Keeping It Straight: DEATH VALLEY MADNESS AND THE FILMING OF "GREED" (1924)

Films classified as classics take all forms and date back nearly to the beginning of fully plotted storylines. "Greed" is one of those films and despite being severely criticized when it was originally released, it has taken that giant step of moving onto the list of the Top 100 Films of all time. "Greed" is fascinating to watch because there is not a person in the film with a single socially redeeming value.

"Greed" was based on the popular 1899 novel "McTeague" by Frank Norris. It is the story of a young couple (Gibson Gowland and Zasu Pitts), their courtship, marriage and descent into poverty with jealousy and greed leading to violence and murder. The film was directed by the great Erich von Stroheim.

Many film buffs might remember von Stroheim for his film role in the 1950 classic film noir "Sunset Boulevard," where he played the butler/driver/protector Max von Mayerling opposite Gloria Swanson (whom he directed in the silent film days). The character of Max was magnificently parodied by Harvey Korman in numerous sketches on "The Carol Burnett Show."

Von Stroheim was noted for being a perfectionist and demanding of his actors and crew and in the pursuit of realism he loaded seven vehicles and descended into the hell of Death Valley in August of 1923 to film the final scenes of "Greed." At that time Death Valley had no roads, hotels, gas stations, or running water and was occupied by tarantulas, scorpions and poisonous snakes. The film was the first feature film to be shot totally on location with no studio sets being employed.

Studio executives warned von Stroheim of filming in Death Valley and the studios insurance company refused to insure the crew and cautioned against the horrors that would be encountered, including arsenic-poisoned water holes, quicksand and poisonous gases that could deal death in a single breath - all hyperbolic nonsense. Disregarding all cautions, von Stroheim knew what he wanted, laughed off the warnings and with a short-wave radio his only concession to safety, began filming on the salt flats near Badwater.

Actors Gowland and Jean Hersholt were joined by three cinematographers, three dozen technicians, a violinist to provide mood music (until his instrument cracked in the extreme heat) and one woman, script girl Eve Bessette. For six weeks the maddening heat pulled at them as the group camped in tents at Furnace Creek Ranch and filmed at the salt flats and sand dunes (near Stovepipe Wells).

Unofficial high temperatures were reported by the crew and actors. In the shade of the cameraman's umbrella 132 degrees, von Strohiem reported 142 degrees on the salt flats and actor Hersholt clamed 161 degrees as he crawled across the glaring sand of the salt flats.

The heat was so intense that 14 men had to be taken from the Valley suffering from heat exhaustion. Hersholt dropped 27 pounds, became delirious from the heat and was hospitalized for a week following the shoot. He reported shooting "Greed" in Death Valley was "the most terrible experience any of us had ever gone through," and members of the company, "had murder in our hearts." The atmosphere became so dramatic that von Stroheim carried a loaded handgun and gathered up all of the other weapons on the set.

As the film wound on to the final, climatic fight scene between Gowland and Hersholt, the actors were burned, blistered and bleeding. As they fought in front of the camera, von Stroheim wanted even more realism and shouted, "Fight. Fight. Try to hate each other as much as you hate me!" It has been reported, but not confirmed, that in his demand for realism von Stroheim shot and killed the mule that was used in final scenes. In the exhibited version a yellow tint was applied to the final sequences to expand the feeling of the heat.

Once completed "Greed" cost $470,000 ($5,120,000 in today's dollars) a huge sum for any film of that era. Von Stroheim emerged from the cutting room in January of 1924 and presented studio heads with a 42 reel, nine hour film and intended for it to be shown in two parts with a dinner intermission. As Goldwyn merged with Metro the head of MGM demanded it be cut. Von Stroheim turned the film over to his friend, editor Rex Ingram, who cut it to 18 reels and came back with a three-and-half hour, "tight" film. Louis B. Mayer was still dissatisfied and turned the film over to a "hack editor" who cut "Greed" to 10 reels. Von Stroheim was so disgusted with the final cut he refused to attend the premier in December of 1924.

Many years later, when asked about his directorial features, von Stroheim said, "I have made only one real picture in my life and nobody ever saw that. The poor, mangled, mutilated remains were shown as 'Greed.'" His comment about the final edit was, "The man who cut my film had nothing on his mind but his hat."

As mentioned earlier, "Greed" was received with less than glowing reviews with The New York Times saying, "'Greed is morbid and senseless, a decisive and distinct flop." The trade paper Harrison's Reports said that, "If a contest were to be held to determine which has been the filthiest, vilest, most putrid picture in the history of the motion picture business, I am sure that 'Greed' would win." Variety Weekly called it "an out-and-out box office flop" only six days after its premiere and claimed - incorrectly - that the film had taken two years to shoot, cost $700,000 and was originally 130 reels long. The review went on say that "nothing more morbid and senseless, from a commercial picture standpoint, has been seen on the screen for a long, long time." Exceptional Photoplays called it "one of the most uncompromising films ever shown on the screen. There have already been many criticisms of its brutality, its stark realism, its sordidness. But the point is that it was never intended to be a pleasant picture." A March 1925 review in Pictureplay magazine stated, "Perhaps an American director would not have seen greed as a vice."

"Greed" never paid back its cost and failed at the box office. At the premiere in Berlin a riot broke out - reportedly lead by early members of the Nazi Party - that hurt box office receipts all over Europe. It was not until the early 1950s "Greed's" reputation began to grow and it appeared on several lists of the greatest films ever made. In 1952 at the Festival Mondial du Film et des Beaux Arts de Belgique, "Greed" was named the fifth greatest film ever made, with such directors as Luchino Visconti, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder voting for it. Later in 1952, Sight and Sound magazine published its first list of the "10 greatest films ever made." "Greed" was tied for 7th place on that list, with such critics as Andre Bazin, Lotte Eisner, Curtis Harrington, Penelope Houston and Gavin Lambert voting for it. In a University of Southern California list of the "50 Most Significant American Films" made by the school's Performing Arts Council, "Greed" was listed as number 21.

In 1991, "Greed" was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

The many reels cut from von Stroheims original film have long been lost and all that remains today is a just over two-and-half hour film that, in my estimation, captures the essence of the story about how greed and avarice can motivate otherwise normal people to the most despicable acts imaginable. A must see for film aficionados.