Avarice, violence, hate — it’s all here, every bit of the dark side of human nature. “Greed” is an adaptation of the Frank Norris novel “McTeague,” about the disasterous consequences a lottery jackpot has on the lives of two men (Gibson Gowland and Jean Hersholt) who are battling over the same woman (Zasu Pitts). The film is also both Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece and perhaps the most notorious example of loss of creative control in film history.
The original director’s cut was nearly nine hours long and was only shown once, to a group of studio executives. After the studio took control, the film was edited down to only 140 minutes. Most of the outtakes were eventually destroyed. Several attempts at reconstructing the movie have been made by film scholars over the years, but it was not until 1999 that Turner Classic Movies released the most complete restoration.
Using the small amount of surviving outtakes and still photographs from the lost scenes, the newest version runs just over four hours. While that might be a mind-numbing length for most movies, “Greed” holds its own the whole way — and still feels incomplete. Too bad this is probably the most complete version we will ever get to see.
The grim ending, shot on location in Death Valley. (The 37-day shoot was just as hard on the actors as it was on the characters. Hersholt lost 27 pounds and had to be hospitalized when it was all over.)
Herscholt was better known for his philanthropic efforts, and is the namesake of the Jean Herscholt Humanitarian Award given at the Oscars. He was also the uncle of actor Leslie Nielsen.
“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948).
Take a Look:
TCM offers this spoiler-y clip from the Death Valley sequence. Watch with caution!
Newsreel footage of the cast and crew trekking into Death Valley: