Greed is a 1924 silent American film based on the novel McTeague. The novel centers on Dr. John McTeague, the son of a coal miner. McTeague escapes his impoverished childhood to become a dentist, where he marries Trina Sieppe. Shortly after their marriage, Trina wins the lottery, but her jealous cousin, Marcus, reveals McTeague’s lack of credentials, resulting in him losing his job. Trina is unwilling to spend the money in their squalor, and ultimately McTeague’s alcoholism leads to his murder of Trina and his escape with the money.
Erich von Stronheim’s retelling of this story functions as a strong critique of the American dream. The 1920s were known as the Roaring Twenties and the Golden Twenties. The time period was a period of great prosperity but also great disparity. McTeague begins his life as the lowest of the low: son to a lowly, alcoholic coal miner. It was only after his father died of alcohol abuse that McTeague was able to escape his upbringing. He apprenticed under a dentist and became quite proficient, although he never gained a proper license. He even managed to marry into a higher class. However, he lost his job, the one symbol of his status.
As soon as he lost the job, we see a reversion to habits of the ‘lower class.’ He is unable to hold a job; he turns to alcoholism; he becomes violent; he obsesses over money. It is this obsession over money that drives him crazy. So much of the craze was driven by the presence of unusable money. Trina, despite their impoverished state, is unwilling to spend any of the lottery money. She even is stringent with the money that McTeague manages to bring in. McTeague develops a habit of spending the money just to annoy her, showing a corruption of their marriage.
The reversion of McTeague to the desire of money is representative of his inability to escape from his social class. He was born in the lower class without money and he died without money. Although this is most likely a commentary on the death of the American dream, it could also be representative of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism was a warped take on evolution that believed some races, classes, and cultures to be inherently better than others. It also served as a way to refute movement between classes and inequality of cultures.
In many ways, greed is the only thing that ties all of these people together. Regardless of their background, everyone has a desire and need for money. It is greed that destroys marriages. It is greed that destroys Marcus’ and McTeague’s friendship. It is greed that drives McTeague to kill Trina first and then to kill Marcus in defense of his wealth, to the point of securing his own death in the desert.
The movie also has a lot to say about love and marriage. There are three marriages in the movie: McTeague and Trina, Grannis and Baker, and Maria and Zerkov. McTeague and Trina, although their marriage was initially based on love, became greed obsessed as soon as troubles hit them. Maria and Zerkov, two junk-people, are also obsessed about money, a result of their impoverished state. Zerkov, driven mad by Maria’s stories of lost gold, eventually kills her because she will not reveal the secret, then kills himself. Grannis and Baker are two old people who fell in love. Money plays a role in their relationship was well, but Grannis is willing to sacrifice his monetary welfare for Baker, ultimately resulting in the success of their relationship.
Greed was by no means a box office hit, but the message it presents has resonated through the decades and it stands today as one of the most important movies from the 1920s.