Erich von Stroheim

The Death Valley finale of Greed (1925)

The Death Valley finale of Greed (1925)

  • Born:  1885
  • Died:  1957
  • Rank:  54
  • Score:  570.10
  • Feature Films:  8
  • Best:  Greed
  • Worst:  The Wedding March

Feature Films (ranked):

  1. Greed – 1925
  2. Foolish Wives – 1922
  3. Queen Kelly – 1929
  4. Blind Husbands – 1919
  5. The Merry Widow – 1925
  6. The Wedding March – 1928

Top 10 Best Director Finishes (Nighthawk Awards):

  • pre-1927 – 2nd – Greed
  • pre-1927 – 7th – Foolish Wives
  • 1928-29 – 7th – The Wedding March
  • 1985 – 9th – Queen Kelly

“So I was just running up the stairs, and I say ‘Good God, this is fantastic, you know – that little I . . . that I should be directing you now, directing the great Stroheim!  You were ten years ahead of all of us – ten years ahead of the industry!’  And he looked at me and said, ‘Twenty.’ ”

Billy Wilder in Conversations with Wilder – page 267

Before there was Orson Welles, there was Erich von Stroheim.  This is not hyperbole.  Stroheim was the first great actor-director-writer.  He had immense talent and clear knowledge of his genius.  Then, Hollywood, which has had a hard time recognizing genius, started destroying his films.  Greed, the single greatest American film of the silent era was cut massively down in the same way that The Magnificent Ambersons was.  Yet, in spite of what was done to it, and the possibilities for what could have been, the sheer genius shines through.  Stroheim waged wars with his films, using huge budgets and losing plenty of money, but to those appreciate art, it was worth it.  But eventually, the studios couldn’t deal with it and Stroheim found himself working for Joseph Kennedy making Queen Kelly with the great star Gloria Swanson.  Then the film was taken away and then it was never completely finished.  Parts of it were used in the screening scenes in Sunset Boulevard, a film that finally made perfect use of Stroheim’s acting ability and played off his talent as a director (Wilder mentions in the book that the idea of Max writing the letters was Stroheim’s).  That was why Queen Kelly is listed for 1985 – it’s when it finally got a theater release.

And why are there only 8 films listed for Stroheim (and only 6 ranked) when the IMdB lists 12?  Because one was taken away from him, three were uncredited and for the most part, unconfirmed and two of them (The Devil’s Passkey and The Honeymoon) have been completely lost.  And why the pre-1927?  Because I base all my awards on Academy Awards eligibility and thus group all the films from before the Oscars into one year.

Greed – #2 film of pre-1927

I was asked recently by a friend if I had ever read McTeague.  I have, and I highly recommend it (because it’s from 1899, it got missed in my 20th Century novels list), but I also mentioned that the best American film of the silent era was based on the novel.

Although, to say that Greed is based on McTeague is like saying that Van Sant’s remake of Psycho is based on the original.  In Greed, Stroheim took every single scene in the novel and not only filmed them, but actually went to the various places where they were set (Norris’ novel is amazing in its detail of San Francisco, and then, Death Valley) and filmed there.  It was the first all location film.

Greed originally ran 9 hours in length and at the time, included the entire book.  It was shown once to reporters (to rave reviews) and then shortened.  From the original 42 reels, eventually it was reduced to 9 reels and that is the version that exists today.  Stroheim  himself cut a  version that was 24 reels (about 5 hours).  It is tragic what was lost when that film was destroyed (and it was destroyed – the reels were melted down for their silver nitrate).

Greed is amazing for every aspect of its film making.  There is the historical aspect – not just the cutting of it, but the fact that it was the first film from MGM and the stories about the shoot out in Death Valley and using ice to cool the cameras.  There is the literary aspect – one of the best versions of a great novel ever put on screen – keeping all of it, including the brutal ending.  There is the cinematic aspect – the amazing use of interiors and location shooting, the brilliant cinematography.  Then of course there is the direction.  When Greed was made, Chaplin had yet to make a great film (his The Gold Rush would come later), and Stroheim was the single greatest director in the world.  Then Hollywood crushed him and he turned to acting (again, proving his talent with great performances in Grand Illusion, Five Graves to Cairo and Sunset Boulevard).  But we can only imagine what was lost – both in Greed and in cinema history.