The IMDb credits Zasu Pitts as having appeared in 218 films between 1917 and her death in 1963, over half of them talkies, 18 of them teamed up with Thelma Todd, and many more than that in character parts most often described as zany. The last of those films was, appropriately enough, the star studded Stanley Kramer comedy classic It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World--or perhaps, inappropriately enough.
Screwball Zasu Pitts just may have given the greatest single performance in screen history back in 1924 as Trina in Erich Von Stroheim's famously lost classic Greed. While Von Stroheim certainly went about Greed with a passion, in the end I think he's treated pretty well by history for severely overestimating the patience of Metro-Goldwyn. He put everything he had into this movie recreating the scenes to perfection and basically filming the entire book that Greed was based upon. But it's the performance of Pitts that stands out here, and don't get me wrong, certainly Von Stroheim was pulling those strings.
Okay, if it's lost, how can I say any of this. Well, Von Stroheim, generally portrayed as a madman at the time, filmed a 9 or 10 hour version of Greed, which to my mind is basically the act of...a madman, that the studio famously hacked to bits in order to show a version that theatergoers might actually stick around to watch in its entirety. In 1999 Turner Classic Movies aired a reconstructed 239 minute version of Greed which was subsequently issued on VHS. That's how I saw it.
What first struck me about the movie was how familiar it was. It took a little while into the picture, but finally I realized that I had actually read the novel, McTeague by Frank Norris, that Greed was based on in college. Now it's no secret that Greed is based on McTeague, but when I read reviews saying that Von Stroheim basically filmed the book page by page I thought it was exaggeration. No way, that's what he did. I liked the movie so much that I pulled out my hi-lited copy of the book to read again afterwards. Now maybe I'm a little hard on Von Stroheim here, but at the very least I'd like to get the point across that Frank Norris is severely underrated by comparison. The only other movie I can think of that followed the book so this closely was Rosemary's Baby, which Polanski basically takes word for word from Ira Levin's novel of the same name.
Don't get me wrong, I love Rosemary's Baby and I also love Greed, and if Erich Von Stroheim were making Greed today he'd probably have no problem getting HBO to take it on as a 10 part miniseries and he'd be properly hailed as a genius in the end. But I stand with those who say he should have known better back then. What he produced would have had no commercial appeal to the mass audiences of the early 20's. Would I like to see it? Well, if it surfaced you can count me as one who'd mark a day off the calendar to spend watching it, and knowing myself, I'd probably do it in one sitting.
I really feel that the crowning achievement for Von Stroheim with Greed was the performance he got out of Zasu Pitts. What a miserable miserly Trina she plays! While many film historians bemoan the loss of the complete Greed, I say let's at least be thankful that we do now have a substantial example of Pitts', and also Gibson Gowland's, performances to admire today.
Looking over Zasu Pitts latter roles I can't help thinking to myself that you know exactly who she is, but I cannot finger the performance to point you to in order to put a picture of her in your head. Perhaps her supporting role in 1947's Life With Father would do that best. Unfortunately I don't have a great many silent period Zasu Pitts collectibles rolling through here, but the image from Greed below should give an idea of the incredible intensity of the performances. Here Gibson Gowland is a quite mad McTeague who expresses his displeasure with his wife Trina's skinflint ways by regularly biting her fingers:
While silent period collectibles are sparse, don't forget to shop Zasu Pitts in the VintageMeld, you never know!
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