|At the corner of Hayes and Laguna Streets
in San Francisco, a two-story 19th century building, distinguished by a
large bay window on the second story, stands vacant, a "for lease" sign
advertising the obvious. Only a corner laundromat occupies a small space
on the ground floor of the block-long building situated in an underclass
neighborhood that has changed little with time. What passer-by could know
that this aging building once received national attention as the site of
the filming of one of the world's most enduring cinematic masterpieces,
Erich von Stroheim's legendary
Greed? It was here that the Austrian-born
director made movie history when he became one of the first filmmakers
to use natural interiors in a major production.
It was here that he revolutionized
visual narration with his deep-focus shots of the street from the upstairs
Early in 1923, Erich von Stroheim, determined to film Frank Norris's 1899 naturalist novel,McTeague, entirely on location, scouted San Francisco for a suitable location. He looked first atPolk Street, the setting of Norris's novel, but found the post-earthquake neighborhood too modern and fashionable for his mise en scene. When he spotted the structure on Hayes and Laguna, he realized at once that he had found the perfect locale to reproduce the lower-middle-class milieu of turn-of-the-century San Francisco described in Norris's novel. Escorting his friend, Idwal Jones, a writer and critic for The San Francisco News, through the building, Stroheim declared, "What a find! Right here in the bay window will be McTeague's dental chair." The Goldwyn Company took a year's lease on the building, the cast and crew moved in, and the filming of Greed began in March, 1923. Stroheim recalled years later: "In order to make the actors really feel 'inside' the characters they were to portray, I made them live in these rooms (a move which was favorably received at the studio since it saved the company some hotel expenses!)".
The structure which
so stimulated Stroheim's imagination survived the 1906 earthquake and fire
intact. It had been built in the early 1880s by Colonel Michael Hayes
as an amusement pavilion. Hayes' real purpose in constructing the
building at this location was to encourage an extension of the street-car
line to Hayes Valley. (According to Johanna Laird in an article on Greed
in the October 21, 1976, California Living, Frank Hayes, a film
actor who appeared in the film, was the son of Colonel Hayes.)
The cast, headed by Gibson Gowland as McTeague, Zasu Pitts as his wife Trina, and Jean Hersholt as his friend Marcus, were pushed to their fullest by Stroheim. The director was exacting in demanding that their characterizations be "real." 'The cast, nevertheless, regarded working in the film as the chance of a lifetime.
The story dramatizes the experiences of a miner-turned-dentist
named McTeague in turn-of-the-century San Francisco whose wife, Trina,
wins five thousand dollars in a
narrative depicts an urban landscape that is still close to the personal
relationships of the village world, "a bygone urban life," in the words
of Kenneth Rexroth, it still bustling with a big-city-neighborhood community
life--modest, shoddy, and now so out of date." San Francisco, as shown
in the film, is quite different from the London of D. W. Griffith's Broken
Blossoms and the New York of King Vidor's The Crowd, impersonal
metropolises where individuals are isolated and anonymous. The little
world filmed by Stroheim is that of the corner saloon, grocery store and
dentist's office, a flat where everybody knows everybody else, a world
of family picnics. The tragedy arises from an acquisitive materialism
shading into pathology that shatters this world of simple contentment,
turning friends and relatives into deadly enemies.
Stroheim's decision to film Greed entirely an the original locations was not so much a departure from silent-film practices as it was a logical development of filming techniques in that era. Filmmakers had already exploited urban and natural landscapes to intensify the action but Stroheim went one step further. He must have reasoned that sincedirectors incorporated the real world in their exteriors, why not reproduce all of reality--interiors as well as exteriors--away from the confines of the studio?
Stroheim's sets blended so naturally with the real life of the Hayes-Laguna neighborhood that it was often hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. The ground floor at the time was occupied by a French laundry and the Hayes Valley Pharmacy which remained in business until the 1960s. Upstairs, Stroheim's film was in production, but the signs on the second story created such an authentic look that sometimes bystanders believed the dentist's office and the photographer's suite were actually in operation like the downstairs establishments. In her article, Laird relates the incident of the little old lady with a swollen jaw climbing the stairs to see the dentist. And sometimes passerbys were further caught up in Stroheim's penchant for realism when they were included in shots like the one of the street-car in which actors boarded along with the passengers.
While Stroheim's unit merged into the life of the neighborhood, they scarcely could be said to have worked in obscurity. The filming received extensive coverage in local newspapers and national magazines and the director enjoyed the full cooperation of the city officials throughout its production.
After he completed shooting in the Bay Area, Stroheim moved to Death Valley to film the climactic scenes. There, members of his company including Hersholt became ill working under the searing August sun. Stroheim finished the production in the fall in Placer County where he shot the mining sequences.
Then followed months
in which Stroheim worked on editing his eagerly awaited film, first to
42 reels, then to 22. In the meantime, Goldwyn had merged with Metro
and the new company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was born. Stroheim wrangled
with MGM executives Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg over the length
of the film. With Stroheim's approval, his friend, director Rex Ingram,
reduced it to 18 reels. Finally,
MGM deliberately pitched its advertisements to a more sophisticated audience. As an example, ads in The San Jose Mercury-Herald in 1925 proclaimed Greed "The Most Astounding Picture the World has ever seen!" and "the picture of real life!" They cautioned "We do not reconmend this picture for children" and, focusing on the names of the director, Erich von Stroheim, and the writer, Frank Norris, rather than the players, called it "a vivid, shockingly frank picture, true to Frank Norris' story, McTeague. Can you bear to see life as Greed reveals it? This is no sugar-coated, sentimental 'movie' story. It deals with realities." An illustration of Stroheim was captioned: "They said to me-Von Stroheim: 'You're mad if you make it so brutally true!' " The ads must have been effective since, as historian William K. Everson points out, Greed made a small profit in spite of the highly uncommercial treatment of its theme.
While some critics of the time were appalled by the filin's overpowering naturalism, others appreciated its true worth. The London Times said the film "reveals many flashes of his (Stroheim's) brilliance" and is "consistently well-acted." Novelist Theodore Dreiser said "Greed is one of the momentous things in any medium." Filmmakers including Jean Renoir and Orson Welles recognized Stroheim as a major influence with Renoir calling Greed "the masterpiece of the cinema" and Welles declaring it one of the three greatest films ever made. Greed has frequently appeared on lists of the ten greatest films of all time. Such was the power of the released version that rumors have persisted through the years that a complete print of the film still exists but, so far, all such leads have proved to be will-o'-the-wisps.
Meanwhile, as the
legend of Greed and Stroheim's fame increased over time, the Hayes-Laguna
neighborhood and the building with the large bay window slipped back into
Today, shaded by trees and freshly painted a nautical blue trimmed in white, the exterior of the building retains the 19th century architectural detail that must have attracted Stroheim to it. The surrounding neighborhood is much as it was in 1923. There is the corner mailbox and the fire hydrant in front of the building. The adjacent structure on Hayes still stands and is now the Neighborhood Baptist Church. Also in the famous shot of the street is an apartment house that is next to the church.
Inside, the entryway fronting laguna which appears in many shots of the film leads to the upstairs. The ornate staircase bannisters have long since disappeared; the spacious rooms, once the McTeagues' suite, are now divided by a narrow hallway and partitioned into small apartments. The gaudy, flowered carpet is now a faded and worn reminder that the upstairs was once a brothel. A wall covered with graffiti and the layers of dust throughout convey the atmosphere that Stroheim had pictured in his original cut following Norris's description: "Nothing was left . . . . It was a pillage, a devastation . . . . The room had been picked and stripped till only the bare walls and floor remained . . . . Nothing was left but echoes and the emptiness of complete desolation."
Yet, in spite of major renovations and the present state of neglect, one room is easily recognizable as part of the Greed set. All McTeague's Dental Parlor lacks is the dental chair. The view fran the large bay window obliterates the passage of time. The Hayes street-car that took Marcus and Trina away as McTeague watched from his window still passes by at regular intervals. Across the street is the three-story building where Stroheim set up his saloon on the ground floor, attracting the suspicions of the local Prohibition enforcerwnt agency. It was there that Marcus fought with the dentist and McTeague, escaping his frustrations, declined into drunkenness.
While writers and even "pop" culture figures have designated national historic sites, so many buildings prominently associated with early filmmaking are gone. Many of the lavish picture palaces including New York's Roxy and San Francisco's Fox have been torn down. The Biograph Studio in New York City and D. W. Griffith's Fine Arts Studio in Hollywood, for example, have long since vanished. Of the four major studios in the Bay Area in the silent era-the Essanay Studio in Niles, the Peninsula Studio in San Mateo, the California Studio in San Rafael and the Gerson Studio in San Francisco-only the Peninsula studio buildings survive.
For Stroheim, there
is nothing left outside of the Hayes-Laguna building to
The above was written in 1986. Today, the building at Hayes and Laguna (611 Laguna) is an apartment for retirees and, like the Hayes Valley in general, has been spruced up and revitalized. But it still awaits a plaque commemorating its historic importance in cinema history as the principal location of one of the world's greatest films.
Shortly after this article was written, I obtained additional information about the large building on 595-597 Hayes which von Stroheim used as the site of the saloon and was undergoing restoration in the 1980s. The building had served as a storeroom in the twenties. The daughter of the people who owned the building in those years confirmed that von Stroheim and the Goldwyn Company rented it from them for the film. She recalled that local people appeared as extras in the production but were disappointed that their scenes were eliminated from the version of Greed released by MGM.
If you have any additional information about the locales used in Greed or any interest in supporting a move to commemorate the building at 611 Laguna Street, please e-mail me at Reel Drew@aol.com.
--William M. Drew
to view photos of this historic landmark.
Article uploaded October 26, 1997 by Gilda Tabarez at Henning7@aol.com
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