This film features one of the earliest uses of a hidden camera in film-making. In the scene where Zasu Pitts leaves the junk shop after discovering the dead body she rushes into a real street and into real passers-by who were unaware they were being filmed. A crowd gathered, police turned up to the scene and it is said that a reporter called in the 'murder' to his editor. This coincides with Dziga Vertov 's _Kino-Eye (1924)_ which also used hidden camera techniques for the first time.
Not only did the studio order the director to cut the movie back from his intended 4.5 hours to around two hours, they also burned the unused film reels in order to extract the expensive silver nitrate from it for recycling. Although an extended version of the movie (239 minutes long) was created in 1999 by using still photographs in the place of scenes that were cut, a complete version was simply not possible because most of the original film is now considered lost.
The finished film ran 42 reels, and Thalberg ordered von Stroheim to edit it down to 24. The director wanted Metro to release it as two separate films, but Thalberg said no. Rex Ingram was so moved by the film he volunteered to edit it down to 18 reels gratis, which he did. He told von Stroheim that not one more frame should be cut, but Thalberg ordered June Mathis to edit it down to only 10 reels and add titles to bridge the narrative gaps. It is in this final truncated form that it exists today.
While doing research for the 'Eric von Stroheim' documentary The Man You Loved to Hate (1979), filmmaker Kim Eveleth discovered a previously unknown cache of stills from the cut scenes of the director's aborted masterpiece "Greed", thus paving the way for the eventual restoration of the silent screen classic.
In 1972 Arno Press published "The Complete 'Greed' of Erich von Stroheim," which contains the complete script with a pictorial reconstruction containing 348 stills, 138 from the final release print and 210 from edited sequences, now presumed lost.
MGM did not want to fund the arduous, expensive trip to Death Valley to shoot the final part of the film, and instead wanted von Stroheim to take the scenes in Oxnard, California. The director ended up getting his way.
The filming of the climax was actually the subject of an early silent newsreel. The facts reported by the newsreel concerning the Death Valley portion of the shooting: it took a day just to reach the location from the town of Keeler, California, they rode in a combination of cars and horses (one of the cars had the word "Greed" stenciled on it), water had to be rationed and they shot in August when temperatures were over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Real locations in San Francisco and Oakland were used, even for interiors. The house depicted in the film, however, is not actually located on Polk street, as it is in the story. Much of Polk street had been remodeled around the time Stroheim took his company to San Francisco, and he decided that it looked too modern for the film. The company selected a building on the corner of Hayes and Laguna and completely took it over. The building still stands.
Director Erich von Stroheim had filmed two additional storylines, intended to symbolize the two possible outcomes of the main storyline: one about the elder neighbors of McTeague (Gibson Gowland), who did not care about money and therefore lived a happy life; and one following the Mexican Maria (Dale Fuller) and her husband, who were even greedier than the main characters, and therefore ends badly. Both these subplots and many more scenes were cut by order of the studio.
When McTeague sends Trina to the butcher shop for meat, she selects a rancid, unidentified piece from the three-days-old bucket described only (from the 2 hour version's title cards) as being 'Not fit for a dog'. In the original novel McTeague, it's identified as a three-day-old mutton chop.
The film takes place at the turn of the century, though a year (or range of years) is never specified. As such, the characters wear period-appropriate clothes, the locations and lack of cars in the street scenes reflect an era that was still reliant on horse-and-buggy transportation, and characters consume alcohol openly in restaurants and saloons, not in speakeasies (as they would have if the film had been set in its present day).
The film presumably takes place around the time the novel was published (1899). If so, the Cliff House depicted in the film would not be the one that existed in Frank Norris' time, that Victorian Gothic stricter having survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake only to burn down a year later.