No, we're not doing an entry on Carole Lombard's film "The Gay Bride," her lone movie at MGM. Today, the focus is on the "Co." part of "Carole & Co.", specifically the actress seen with Lombard in the still above.
She's Zasu Pitts, lovingly remembered for her brilliant work as a character comedic actress, from an assortment of features to the two-reelers she made with partners such as Thelma Todd:
But, like Lombard, Pitts could do much more than play comedy. And early Monday -- Labor Day -- you can find out, as Zasu is one of the stars of "Greed," which airs at 6 a.m. (Eastern) on Turner Classic Movies in both the U.S. and Canada. If that airs too early for you, set up your DVR...but better have plenty of room, as it will run for four hours and 15 minutes.
Sounds like a long film, doesn't it? Well, it could have been more -- a lot more. When "Greed" was first screened, it ran for 42 reels...reports say it ranged from eight to 10 hours. (And this was a silent film, so Pitts' trademark fluttery voice is nowhere to be heard.) Director Erich von Stroheim, notorious for his sheer excess, had signed a contract with the Goldwyn Company (note this was after Samuel Goldwyn was ousted from the studio named after him) for an 8,500-foot long movie; he reportedly shot 446,103 feet of film, seeking a lengthy -- though not verbatim -- screen translation of the renowned 1899 Frank Norris 300-page novel "McTeague."
For sheer commercial practicality, a film eight hours long made no sense (that would be nearly the equivalent of a baseball tripleheader today, including frequent pitching changes and between-inning TV breaks). And apparently von Stroheim, realizing its length, planned it to run in two four-hour parts on successive days; he was envisioning the TV mini-series 50 years ahead of schedule (in which case, it likely would have been aired for two hours on four consecutive nights). But in the midst of editing, a not-so-funny thing happened to von Stroheim -- the Goldwyn Company merged with Metro Pictures, and von Stroheim's new overseer was an old nemesis: production wunderkind Irving Thalberg.
Their acrimonious relationship dated back to when both were at Universal, and the youthful Thalberg repeatedly butted heads with the director over his profligate ways. Editing was taken out of von Stroheim's hands (he would disown the released version), and the film was whittled down to 10 reels and premiered in New York that December. Reviews were mixed, and "Greed" -- starring Gibson Gowland (right) as McTeague the dentist, Pitts as his wife Trina and Jean Hersholt (center) as a friend who covets Trina after she wins $5,000 in a lottery -- did subpar business.
As for the edited footage, it was destroyed, so aside from those dozen or so who saw the first screening, no one has seen "Greed" in anywhere close to the form von Stroheim intended. Thankfully, though, we have the next best thing. Von Stroheim created a continuity for the film prior to production, and in 1999 -- the 75th anniversary of "Greed" -- it was employed to recreate the missing parts, using existing still photographs from otherwise lost scenes. That version has aired on TCM from time to time, and that's what will be on display Monday.
Pitts and Gowland (seen above in a scene that foreshadows the deep camera effects of "Citizen Kane") are terrific, as is Hersholt (the longtime character actor for whom the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' humanitarian award is named). The men's struggle in Death Valley at the film's climax remains one of the most moving -- and tragic -- scenes in cinema:
Von Stroheim praised Pitts for her dramatic skill and used her to that effect in several films, most notably "The Wedding March" (in which von Stroheim starred with a young Fay Wray) in 1928. That was a silent, but she showed her dramatic side in a non-Stroheim sound film, the 1930 drama "War Nurse" starring Anita Page and Robert Montgomery. But earlier that year, Pitts was to have played a supporting role in "All Quiet On The Western Front," but when her appearance on screen drew unintentional laughs, she was replaced by Beryl Mercer. (Legend has it that a comedy short in which Pitts appeared was shown before the preview.)
Pitts kept working in films, almost always in comedies, then branched out into radio, television and stage appearances. She died in 1963, the year she appeared in the Doris Day-James Garner comedy "The Thrill Of It All" and as a switchboard operator (below) in the all-star laughfest "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."
So check out or record "Greed," even in its truncated form one of the all-time classic silents...and hope that the original, unedited version von Stroheim planned is buried on some island with "Convention City," the 1927 "London After Midnight" and Lombard's lost films, just waiting to be discovered.