Know Your Character Actor: ZaSu Pitts

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June 22, 2014 by smumcounty

ZaSuPittsZaSu Pitts was born Eliza Susan Pitts in Parsons Kansas on January 3rd, 1894. She was named after her father’s sisters, Eliza and Susan, from which her nickname ZaSu is derived. Although commonly mispronounced Za-soo, Zay-soo, or Zay-zoo, in her 1963 candy cookbook, “Candy Hits with ZaSu Pitts”, she revealed that the correct pronunciation is Say-zoo.

Pitts and Mary Pickford in "A Little Princess"

Pitts and Mary Pickford in “A Little Princess”

Sick of the cold Kansas winters and hoping for better employment opportunities, her family moved to Santa Cruz, California, when she was nine. She was able to overcome her shy, wallflower demeanor and had her first experience on the stage in 1914, performing in school and local community productions. Bitten by the performing bug, she moved to Los Angeles in 1916, when she was twenty-one, in order to find work in films. She got her first big break in the films of screenwriter Frances Marion who cast her as a child laborer in the silent film “A Little Princess” (1917) starring Mary Pickford.

"Better Times" (1919)

“Better Times” (1919)

After this her popularity grew with a series of one-reel comedies for Universal. Her first feature length starring role came in 1919 with King Vidor’s “Better Times”. She met and married her first husband, film star Tom Gallery, in 1920 and co-starred with him in a series of films including “Heart of Twenty” (1920), “Patsy” (1921) and “A Daughter of Luxury” (1922).

"Greed" (1924)

“Greed” (1924)

In the 20’s, Pitts also developed a reputation as a talented dramatic actress. Her greatest dramatic role was as the wife in Erich von Stroheim’s epic “Greed” (1924). The film, as shot, was nine and a half hours long but was cut down to a more manageable 2 hours for release. The film failed in its initial release but is now considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made. Pitts is really chilling in her portrayal of a woman obsessed with her newfound fortune. Stroheim considered Pitts “the greatest tragedienne of the screen” and cast her in four more of his films: “The Honeymoon” (1928), “The Wedding March” (1928), “War Nurse” (1930), and “Hello, Sister!” (1933).

Pitts and Thelma Todd in "On The Loose" (1931)

Pitts and Thelma Todd in “On The Loose” (1931)

Her greatest success came in the 30’s when she starred in a number of B films and comedic shorts. Hal Roach teamed Pitts with Thelma Todd for a series of comedy shorts in an attempt to make a female version of Laurel and Hardy. The pair made a total of 17 shorts for Hal Roach Studios before Pitts decided to leave the studio. She also made a series of features starring opposite Slim Summerville. It was through these films, that she became known primarily as a comic actress. So much so that when she was cast as the mother in the anti-war drama “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), she later had to be replaced when preview audiences, now used to seeing Pitts in comedies, couldn’t keep from laughing at her dramatic scenes.

Pitts, Charles Laughton, Charlie Ruggles, and Maude Eburne in "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935)

Pitts, Charles Laughton, Charlie Ruggles, and Maude Eburne in “Ruggles of Red Gap” (1935)

It was in the 30’s that Pitts was increasingly cast in character roles. In these roles, Pitts used her slow, measured speaking voice, wide eyes and bird-like demeanor to both comic and tragic effect. A typical character for Pitts was a fretful spinster aunt or worried matronly housekeeper. Notable films at this time include “Ruggles of Red Gap” (1935) in which she portrayed the love interest and eventual business partner of the title character. She also took on the role of sleuth Hildegarde Withers for two films in the popular mystery series: “The Plot Thickens” (1936) and “Forty Naughty Girls” (1937).

Jimmy Fairfax, Gale Storm, and Pitts in "The Gale Storm Show"

Jimmy Fairfax, Gale Storm, and Pitts in “The Gale Storm Show”

In the 40’s, she worked in both radio and vaudeville trading quips with the likes of Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee. In 1944, Pitts had her Broadway debut in the farce “Ramshackle Inn”, a play expressly written for her. The success of this play was great enough that she took it on the road in later years. By the 50’s, Pitts began focusing on television. Her most notable role in this period was as second banana to Gale Storm in “The Gale Storm Show: Oh Susanna” in which she played shipboard beautician and partner-in-crime, Elvira Nugent, to Storm’s cruise director.

Pitts was diagnosed with cancer in the 50’s but she continued working up to the end despite failing health. Her last role was as a switchboard operator in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963). She died in Hollywood on June 7, 1963 at the age of 69.

“A Little Princess” (1917)


“On the Loose” (1931)


TCM Clip of “Ruggles of Red Gap” (1935)


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