ZaSu Pitts

Greed (1924)

Greed 1924As a young man, McTeague (Gibson Gowland) works as a miner and doesn’t come from a wealthy family. His mother would love for him to have a better life, so when a traveling dentist comes to town, she begs him to take McTegue along as an apprentice. The dentist agrees and before long, McTeague has his own dentistry office in San Francisco. He’s not rich, but getting by and he has a good friend in Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Marcus is in love with his cousin Trina (ZaSu Pitts) and he wants to marry her. But when she suddenly needs some dental work done one day, it would prove to be a fateful day for all involved.

Marcus brings Trina to see McTeague and while they wait, she decides to buy a lottery ticket, not really expecting to win. When McTeague meets Trina, he falls in love with her and Marcus tries to be supportive and gives him his blessing to start courting her. It’s hard for Marcus to put his feelings aside and it gets even more difficult when they decide to get married. As difficult as that is, it gets worse when Trina finds out her lottery ticket was a winner and she’s won $5,000. Marcus becomes extremely resentful toward McTeague for not only taking Trina away from him, but for taking that money away from him, too.

$5,000 is a life-altering amount of money (the movie is set around the turn of the last century) and it could do a lot to help a newlywed couple get started in life together. McTeague wants to get a small house so they can stop living in a small apartment in a boarding house, but Trina refuses to spend any of the money. She insists on doing everything as cheaply as humanly possible, even if it means living on days old meat and living in an apartment one of their neighbors was murdered in, so she can squirrel away more money that she never intends to spend. Trina’s penny pinching ways cause a lot of tension between her and McTeague and things only get worse when Marcus spitefully rats McTeague out for practicing dentistry without a license. The couple has to sell virtually all of their possessions and McTeague struggles to find more work. Trina refuses to even let him have a few cents for car fare for him to go look for work on a rainy day.

Eventually, McTeague leaves town to work as a fisherman and takes $450 Trina had saved in addition to her winnings since they’ve been married. Trina is left behind absolutely furious and when she has to have some of her fingers amputated, she’s forced to become a school janitor for extra money, still unwilling to spend any of her $5,000. She even withdraws  the money from the bank so McTeague can’t get to it and sleeps on it at night. When McTeague returns from his fishing excursion, he finds Trina and asks her for a little money so he can get something to eat, but she refuses. The next day, McTeague confronts Trina again, but this time he kills her in a fit of rage and takes her $5,000.

Since McTeague is now a wanted criminal, he has no other choice to leave town, so he does and gets back into the mining game. But it isn’t long before begins to worry the authorities are after him. He takes a few supplies and heads into Death Valley on his own with cops following not far behind. Among the authorities is Marcus, who would love nothing more than to see McTeague brought to justice.

Greed is a movie that certainly has a level of notoriety in film history. Director Erich Von Stroheim infamously spent two years filming 85 hours worth of footage for this movie. Filming the scenes in Death Valley alone took two months and Von Stroheim’s original cut of Greed was an astonishing 42 reels long (approximately 8 hours, but could be longer depending on the speed it was projected at.) Von Stroheim only screened his original cut once for about a dozen people before Irving Thalberg insisted it be cut down to a more manageable length. Von Stroheim cut it down to 24 reels and wanted it released as two separate movies, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Thalberg had it cut down to 10 reels. For years, Greed only existed in an extremely truncated form. The hours of footage that were part of Von Sternberg’s original cut are believed to be lost, but the movie has been restored to a 4-hour long version using still photos to fill in some of the missing gaps.

Now rightfully celebrated as being one of the finest films to be produced during the silent era, Greed was greeted to less enthusiasm after its original release. The restored version does a good job of giving us a better idea of what Von Stroheim’s original vision was. The length alone is something that will deter a lot of people from watching it and I know some people aren’t big fans of using still photos in place of lost footage, but it’s really the kind of movie every self-respecting silent film fan should watch at least once. Admittedly, I don’t have the most patience for 3+ hour long movies, but I love Greed. Since it’s been a few years since I last saw it in its entirety, I re-watched it again before writing this post and I’d almost forgotten how good it is. It may be slow paced, but it’s a very compelling look at the power greed can have over people. I know I would be absolutely thrilled if that lost footage ever turned up somewhere.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Ruggles of Red Gap PosterWhen Texas ranchers Egbert (Charlie Ruggles) and Effie Floud (Mary Boland) take a trip to Paris, they end up returning with butler Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton) in tow.  Egbert had won Ruggles from the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young) in a poker game and the status-seeking Effie hopes having Ruggles will help her uncouth husband become more refined.  Ruggles does his best to get Egbert to adopt a posher lifestyle, but Egbert refuses to treat Ruggles like a servant and in the end, it’s Ruggles who starts adapting to some of Egbert’s ways of life.

When the Flouds return to their hometown of Red Gap, Washington with Ruggles, Ruggles ends up being the talk of the town when everyone gets the idea that he is a man of distinction.  Ruggles also starts to fall in love with local woman Prunella Judson (Zasu Pitts).  After Effie’s brother-in-law fires Ruggles, he considers leaving town, but after having a chat with Egbert and Egbert’s mother-in-law, decides to give up being a butler to open a restaurant in Red Gap.

For the first time in his life, Ruggles is living for himself, not for somebody else.  But then, Effie gets word that his former master, the Earl of Burnstead, is coming to town to ask Ruggles to work for him again.  Effie plans a big party to impress the Earl and is thrilled to be hosting someone so elite, but there’s just one thing missing from the party — Ruggles.  When Ruggles finally arrives, he tells the Earl about his plans and rather than being upset, the Earl is happy for him.  In fact, the Earl is happy to be there for opening night of the restaurant, which is a big success.

Ruggles of Red Gap is one of those movies that was acclaimed in its day, but unfortunately doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves today.  Director Leo McCarey found just the right mix of comedic and heartfelt moments.  Charles Laughton reciting the Gettysburg Address is an absolute must-see moment.  And I absolutely loved the ending of Ruggles reacting to the outpouring of support from the town at the opening of his restaurant.  The entire cast was excellent.  Charlie Ruggles was hilarious and Mary Boland was so perfect as the status-seeking Effie.  The only thing I was disappointed by was the fact that Charlie Ruggles and Roland Young don’t get much screen time together just because I couldn’t get enough of them together in This is the Night.

I very highly recommend Ruggles of Red Gap.  It hits every note just right.

Dames (1934)

Dames 1934 Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley loved to taunt censors and uptight people, so I guess it’s no big surprised that he did a whole movie making fun of the morally self-righteous.  In Dames, Hugh Herbert plays Ezra Ounce, an eccentric millionaire with exceptionally high moral standards.  He’s looking for family members he can leave ten  million dollars to in his will and it looks like his cousin Matilda Hemingway (ZaSu Pitts) is one of his few options.  The catch is that he wants to leave his money only to the most upstanding family members, so nobody like his distant relative Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell), who has his career in showbiz.  To make sure Matilda and her family meets his high standards, he goes to New York to live with them for a while and his stay is a disaster before he even arrives.  Matilda’s husband Horace (Guy Kibbee) accompanies him on the trip by train and returns to his cabin to find showgirl Mabel Anderson (Joan Blondell) sleeping in his bed.  She needed a way to get out-of-town after her show closed so she snuck into his cabin.  Trying to avoid a scandal, Horace gives her $200 and tells her not to mention it to anybody.

Meanwhile, Horace’s daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler) has been having an affair with Jimmy (they’re 13th cousins) and wants to star in one of his shows someday.  With Uncle Ezra in town, it’s a challenge to keep all these juicy details from costing them their inheritance.  Especially when Mabel comes back and blackmails Horace into giving her the money Jimmy needs to put on his new show so that she can star in it.  When the press writes about the new show, they say it’s positively scandalous and that it’s being backed by a mysterious millionaire.  On opening night, Horace, Ezra, and Matilda show up just to see how bad it is.  The first musical number doesn’t shock them too much, but then Barbara does her first number and they’re pleased with how harmless it was.  By the end of the show, they think it’s great!  But their change in mood also had something to do with the fact that they spent the entire show drinking a health tonic that happens to be 23% alcohol.  But at long last, Uncle Ezra realizes that being high and mighty is awfully overrated!

1933 was a truly spectacular year for Busby Berkeley.  He added his signature touch to three of the most iconic musicals of all time, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade, all in the same year.  With a year like that, it should come as no surprise that by 1934, he’d be slowing down just a little bit.  Dames most definitely doesn’t live up to the standards of Footlight Parade, but in all fairness, it would have been extremely difficult for him to live up to anything he had done the previous year.  The story and the musical numbers simply aren’t as solid or memorable as some of his previous efforts.  I’ll walk around with The Shadow Waltz stuck in my head all day, but Girl at the Ironing Board doesn’t have the same effect on me.  Even though we get to see a lot of the classic stars of Busby Berkeley movies like Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler, they just don’t shine as brightly as they had before.  But with all that being said, I did enjoy Dames.  I loved the Dames number and I Only Have Eyes For You.  It was also very funny.  Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade definitely had comedy in them, but Dames was a lot sillier than either of those.  And just because the stars didn’t have quite the same spark as they had before, they certainly weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s a fun three-star follow-up to an unbeatable four-star streak of movies.