THE SAN FRANCISCO BUILDING THAT MADE FILM HISTORY
by William M. Drew

 
 
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 window.

     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.)
 
      Once Stroheim had found his location, he settled in San Francisco to write his screenplay.  Although it has often been said that the director simply filmed Norris's novel line-by-line, a notion that implies lack of originality on Stroheim's part, his task was far more complex than that.  Just as Verdi had to adapt a musical form to transform Shakespeare's Othello into an opera, so Stroheim created a visual language to bring Norris's story to life on the silent screen.  Throughout the film, Stroheim uses visual metaphors to make his point and includes infinite detail to expand the descriptions in Norris's book.  Thus, the funeral procession passing under the window when Trina and McTeague are married foreshadows the tragic end of their marital bliss and a brief reference in the novel to Trina's visit to a butcher shop to purchase second-hand meat becomes in the film a Dickensian caricature with Trina buying the rotten meat from a fat, mustachioed butcher in a blood-stained apron.

     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
lottery.  WhenTrina's cousin, Marcus, a former suitor, out of jealousy and spite reveals to the authorities that McTeague is unlicensed, the dentist loses his practice.  Unable to obtain money from his miserly wife, and driven to desperation by poverty and drink, McTeague finally murders Trina, then escapes to Death Valley.  There, under the blazing sun, both McTeague and the pursuing Marcus meet their fate.

     The Norris-Stroheim 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.
 
     In order to reproduce this closely-knit community, Stroheim believed it necessary to film throughout on actual locations.  The intersection of Hayes and Laguna became his microcosm of the universe, a setting where human destiny was played out in all its starkness.  His artistic gamble paid off and reality, transfigured by the imagination, permeates every frame of Greed.

     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,
over Stroheim's objections, Greed was cut to 10 reels.  Although still longer than most feature films of the time with a running-time of over two hours, it was much shorter than Stroheim had intended.

     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
obscurity.  The downstairs continued to house businesses but, in a denouement worthy of Stroheim, the upstairs was used as a brothel in the late '60s and early '70s.

     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
commemorate his life and work.  The lavish sets he had built on the studio lots, such as Monte Carlo for Foolish Wives, no longer exist.  Even the house in Hollywood where he lived during his creative heyday has been torn down.  Unless the building on Hayes and Laguna receives its long-deserved recognition as a historic landmark, the place where the cinema was transformed may not escape the wrecker's ball and San Francisco could lose its most important link to the history of filmmaking in the Bay Area.

Postscript:

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


 

Click here to view photos of this historic landmark.
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Article uploaded October 26, 1997 by Gilda Tabarez at Henning7@aol.com
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