A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1924 – Greed

I mean, for lack of a better word…

We’re in for a fun article today. Greed is one of the holy grails of early cinema. The uncut version of this is on par with Abel Gance’s Napoleon. People seek this out. It’s generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, certainly of the silent era, if not of all time.

And, the film is also kind of the first example of a Heaven’s Gate. Which is to say – the auteur making his film wildly over schedule and over budget, and turning it into, at-the-time, what was considered a huge disaster. I know Metropolis was also one of those scenarios, and Metropolis actually bankrupted a studio, but I feel like this was more the first one. Maybe this is the Ishtar to Metropolis’s Heaven’s Gate.

Either way, this will be fun.

The film was directed by Erich von Stroheim, who most people know and remember as an actor instead of a director. He was the POW camp commandant in Grand Illusion, and was also Norma Desomon’s butler in Sunset Boulevard. You’ve seen him.

He was a stickler for accuracy when filming, and ended up shooting over 85 hours of footage. He also shot the film entirely on location, which is unheard of for the time. The first cut of the film was something like nine hours. 42 reels. (A standard film is usually ten or eleven reels. FYI.) Stroheim was working 20-hour days. Production was delayed by accidents and indulgences. They shot in Death Valley for two months, and over a dozen people got sick and had to leave. People would collapse every day from heat exhaustion. The lead actress said she lost 30 pounds in the desert.

And while the film was being shot and edited, the production company merged into MGM and became a studio. And Irving Thalberg was put on the film. And Thalberg – he’d fired Stroheim at Universal a few years earlier, and was also not one to shy away from recutting films… so you can see where this is headed.

Thalberg cut Greed down to about two and a half hours, which really hurt Stroheim. Now, a four hour restored version exists, but as it stands, only 12 people have seen the full version of the film. Ever. And that’s it. And apparently those who saw it said they’d just witnessed the greatest film ever made and that it would be difficult for another film to ever top it. Now, that’s 1924 talking, but still… high praise. And then Thalberg made Stroheim cut it down, and he turned in the four-hour cut and said he wouldn’t cut another frame. So, they did what RKO did to Orson Welles with Magnificent Ambersons and just recut it themselves. And apparently that extra four hours was thrown out by a janitor. Because why would you save it? So all we really have now is the four-hour version, which is still missing some footage and only has still photographs in its place. But at least there’s that.

However, apparently Benito Mussolini had a full version of the film (Stroheim himself confirmed this). So it could still be out there somewhere.

And, of course, when the film came out, it was both a critical and commercial disaster. It was a film that as extremely difficult for audiences, as there is almost no happiness in it at all, and it’s twice as long as anything they’re used to. In 1924, films are two hours, max. So at the time it was considered one of the biggest disasters to come out. Only thirty years later was the film reevaluated.

The film actually uses a lot of great techniques, high contrast lighting, montage, close ups instead of extended long takes, and also tinted the film gold everywhere gold and money appeared. But, it was definitely really memorable at the time for being a very widely publicized “failure” and all those negative things we think of when we think about high profile bombs.

Plus the film is really fucking good. Definitely worth mentioning as a film and as an example of the high profile film that goes wrong and tanks at the box office and with critics. And as an example of the film that gets reevaluated later on when people realize how good it really is.

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