ZaSu Pitts

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ZaSu Pitts
ZaSu Pitts.jpg
Pitts in 1930
Born Eliza Susan Pitts
(1894-01-03)January 3, 1894
Parsons, Kansas, U.S.
Died June 7, 1963(1963-06-07) (aged 69)
Hollywood, California, U.S.
Occupation Actress
Years active 1917–1963
Spouse(s) Tom Gallery
(1920–1933; divorced)
John E. Woodall
(1933–1963; her death)
Children 2

ZaSu Pitts (/ˈsz ˈpɪts/;[1] born Eliza Susan Pitts;[2] January 3, 1894 – June 7, 1963)[a] was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas and comedies, transitioning successfully to mostly comedy films with the advent of sound films. She may be best known for her performance in Erich von Stroheim's epic silent film, Greed.

Early life[edit]

Eliza Susan Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas, to Rulandus and Nelly (née Shay) Pitts; she was the third of four children. Her father, who had lost a leg while serving in the 76th New York Infantry in the Civil War, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born.[4]

The names of her father's sisters, Eliza and Susan, were purportedly the basis for the nickname "ZaSu", i.e., to satisfy competing family interests. She later adopted the nickname professionally and legally. It has been (incorrectly) spelled as Zazu Pitts in some film credits and news articles. Although the name is commonly mispronounced /ˈzæz/ ZAZ-oo or /ˈzs/ ZAY-soo, or /ˈzz/ ZAY-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (p. 15), Pitts herself gives the correct pronunciation as "Say Zoo" /ˈsz/, recounting that Mary Pickford had predicted, "[M]any will mispronounce it", and adding, "How right [she] was."

In 1903, when she was nine years old, her family moved to Santa Cruz, California, to seek a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where she participated in school theatricals.[5]

Career[edit]

c. 1920

Pitts made her stage debut in 1914–15 doing school and local community theater in Santa Cruz. Going to Los Angeles in 1916, at the age of twenty-two, she spent many months seeking work as a film extra. Finally she was discovered for substantive roles in films by screenwriter Frances Marion. Marion cast Pitts as an orphaned slavey (child of work) in the silent film, The Little Princess (1917), starring Pickford.

Pitts' popularity grew following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies and earned her first feature-length lead in King Vidor's Better Times (1919). The following year she married her first husband, Tom Gallery, with whom she was paired in several films, including Bright Eyes (1921), Heart of Twenty (1920), Patsy (1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922). In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceuse, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's 9 12-hour epic Greed (1924). The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor as well as laughs. Having been extensively edited prior to release—the final theatrical cut ran just over two hours—the movie failed initially at the box office, but has since been restored to over four hours and is considered one of the greatest films ever made.[citation needed] Based on her performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress". He also featured her in his films The Honeymoon (1928), The Wedding March (1928), War Nurse (1930) and Walking Down Broadway, released as Hello, Sister! (1933).

David Butler and ZaSu Pitts look lovingly at each other while Jack McDonald glares in a scene still for the 1919 silent drama Better Times.

Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy short films, teamed with Thelma Todd.[b] She played secondary parts in many films. Her stock persona (a fretful, flustered, worrisome spinster) made her instantly recognizable and was often imitated in cartoons and other films. She starred in a number of Hal Roach short films and features, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville. Switching between comedy short films and features, by the advent of sound, she was relegated to comedy roles. A bitter disappointment was when she was replaced in the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs, despite her intense performance. She had viewers rolling in the aisles in Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). In 1936 and 1937 she portrayed Hildegarde Withers in two movies, succeeding Edna May Oliver as the spinster sleuth, but they were not well received.[7]

In the 1940s, she found work in vaudeville and on radio, trading banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, and Rudy Vallee, among others. Pitts' activities on radio included playing Miss Mamie Wayne on the soap opera Big Sister.[3] She appeared several times on the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly show, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband.

In 1944, Pitts tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery, Ramshackle Inn. The play, written expressly for her, did well, and she took the show on the road in later years. Post-war films continued to give Pitts the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such fare as Life with Father (1947), but in the 1950s she started focusing on television. This culminated in her best known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm on CBS's The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susannah) in the role of Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician. In 1961, Pitts was cast opposite Earle Hodgins in the episode "Lonesome's Gal" on the ABC sitcom, Guestward, Ho!, set on a dude ranch in New Mexico. In 1962, Pitts appeared in an episode of CBS's Perry Mason, "The Case of the Absent Artist". Her final role was a switchboard operator in the Stanley Kramer comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Personal life[edit]

Zasu Pitts in 1935

Pitts was married to Thomas Sarsfield Gallery from 1920 to 1933. Gallery, an actor, became a well-known Los Angeles boxing promoter and later a TV executive. The couple had two children: Ann Gallery (born 1922) and Donald Michael "Sonny" Gallery (né Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted and renamed after the 1926 death of his mother and Pitts' friend, silent film actress Barbara La Marr. In 1933, she married John Edward "Eddie" Woodall, with whom she remained until her death.

She was a Republican, and became active in the party in 1958.[3]

Declining health dominated Pitts' later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. She continued to work, however, appearing on television and making a brief appearance in The Thrill of It All (1963) and in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. She died June 7, 1963, aged 69, in Hollywood and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.[3] Pitts wrote a book of candy recipes, Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published posthumously in 1963.

Legacy[edit]

ZaSu Pitts was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960 for her contribution to motion pictures.[8] Her star is on the south side of the 6500 block of Hollywood Boulevard.[9]

In 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp along with luminaries such as Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin as part of The Silent Screen Stars stamp set, designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.[5][10] In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her.[11]

In the film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, W.C. Fields asks his niece, played by Gloria Jean, "Don't you want to go to school? You wanna be dumb like ZaSu Pitts?" Gloria Jean replied "She only acts like that in pictures. I like her".[citation needed]

Actress Mae Questel, who performed character voices in Max Fleischer's Popeye the Sailor and Betty Boop cartoons, reportedly based the fluttering utterances of Olive Oyl on Pitts.[12]

Selected filmography[edit]

Year Film title Role Notes
1917 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm Undetermined Role Uncredited
1917 '49-'17 Party Guest Uncredied
1917 Little Princess, TheThe Little Princess Becky
1918 A Modern Musketeer A Kansas Belle Uncredited
1918 How Could You Jean? Oscar's Sweetheart
1918 Talk of the Town, TheThe Talk of the Town
1918 The Greatest Thing in Life (scenes deleted)
1919 A Lady's Name Emily
1919 As the Sun Went Down Sal Sue
1919 Men, Women, and Money Katie Jones
1919 Better Times Nancy Scroggs
1919 Other Half, TheThe Other Half Jennie Jones, The Jazz Kid
1919 Poor Relations Daisy Perkins
1920 Bright Skies Sally
1920 Heart of Twenty Katie Abbott
1920 Seeing It Through Betty Lawrence
1921 Patsy Patsy
1922 Is Matrimony a Failure? Mrs. Wilbur
1922 For the Defense Jennie Dunn
1922 Youth to Youth Emily
1922 A Daughter of Luxury Mary Cosgrove
1923 Mary of the Movies Herself Cameo role
1923 The Girl Who Came Back Anastasia Muldoon
1923 Mary of the Movies Himself
1923 Souls for Sale Herself Cameo role
1923 Three Wise Fools Mickey
1923 Hollywood Herself Cameo role
1923 Tea: With a Kick! 'Brainy' Jones
1923 West of the Water Tower Dessie Arnhalt
1924 Daughters of Today Lorena
1924 The Goldfish Amelia Pugsley
1924 Triumph A Factory Girl
1924 Changing Husbands Delia
1924 Legend of Hollywood Mary Brown
1924 Wine of Youth Lucy (scenes deleted)
1924 The Fast Set Mona
1924 Secrets of the Night Celia Stebbins
1924 Greed Trina
1924 Sunlight of Paris
1925 Great Divide, TheThe Great Divide Polly Jordan
1925 The Re-Creation of Brian Kent Judy
1925 Old Shoes
1925 Pretty Ladies Maggie Keenan
1925 A Woman's Faith Blanche Odile
1925 The Business of Love Miss Wright
1925 Thunder Mountain Mandy Coulter
1925 Lazybones Ruth Fanning
1925 Wages for Wives Luella Logan
1925 Great Love, TheThe Great Love Nancy
1926 Mannequin Annie Pogani
1926 What Happened to Jones Hilda
1926 Monte Carlo Hope Durant
1926 Early to Wed Mrs. Dugan
1926 Sunny Side Up Evelyn
1926 Risky Business Agnes Wheaton
1926 Her Big Night Gladys Smith
1927 Casey at the Bat Camille Gibson
1928 Wife Savers Germaine
1928 13 Washington Square Mathilde
1928 Buck Privates Hulda
1928 Wedding March, TheThe Wedding March Cecelia Schweisser
1928 Sins of the Fathers Mother Spengler
1929 The Dummy Rose Gleason
1929 The Squall Lena
1929 Twin Beds Tillie
1929 The Argyle Case Mrs. Wyatt
1929 Her Private Life Timmins
1929 Oh, Yeah? The Elk
1929 Paris Harriet
1929 Locked Door, TheThe Locked Door Telephone Girl
1929 This Thing Called Love Clara Bertrand
1930 No, No, Nanette Pauline Hastings
1930 Honey Mayme
1930 All Quiet on the Western Front Frau Bäumer Silent Version Trailer only, (scenes deleted)
1930 Devil's Holiday, TheThe Devil's Holiday Ethel
1930 The Little Accident Monica
1930 The Squealer Bella
1930 Monte Carlo Bertha
1930 War Nurse Cushie
1930 The Lottery Bride Hilda
1930 River's End Louise
1930 Sin Takes a Holiday Annie
1930 The Honeymoon Caecilia Lost film
Released only in Europe
1930 Free Love Ada
1930 Passion Flower Mrs. Harney
1931 Finn and Hattie Mrs. Haddock
1931 Bad Sister Minnie
1931 Beyond Victory Mademoiselle Fritzi
1931 Seed Jennie
1931 A Woman of Experience Katie
1931 Their Mad Moment Miss Dibbs
1931 The Big Gamble Nora Dugan
1931 Penrod and Sam Mrs. Bassett Alternative title: The Adventures of Penrod and Sam
1931 Guardsman, TheThe Guardsman Liesl, the Maid
1931 The Secret Witness Bella
1931 On the Loose Zasu Short film
1932 The Unexpected Father Polly Perkins
1932 Broken Lullaby Anna, Holderlin's Maid
1932 Steady Company Dot
1932 Shopworn Aunt Dot
1932 Destry Rides Again Temperance Worker Alternative title: Justice Rides Again
1932 The Trial of Vivienne Ware Gladys Fairweather
1932 Strangers of the Evening Sybil Smith
1932 Westward Passage Mrs. Truesdale
1932 Is My Face Red? Morning Gazette Telephone Operator
1932 Make Me a Star Mrs. Scudder
1932 Roar of the Dragon Gabby Woman
1932 The Vanishing Frontier Aunt Sylvia
1932 Blondie of the Follies Gertie
1932 Back Street Mrs. Dole
1932 Crooked Circle, TheThe Crooked Circle Nora Rafferty
1932 Once in a Lifetime Miss Leyton
1932 Madison Square Garden Florrie
1932 They Just Had to Get Married Molly Hull
1933 Out All Night Bunny
1933 Hello, Sister! Millie
1933 Professional Sweetheart Elmerada de Leon
1933 Her First Mate Mary Horner
1933 Love, Honor, and Oh Baby! Connie Clark
1933 Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men Sybby 'Sib'
1933 Meet the Baron ZaSu
1933 Mr. Skitch Maddie Skitch
1934 The Meanest Gal in Town Tillie Prescott
1934 Two Alone Esthey Roberts
1934 Three on a Honeymoon Alice Mudge
1934 Sing and Like It Annie Snodgrass
1934 Love Birds Araminta Tootle
1934 Private Scandal Miss Coates
1934 Dames Matilda Ounce Hemingway
1934 Their Big Moment Tillie Whim
1934 Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch Miss Hazy
1934 Gay Bride, TheThe Gay Bride Mirabelle
1935 Ruggles of Red Gap Prunella Judson
1935 Spring Tonic Maggie Conklin
1935 Going Highbrow Mrs. Cora Upshaw
1935 She Gets Her Man Esmeralda
1935 Hot Tip Belle McGill
1935 The Affairs of Susan Susan Todd
1936 Thirteen Hours by Air Miss Harkins
1936 Mad Holiday Mrs. Kinney
1936 The Plot Thickens Hildegarde Withers
1936 Sing Me a Love Song Gwen Logan
1937 Wanted! Winnie Oatfield
1937 Merry Comes to Town Winnie Oatfield
1937 Forty Naughty Girls Hildegarde Withers
1937 52nd Street Letitia Rondell
1939 Lady's from Kentucky, TheThe Lady's from Kentucky Dulcey Lee
1939 Naughty but Nice Aunt Penelope Hardwick
1939 Mickey the Kid Lilly Handy
1939 Nurse Edith Cavell Mme. Moulin
1939 Eternally Yours Mrs. Cary Bingham
1940 It All Came True Miss Flint
1940 No, No Nanette Pauline Hastings
1941 Broadway Limited Myra
1941 Niagara Falls Emmy Sawyer
1941 Weekend for Three Anna
1941 Miss Polly Miss Pandora Polly
1941 The Mexican Spitfire's Baby Miss Emily Pepper
1941 Uncle Joe Julia Jordan - the Widow
1942 Mexican Spitfire at Sea Miss Pepper
1942 Bashful Bachelor, TheThe Bashful Bachelor Geraldine
1942 So's Your Aunt Emma Aunt Emma Bates Alternative title: Meet the Mob
1942 Tish Aggie Pilkington
1943 Let's Face It! Cornelia Figeson
1946 Breakfast in Hollywood Elvira Spriggens
1947 Life with Father Cousin Cora Cartwright
1950 Francis Nurse Valerie Humpert
1952 Denver and Rio Grande Jane Dwyer
1954 Francis Joins the WACS Lt. Valerie Humpert
1957 This Could Be the Night Mrs. Katie Shea - Landlady
1961 Teenage Millionaire, TheThe Teenage Millionaire Aunt Theodora
1963 Thrill of It All, TheThe Thrill of It All Olivia Posthumous Release
1963 It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Gertie - Switchboard Operator Posthumous Release, (Last appearance)

Television[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1954 Best of Broadway, TheThe Best of Broadway Miss Preen Episode: "The Man Who Came to Dinner"
1955 Screen Directors Playhouse Selma Episode: "The Silent Partner"
1956 20th Century Fox Hour, TheThe 20th Century Fox Hour Miss Appleton Episode: "Mr. Belvedere"
1956–1960 Gale Storm Show, TheThe Gale Storm Show Elvira Nugent 91 episodes
1957 Private Secretary Aunt Martha Episode: "Not Quite Paradise"
1960 Dennis O'Keefe Show, TheThe Dennis O'Keefe Show Loretta Kimball Episode: "Dimples"
1961 Guestward, Ho! Episode: "Lonesome's Gal"
1961 Perry Mason Daphne Whilom Episode: "The Case of the Absent Artist"
1963 Burke's Law Mrs. Bowie Episode: "Who Killed Holly Howard?" Posthumous Air Date

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Pitts' year of birth is difficult to pinpoint. Kansas did not keep birth records prior to 1911. Many sources, including Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, give 1898 as the year; her obituary in the New York Times gives 1900, which also appears on her headstone; Pitts biographer Stumpf gives 1894[3] and Notable American Women points out that the 1900 US Census, while ambiguous, implies an 1894 year of birth.[2]
  2. ^ She and Todd are listed by Variety as the top two actors in number of film roles in the early 1930s (pre-1933).[6]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Zasu Pitts (1963). Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. p. 15. 
  2. ^ a b Harold J. Salemson (1980). "Zasu Pitts". In Barbara Sicherman; Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. A Biographical Dictionary. Harvard University Press. pp. 547–548. ISBN 978-0-674-62733-8. 
  3. ^ a b c d Charles Stumpf (2010). ZaSu Pitts: The Life and Career. McFarland. pp. 3; 82; 100; 103–104. ISBN 978-0-7864-6023-6. 
  4. ^ Phil Reader. Mike Brown, ed. "Rulandus Pitts". 76th New York State Volunteers "The Cortland Regiment". Retrieved June 7, 2010. 
  5. ^ a b Barbara Giffen (1984). "ZaSu Pitts: Actress 1898–1963". Santa Cruz Public Library. Retrieved June 7, 2010. 
  6. ^ "Who's Grabbin' The Jobs: Hollywood Has Its Chosen Few". Variety. 110 (10): 3. May 16, 1933. Retrieved March 7, 2015. 
  7. ^ Stuart Palmer (2013). Hildegarde Withers in The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders. Wildside Press LLC. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-4344-4637-4. 
  8. ^ "ZaSu Pitts". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved September 28, 2014. 
  9. ^ Christopher Smith (March 3, 2010). "ZaSu Pitts". Hollywood Star Walk. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 7, 2015. 
  10. ^ "29-cent Zasu Pitts single". Arago—People, Postage & the Post: Silent Screen Stars. Smithsonian, National Postal Museum. Retrieved March 7, 2015. 
  11. ^ "Zasu Pitts". Kansapedia. Kansas Historical Society. April 2013. Retrieved March 7, 2015. 
  12. ^ Daniel Eagan (2010). America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry. A&C Black. p. 254. ISBN 978-0-8264-2977-3. 

External links[edit]