Filled Under: ZaSu Pitts
ZaSu Pitts was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas and comedies, transitioning to comedy sound films. She was a classic comedienne with timid, forlorn blue eyes and a trademark woebegone vocal pattern with fidgety hands. Not a classic beauty as many of the contemporary actresses of her day, but Pitts made a very successful career out of her ‘unglamorous looks’ and wallflower tendencies in dozens of screwball comedies. Said Pitts of her career, “I was what they called a feature player, never a star. They say I was in 500 films, everything but the newsreels.”
ZaSu Pitts was born on January 3, 1894 in Parsons, Kansas, to Rulandus and Nellie Pitts. 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. In 1903, when she was nine years old, the family moved to Santa Cruz, California, seeking a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where despite her excessively shy demeanor she participated in school theatricals and made her stage debut in 1914–15 doing school and local community theater in Santa Cruz, California. In 1916 Pitts moved to Los Angeles spent many months asking studio casting offices for work as a film extra. In 1917, Pioneer screenwriter Frances Marion cast Pitts in a substantial role as an orphaned slavey (child of work) in the silent film, “The Little Princess”, starring Mary Pickford. Pitts grew in popularity 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 met and married actor Tom Gallery. The couple paired in several films, including “Bright Eyes” (1921), “Heart of Twenty” (1920), “Patsy” (1921) and “A Daughter of Luxury” (1922). In 1924, already known as a comedy farceuse, Pitts was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim’s epic masterpiece “Greed” (1924). The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor as well as laughs. Based on her performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts “the greatest dramatic actress”. The original film was 9 1/2 hours in length but was extensively edited prior to release, with the final theatrical cut at just over two hours. “Greed” failed initially at the box office. The film has since been restored to over four hours and has grown tremendously in reputation over time and is considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made.
Throughout the mid to late 20’s Pitts continued to star in comedy shorts and features such as “Monte Carlo” (1926), “Casey at the Bat” (1927), “The Dummy” (1929) and “No, No, Nanette” (1930), but also earned good reviews in heavy dramas such as “Sins of the Fathers” (1928), “The Wedding March” (1928), and “War Nurse” (1930). One bitter and huge disappointment for Pitts was when she was replaced in the classic war drama “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs, despite the intensity of her acting. She was replaced by Beryl Mercer and all her scenes were cut from the final production. Overcoming her disappointment Pitts continued to shine in many comedies. Her stock persona as a fretful, flustered, worrisome spinster made her instantly recognizable and was often imitated in cartoons and other films. 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). She also excelled in her comedy partnerships with the stunning blonde comedienne Thelma Todd in short films and with the gangly comedian ‘Slim Summerville’ in features. Pitts also played secondary comedic roles in many films. Also among Pitts many roles of note during this time were “The Affair of Susan” (1935), “Mad Holiday” (1936), “Sing Me A Song” (1936), “Wanted” (1937), “Forty Naughty Girls” (1937), “Naughty But Nice” (1939), and in the same role she had ten years earlier as Pauline Hastings in a 1940 remake of “No, No, Nanatte”.
During the 1940’s, Pitts continued play comedic roles in such fare as “Mexican Spitfire’s Baby” (1941) and “Mexican Spitfire at Sea” (1942) which starred Lupe Valez and were part of the very successful ‘Mexican Spitfire’ film series. Pitts also had a secondary role in the Oscar nominated “Life with Father” (1947) with William Powel, Irene Dunne, and Elizabeth Taylor. Pitts also found work in vaudeville and on radio, trading quivery banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee, among others. 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, fared well, and she took the show on the road in later years. In the 1950’s Pitts started focusing more on TV. This resulted in her best known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm on “The Gale Storm Show” (1956) as Elvira Nugent (“Nugie”), the shipboard beautician. She also appeared in the 1962 Perry Mason episode “The Case of the Absent Artist”. Her last film role was as a switchboard operator in the Stanley Kramer comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963).
ZaSu Pitts was married twice. The first marriage was to Thomas Sarsfield Gallery in 1920. The couple had one child together, a girl named ZaSu Ann Gallery in 1922. The couple later adopted a boy who was the son of Pitts best friend Barbara La Marr, an ill-fated actress who died in 1926 at the age of 29 from tuberculosis and nephritis. Pitts and La Marr had worked together in three films in 1923 and had become close friends. The boy’s birth name was Marvin Carville La Marr which they changed to Donald Michael “Sonny” Gallery after the adoption. He grew up to become an actor and a sometime boyfriend of Elizabeth Taylor. He now lives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Pitts and Gallery divorced in 1933.
Her second marriage was in 1933 to John Edward “Eddie” Woodall with whom she remained until her death.
Declining health dominated Pitts’ later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. The beloved commedienne died on June 7, 1963, aged 69, leaving behind scores of scene stealing roles unmatched but by only a few. She was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
Pitts unique and remarkable first name, “ZaSu”, came about because her mother’s two sisters, Eliza and Susan, both wanted her named after them. Her mother didn’t want to disappoint either of them, so she formed the name from the last two letters of Eliza and the first two letters of Susan. Incorrectly spelled as Zazu Pitts in many film credits and often mispronounced, in her 1963 book “Candy Hits” (pg 15), Pitts herself gives the correct pronunciation as “Say Zoo”.
Pitts was also known as an excellent cook and a collector of candy recipes, which culminated into the aforementioned cook book entitled “Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts”, which was published posthumously in 1963.
ZaSu Pitts was chosen to be pictured on one of ten 29¢ US commemorative postage stamps celebrating stars of the silent screen, issued 27 April 1994. Designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, this set of stamps also honored Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Charles Chaplin, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Harold Lloyd, Theda Bara, Buster Keaton, and the Keystone Kops.
When the “Thimble Theatre” comic strip became the “Popeye” animated cartoon series, the producers used ZaSu’s hand-wringing and nervous speech pattern to characterize the on-screen persona of “Olive Oyl.”