed as a film is the idea of how it exists in relation to its creator. What it means to and for him.
Erich von Stroheim was 5’6” and as a young man seemed never to smile, only to smirk, and he wore a monocle and was known for being intense during every production, meticulous and demanding, and when, for example, he called “cut” on a scene and pulled the actor off the set so that he could go up and simulate, Personally, how a line should be delivered, or a gesture made, it was met with thanks and awe, murmurs on the fringe about how he’s so talented, how does he do it?, most people forgiving his abrasiveness and saying it was a byproduct of either his genius or background.
A very stringent background.
Stroheim told people that he came from royalty. Austrian. Spoke with love and reverence of his mother and painted dad as a brutish aristocrat. A military figure with family money. Good blood. Told stories about the time his dad called him “vermin,” and then banished him from the dinner table, all because young Erich had deigned to unfasten the clasp of his uniform’s collar during a terrible heat.
He claimed in different places that his father was a count, a civil servant, a commanding officer—depicted him always as a man with connections, a guy who greased palms and wielded power and knew the score, when in reality his family was a little north of middle class. They owned a clothing store. Erich was a bad student: surly, unfocused, truant.
But he also had that scar above his right eye that was so distinguishing and, since everybody knew that he had spent some time with the army in Austria, they figured he got it in combat.
He said in one place that he got the scar as a young soldier when a horse kicked him. According to Photoplay, in December 1919, he got it (or some other scar) from “sixteen inches of Bosnian cold steel” on account of he was enlisted for a turbulent seven years (1902 – 1909) during which he saw a few skirmishes from the Bosnian crisis of ’08.
The truth, however, is that he tried to enlist in the army in 1906, but they turned him away. He tried again later that year and they let him in, put him through training, only to discharge him four months later.
He did not come from royalty.
He was not a decorated or seasoned soldier.
Erich von Stroheim was a storyteller. Like Orson Welles, he never let the truth get in the way of a good story. He struggled and schemed and charmed his way into Hollywood, helped give cinema its shape, and he was perhaps ahead of his time in seeing that artifice is the coin of the realm. He knew what gossip columnists and studio PR men knew when they covered up Errol Flynn’s domestic violence, or when they paid off the woman Joan Crawford ran down with her car, which is that Hollywood doesn’t just create fantasy within the walls of its soundstages and then ship it out to theaters.
Hollywood is the fantasy, a collage of glittering biographies. The gossip columns about torrid globe-trotting affairs, marvelous outfits with bottomless pockets, passionate trysts, beauty, drugs, alliances, grudges, betrayals, crazy budgets and awards and we can watch these people age before our eyes. It’s the fiction that becomes reality insofar as its real human participants spend so much time in it that the staples of reason, moderation, and practicality that govern most people’s lives become kind of outmoded.
The story of Hollywood is the lives of its major players. The better a story its actors can make of themselves, the more they help the industry, and what was good for the game was good for its players.
But the larger story can sometimes eclipse the smaller ones that comprise it. The parasite that’s larger than its host.
Stroheim, in a sense, destroyed his own film by putting the story in a position of tertiary importance behind the ideas of himself, the storyteller, and the film as His Story: the sprawling, Personal, untruckled artistry of the whole affair.
And yet, in so doing, he also immortalized it.
In the way that Ingmar Bergman’s movies seem all to be chapters in the same man’s exploration of the soul, or every Hitchcock picture playing like some new trick from a magician’s box—Erich von Stroheim’s movies exist among themselves, in conversation with themselves and the split sensibilities of director and producer. They also make up the story of an artist who subverted his own art, time and again, and whose collected works thereby cohere, in shards, as a character study of their creator.
Greed is the climax of that narrative; the film itself merely a prop in the story of its own production. A McGuffin in the story of a filmmaker.