ZaSu Pitts

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ZaSu Pitts
ZaSu Pitts in Tish trailer.jpg
Pitts in the trailer for Tish (1942).
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] née 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 Regiment 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]


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. Years later, she was the leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924). 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).

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]

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.


ZaSu Pitts was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960.[8] Her star is on the south side of the 6500 block of Hollywood Boulevard.[9] In 1994 her importance as a silent film star was affirmed when 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?"

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

Selected filmography[edit]

Year Film title Role Notes
1917 Little Princess, TheThe Little Princess Becky
1918 How Could You Jean? Oscar's Sweetheart
1918 Talk of the Town, TheThe Talk of the Town
1919 Better Times Nancy Scroggs
1919 Other Half, TheThe Other Half Jennie Jones, The Jazz Kid
1919 Poor Relations Daisy Perkins
1920 Seeing It Through Betty Lawrence
1921 Patsy Patsy
1922 Youth to Youth Emily
1923 Mary of the Movies Herself Cameo role
1923 Souls for Sale Herself Cameo role
1923 Three Wise Fools Mickey
1923 Hollywood Herself Cameo role
1924 West of the Water Tower Dessie Arnhalt
1924 Daughters of Today Lorena
1924 Triumph A Factory Girl
1924 Changing Husbands Delia
1924 The Fast Set Mona
1924 Greed Trina
1925 Great Divide, TheThe Great Divide Polly Jordan
1925 Pretty Ladies Maggie Keenan
1925 Great Love, TheThe Great Love Nancy
1926 Monte Carlo Hope Durant
1926 Sunny Side Up Evelyn
1927 Casey at the Bat Camille
1928 The Honeymoon Caecilia Lost film
Released only in Europe
1928 Wedding March, TheThe Wedding March Cecelia Schweisser
1928 Sins of the Fathers Mother Spengler
1929 Paris Harriet
1929 Locked Door, TheThe Locked Door Telephone Girl
1929 The Squall Lena
1929 Her Private Life Timmins
1929 This Thing Called Love Clara Bertrand
1930 No, No, Nanette Pauline Hastings
1930 Devil's Holiday, TheThe Devil's Holiday Ethel
1930 Monte Carlo Bertha
1930 Passion Flower Mrs. Harney
1930 Free Love Ada
1931 Bad Sister, TheThe Bad Sister Minnie
1931 Seed Jennie
1931 A Woman of Experience Katie
1931 Penrod and Sam Mrs. Bassett Alternative title: The Adventures of Penrod and Sam
1931 Guardsman, TheThe Guardsman Liesl, the Maid
1931 On the Loose Zasu Short film
1931 Beyond Victory Mademoiselle Fritzi
1932 Broken Lullaby Anna, Holderlin's Maid
1932 Shopworn Aunt Dot
1932 Destry Rides Again Temperance Worker Alternative title: Justice Rides Again
1932 Westward Passage Mrs. Truesdale
1932 Back Street Mrs. Dole
1932 Blondie of the Follies Gertie
1932 Crooked Circle, TheThe Crooked Circle Nora Rafferty
1932 Make Me a Star Mrs. Scudder
1932 Strangers of the Evening Sybil
1933 They Just Had to Get Married Molly Hull
1933 Hello, Sister! Millie
1933 Meet the Baron ZaSu
1933 Mr. Skitch Maddie Skitch
1933 Professional Sweetheart Elmerada de Leon
1934 Sing and Like It Annie Snodgrass
1934 Dames Matilda Ounce Hemingway
1934 Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch Miss Hazy
1934 Gay Bride, TheThe Gay Bride Mirabelle
1935 Ruggles of Red Gap Prunella Judson
1935 Going Highbrow Mrs. Cora Upshaw
1936 Thirteen Hours by Air Miss Harkins
1936 The Plot Thickens Hildegarde Withers
1937 Forty Naughty Girls Hildegarde Withers
1939 Lady's from Kentucky, TheThe Lady's from Kentucky Dulcey Lee
1939 Eternally Yours Mrs. Bingham
1939 Naughty but Nice Aunt Penelope Hardwick
1940 It All Came True Miss Flint
1940 No, No Nanette Pauline Hastings
1941 Broadway Limited Myra
1941 Niagara Falls Emmy Sawyer
1942 Bashful Bachelor, TheThe Bashful Bachelor Geraldine
1942 So's Your Aunt Emma Aunt Emma Alternative title: Meet the Mob
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
1961 Teenage Millionaire, TheThe Teenage Millionaire Aunt Theodora
1963 Thrill of It All, TheThe Thrill of It All Olivia
1963 It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Gertie


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?"

See also[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]


  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. 

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