Eliza Susan Pitts
January 3, 1894
Parsons, Kansas, U.S.
|Died||June 7, 1963 (aged 69)|
Hollywood, California, U.S.
ZaSu Pitts (/ /; born Eliza Susan Pitts; January 3, 1894[a] – June 7, 1963) was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas, including Erich von Stroheim's epic 1924 silent film Greed, and comedies, transitioning successfully to mostly comedy films with the advent of sound films. She also appeared on numerous radio shows. Her career as an entertainer spanned nearly 50 years, and she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
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.
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 // ZAZ-oo or // ZAY-soo, or // ZAY-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (p. 15), Pitts herself gives the correct pronunciation as "Say Zoo" //, recounting that Mary Pickford had predicted "many will mispronounce it", and adding, "How right she was."
In 1903, when Pitts 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.
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 22, she spent many months seeking work as a film extra. Finally, she was discovered for substantive roles in films by screenwriter Frances Marion, who cast Pitts as an orphaned slavey (child of work) in the silent film A Little Princess (1917), starring Pickford.
Pitts's 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 Heart of Twenty (1920), Bright Eyes, Patsy (both 1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922).
Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the early 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, worried 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, often in partnership with Thelma Todd as two trouble-prone working girls. At Universal she 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 became a specialist in comedy roles.
ZaSu Pitts had hidden talents as a dramatic actress. She was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's 7+1⁄2-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. Based on her performance, von Stroheim labeled ZaSu Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress." He also featured her in his films The Honeymoon (1928), The Wedding March (1928), and Walking Down Broadway. Pitts's performance in Walking Down Broadway was dramatic, with her character showing a repressed romantic interest in her girlfriend; the studio reshot these scenes with Pitts, now playing the girl's companion for laughs, and von Stroheim's directorial credit was removed from the film. The film was finally released in 1933, much changed, as Hello, Sister!.
ZaSu Pitts was so recognizable in comedies that the public didn't take her dramatic efforts seriously. In the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Pitts was cast as the distraught mother of young soldier Lew Ayres, but at preview screenings her intense performance drew unintentional laughs. Her scenes were refilmed with Beryl Mercer. In 1936 RKO needed a replacement actress for its Hildegarde Withers series of murder mysteries; Edna May Oliver had left the studio and Helen Broderick succeeded Oliver in the role. Pitts was chosen to succeed Broderick. In theory, it was a good idea: Pitts seemed to fit the role of a prim, spinster schoolmistress. However, mystery fans couldn't accept the fluttery Pitts as a brainy sleuth who matched wits with the police, and after her two Withers films the series was abandoned.
Radio and stage
Beginning in the 1930s, Pitts found work in radio. She appeared several times in the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly shows, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband. When Marian Jordan temporarily withdrew from Fibber McGee and Molly due to illness, Pitts made guest appearances opposite Jim Jordan as Fibber. Pitts also guested on variety shows, trading banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, and Rudy Vallee, among others. She played Miss Mamie Wayne in the soap opera Big Sister., and was heard as Miss Pitts on The New Lum and Abner Show.
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. She was also a familiar attraction in summer-stock theaters, playing annually in the Norma Mitchell play Post Road.
Postwar movies and television
Postwar films continued to give her 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 in CBS's The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susanna), in the role of Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician. In 1961, Pitts was cast opposite Earle Hodgins in the episode "Lonesome's Gal" of the ABC sitcom Guestward, Ho!, set on a dude ranch in New Mexico. In 1962, she appeared in an episode of CBS's Perry Mason, "The Case of the Absent Artist". Her final role was as Gertie, the switchboard operator in the Stanley Kramer comedy epic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
Pitts was married to actor Thomas Sarsfield Gallery from 1920 to 1933. Gallery became a Los Angeles boxing promoter and later a TV executive. The couple had two children:
- ZaSu Ann Gallery
- Donald Michael "Sonny" Gallery (born Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted and renamed after the 1926 death of Donald's biological mother (and Pitts's friend), actress Barbara La Marr.
In 1933, Pitts married John Edward "Eddie" Woodall, with whom she remained until her death.
Declining health dominated Pitts's later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. She continued to work, appearing on TV and making brief appearances in The Thrill of It All (1963) and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. She died in Hollywood on June 7, 1963, aged 69, and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. Pitts wrote a book of candy recipes, Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published posthumously in 1963.
In 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp along with fellow actors Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin as part of The Silent Screen Stars stamp set, designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Her birthplace of Parsons, Kansas, has a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her.
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 grow up and be dumb like ZaSu Pitts?" Gloria Jean replied "She only acts like that in pictures. I like her."
|1917||Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm||Undetermined Role||Uncredited|
|1917||The Little Princess||Becky|
|1918||A Modern Musketeer||A Kansas Belle||Uncredited|
|1918||How Could You Jean?||Oscar's Sweetheart||Lost film|
|1918||The Talk of the Town|
|1918||The Greatest Thing in Life||(scenes deleted), Lost film|
|1919||A Lady's Name||Emily|
|1919||As the Sun Went Down||Sal Sue|
|1919||Men, Women, and Money||Katie Jones||Lost film|
|1919||Better Times||Nancy Scroggs||Undetermined/presumably lost|
|1919||The Other Half||Jennie Jones, The Jazz Kid|
|1919||Poor Relations||Daisy Perkins|
|1920||Heart of Twenty||Katie Abbott|
|1920||Seeing It Through||Betty Lawrence|
|1922||Is Matrimony a Failure?||Mrs. Wilbur||Lost film|
|1922||For the Defense||Jennie Dunn|
|1922||Youth to Youth||Emily||Lost film|
|1922||A Daughter of Luxury||Mary Cosgrove|
|1923||Mary of the Movies||Herself||Cameo role, Incomplete|
|1923||The Girl Who Came Back||Anastasia Muldoon|
|1923||Souls for Sale||Herself||Cameo role|
|1923||Three Wise Fools||Mickey|
|1923||Hollywood||Herself||Cameo role, lost film|
|1923||Tea: With a Kick!||'Brainy' Jones|
|1923||West of the Water Tower||Dessie Arnhalt||Lost film|
|1924||Daughters of Today||Lorena|
|1924||The Goldfish||Amelia Pugsley|
|1924||Triumph||A Factory Girl|
|1924||The Legend of Hollywood||Mary Brown|
|1924||Wine of Youth||Lucy||(scenes deleted)|
|1924||The Fast Set||Mona||Lost film|
|1924||Secrets of the Night||Celia Stebbins|
|1924||Greed||Trina||Film is extant, but original 42 reel version is lost|
|1924||Sunlight of Paris|
|1925||The Great Divide||Polly Jordan|
|1925||The Re-Creation of Brian Kent||Judy|
|1925||Pretty Ladies||Maggie Keenan||Film is extant, but technicolor sequence is lost|
|1925||A Woman's Faith||Blanche Odile|
|1925||The Business of Love||Miss Wright|
|1925||Thunder Mountain||Mandy Coulter|
|1925||Wages for Wives||Luella Logan||Lost film|
|1925||The Great Love||Nancy||Lost film|
|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||Lost film|
|1928||13 Washington Square||Mathilde|
|1928||The Wedding March||Cecelia Schweisser|
|1928||Sins of the Fathers||Mother Spengler|
|1929||The Dummy||Rose Gleason|
|1929||The Argyle Case||Mrs. Wyatt||Lost film, only the sounds to reels 3, 5, 7, and 9 survive, and possibly the soundtrack|
|1929||Her Private Life||Timmins|
|1929||Oh, Yeah?||The Elk|
|1929||Paris||Harriet||Lost, only the soundtrack survives|
|1929||The Locked Door||Telephone Girl|
|1929||This Thing Called Love||Clara Bertrand||Lost, only the technicolor sequence survives|
|1930||No, No, Nanette||Pauline Hastings||Lost, only the soundtrack survives|
|1930||All Quiet on the Western Front||Frau Bäumer||Silent version trailer only; scenes deleted|
|1930||The Devil's Holiday||Ethel|
|1930||The Little Accident||Monica|
|1930||The Lottery Bride||Hilda|
|1930||Sin Takes a Holiday||Annie|
|1930||The Honeymoon||Caecilia||Lost film; released only in Europe|
|1930||Passion Flower||Mrs. Harney|
|1931||Finn and Hattie||Mrs. Haddock|
|1931||Beyond Victory||Mademoiselle Fritzi|
|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||The 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||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||The 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||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||The 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 Affair of Susan||Susan Todd||Alternative title: Alone Together|
|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||Merry Comes to Town||Winnie Oatfield|
|1937||Forty Naughty Girls||Hildegarde Withers|
|1937||52nd Street||Letitia Rondell|
|1939||The 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||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||The Bashful Bachelor||Geraldine|
|1942||So's Your Aunt Emma||Aunt Emma Bates||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 - Landlady|
|1961||The Teenage Millionaire||Aunt Theodora|
|1963||The Thrill of It All||Olivia||Released posthumously; filmed in 1962|
|1963||It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World||Gertie - Switchboard Operator||Released posthumously; filmed in 1962; (final film role)|
|1949||Lum and Abner||Miss Pitts||Episode: "Pilot"|
|1954||The Best of Broadway||Miss Preen||Episode: "The Man Who Came to Dinner"|
|1955||Screen Directors Playhouse||Selma||Episode: "The Silent Partner"|
|1956||The 20th Century Fox Hour||Miss Appleton||Episode: "Mr. Belvedere"|
|1956–1960||The Gale Storm Show||Elvira Nugent||91 episodes|
|1957||Private Secretary||Aunt Martha||Episode: "Not Quite Paradise"|
|1960||The Dennis O'Keefe Show||Loretta Kimball||Episode: "Dimples"|
|1961||Guestward, Ho!||Episode: "Lonesome's Gal"|
|1962||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|
- Pitts's 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 and Notable American Women points out that the 1900 US Census gives her age as six years old.
- Todd and she are listed by Variety as the top two actors in number of film roles in the early 1930s (pre-1933).
- Zasu Pitts (1963). Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. p. 15.
- Harold J. Salemson (1980). "Zasu Pitts". In Barbara Sicherman; Carol Hurd Green (eds.). Notable American Women: The Modern Period. A Biographical Dictionary. Harvard University Press. pp. 547–548. ISBN 978-0-674-62733-8.
- Charles Stumpf (2010). ZaSu Pitts: The Life and Career. McFarland. pp. 3, 82, 100, 103–104. ISBN 978-0-7864-6023-6.
- Phil Reader. Mike Brown (ed.). "Rulandus Pitts". 76th New York State Volunteers "The Cortland Regiment". Retrieved June 7, 2010.
- Barbara Giffen (1984). "ZaSu Pitts: Actress 1898–1963". Santa Cruz Public Library. Retrieved June 7, 2010.
- "Who's Grabbin' The Jobs: Hollywood Has Its Chosen Few". Variety. 110 (10): 3. May 16, 1933. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
- Koszarski, Richard (1983). Von: The Life and Films of Erich Von Stroheim. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 168. ISBN 0879109548.
- Klepper, Robert K. (2005). Silent Films, 1877-1996: A Critical Guide to 646 Movies. McFarland. p. 286. ISBN 0786421649.
- Don Miller, B Movies, Curtis Books, New York, 1973.
- Stuart Palmer (2013). Hildegarde Withers in The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders. Wildside Press LLC. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-4344-4637-4.
- Terrace, Vincent (1999). Radio Programs, 1924-1984: A Catalog of More Than 1800 Shows. McFarland & Company, Inc. p. 255. ISBN 978-0-7864-4513-4.
- Marston 2010, p. 121.
- Donnelley 2003, p. 390.
- "ZaSu Pitts". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved September 28, 2014.
- Christopher Smith (March 3, 2010). "ZaSu Pitts". Hollywood Star Walk. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
- "29-cent Zasu Pitts single". Arago—People, Postage & the Post: Silent Screen Stars. Smithsonian, National Postal Museum. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
- "Zasu Pitts". Kansapedia. Kansas Historical Society. April 2013. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
- "ZaSu PItts: The Life and Career (2010) – By James L. Neibaur". Rogue Cinema. Retrieved January 27, 2018.
- 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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