“Greed,” thought of as a significant silent film, stars Zasu Pitts, Gibson Gowland and Jean Hersholt in a story about what happens when Trina (Pitts) wins the lottery but refuses to spend any of her winnings. She obsessively pinches pennies, to the point of demanding everything her dentist husband McTeague earns. At one point in the story, McTeague (Gowland) asks his wife for a nickel for carfare, but she derisively tells him to walk.
The Director’s title card says, “Personally Directed by Erich Von Stroheim.” This and reports that Von Stroheim actually shot an over 8-hour long movie, indicates the level of excess Von Stroheim resorts to in this adaptation of the Frank Norris novel “McTeague.” Von Stroheim adds lots of symbolic images to the film, including color touches such as gold coins and golden colored parakeets. At certain points in the film, Stroheim shows a cat stalking canaries as they perch in their cage, a reference to the teetering relationship of McTeague and Trina.
Von Stroheim opens the film with views of the gold mine where McTeague works. Seeing gold being mined seems like an odd way to start the story, especially when McTeague’s mother soon convinces him to study dentistry. Gold seems like a forgotten and harmless aspect of McTeague’s past when the story shifts to his dental office in San Francisco. One day, however, McTeague’s friend Marcus (Hersholt) shows up with his fiance, Trina (Pitts), who suffers from several dental problems. While waiting for treatment, Trina buys a lottery ticket from the office cleaning lady. McTeague immediately falls in love with Trina, and even kisses her secretly while she’s “under the ether” in his dentist chair.
The guilt-ridden McTeague tells his friend about his love for Trina. Instead of fighting him about it, Marcus graciously steps aside and grants McTeague permission to court Trina. The awkward and unsophisticated McTeague has a few missteps while wooing Trina, but he finally convinces her to marry him. At the wedding, Trina finds out she’s won $5,000 in the lottery, and that strikes everyone like a bolt of lightning — particularly Marcus who immediately shows signs of jealousy. The desire for the loot and Trina’s strange reluctance to spend it lead to evil circumstances and a stunning conclusion filmed in Death Valley, California. A lot of films feature profound changes to one character, but Greed’s three principals (Pitts, Gowland and Hersholt) seem driven insane by the end of the film. Perhaps the lost footage from the 8+ hour version reveal more of the subtleties of this transformation.