Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Celebrity Grave: "Greed" Actress ZaSu Pitts 1963

ZaSu Pitts (January 3, 1894 – June 7, 1963) was an American film actress who starred in many silent dramas, although later, her career digressed to comedy sound films. She overcame her unglamorous looks and wallflower tendencies by using them to craft her stage and screen persona in scores of comedies.


Her unusual first name was coined from parts of the names "Eliza" and "Susan," female relatives who both wanted Pitts' mother to name the child after them. In many film credits and articles, her name was rendered as Zazu Pitts or Zasu Pitts. Though her name is commonly mispronounced */ˈzæzuː/, in her 1930s film shorts with Thelma Todd, Todd clearly pronounced it /ˈzeɪsuː/ ZAY-soo. However, her name was consistently pronounced /ˈzeɪzuː/ ZAY-zoo during her recurrent guest appearances on the Fibber McGee and Molly show in 1939.


Born in Parsons, Kansas, to Rulandus and Nellie (Shay) Pitts, ZaSu 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. In 1903, when she was nine years old, they 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 shy demeanor, she participated in school theatricals.

Pitts made her stage debut in 1915 and was discovered two years later for films by pioneer screenwriter Frances Marion. Pitts made her debut in the silent film, The Little Princess (1917), starring Mary Pickford. Pitts became a leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece, Greed (1924); based on this performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress." Von Stroheim also featured her in his films The Wedding March (1928), and Walking Down Broadway (1933), which was re-edited by Alfred L. Werker and released as Hello Sister.

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). In 1920 she met and married potential matinée idol, Tom Gallery, and paired up with him in several films, including, Bright Eyes (1921), Heart of Twenty (1920), Patsy (1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922). Their daughter, Ann, was born in 1922.



In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceur, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's epic classic, Greed (1924), a nine-hour-plus picture, edited to under two hours. The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor as well as laughs. The movie has gained respect over time, having failed initially at the box office due to its extensive cutting.

Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy shorts, teamed with Thelma Todd. She also 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 shorts and features, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville. Her brief stint in the Hildegarde Withers mystery series was not well received. By this time Pitts was established as a comedienne, and audiences didn't accept her as a brainy sleuth.

Trading between comedy shorts and features, Pitts earned praises in such heavy dramas as Sins of the Fathers (1928), The Wedding March (1928), also helmed by von Stroheim, and War Nurse (1930). By the advent of sound, which was an easy transition for her, she was fully secured in comedy. One bitter and huge disappointment was when she was replaced in the war classic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs. She decided, however, to make the most of the situation. She had viewers rolling in the aisles in such wonderful entertainment as The Dummy (1929), Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).


In the 1940s, she 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 who was 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. 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 TV. This culminated in her best known series role, playing second banana to cruiseline social director Gale Storm in The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susannah), as Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician.

Pitts' last role, shortly before her death, was as a voice actress (switchboard operator) in the Stanley Kramer comedy, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). A street in Las Vegas, Nevada is named after her.


Marriages

Tom Gallery (23 July 1920 – 2 May 1933) (divorced); two children: Ann Gallery (natural) and Don Gallery (born Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted and renamed after the 1926 drug-related death of his mother and Pitts' good friend, silent film actress Barbara La Marr.
John E. Woodall (8 October 1933 – 7 June 1963) (her death).


Death

Declining health dominated Pitts' later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. However, she continued to work until the very end - making brief appearances in The Thrill of It All (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner, and the all-star comedy epic, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). She died June 7, 1963 in Hollywood, California, leaving behind a gallery of scene-stealing worrywarts for all to enjoy. Pitts was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, in Culver City, California.



Miscellany
Pitts was an excellent cook and collector of candy recipes, which culminated in a cookbook titled Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts published posthumously in 1963.

Conservative both politically and financially, Pitts left her lucrative job with Thelma Todd over a money dispute with Hal Roach, and often complained about taxes.


Mae Questel caricatured Pitts's voice for the character Olive Oyl for the Fleischer Studios animated cartoon version of the comic strip Popeye.

Pitts has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.


In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her.

During the 1980s, a large R&B/Soul band based in San Francisco performed under the name "The ZaSu Pitts Memorial Orchestra."



Filmography

1917
Uneasy Money (short subject)
Tillie of the Nine Lives (short subject)
A Desert Dilemma (short subject)
His Fatal Beauty (short subject)
Canning the Cannibal King (short subject)
He Had 'em Buffaloed (short subject)
The Battling Bellboy (short subject)
O-My the Tent Mover (short subject)
Behind the Map (short subject)
Why They Left Home (short subject)
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (role unconfirmed)
'49-'17
The Little Princess
A Modern Musketeer (short subject)

1918
A Dog's Life (short subject) (scenes deleted)
Who's Your Wife?
Good Night, Paul (role unconfirmed)
How Could You Jean?
The Pie Eyed Piper (short subject)
A Society Sensation (short subject)
The Talk of the Town
The Greatest Thing in Life (scenes deleted)
A Lady's Name

1919
As the Sun Went Down (1919)
Sunnyside (short subject) (scenes deleted)
Men, Women, and Money
Better Times
Poor Relations
The Other Half

1920
Seeing It Through
Bright Skies
Heart of Twenty

1921
Patsy

1922
Is Matrimony a Failure?
For the Defense
Youth to Youth
A Daughter of Luxury

1923
Poor Men's Wives
Souls for Sale (Cameo)
The Girl Who Came Back
Mary of the Movies (Cameo)
Three Wise Fools
Hollywood (Cameo)
Tea: With a Kick!
West of the Water Tower

1924
Daughters of Today
The Goldfish
Triumph
Changing Husbands
Legend of Hollywood
Wine of Youth (scenes deleted)
The Fast Set
Secrets of the Night
Greed

1925
1925 Studio Tour (short subject)
The Great Divide
The Re-Creation of Brian Kent
Old Shoes
Pretty Ladies
A Woman's Faith
The Business of Love
Thunder Mountain
Lazybones
Wages for Wives
The Great Love

1926
Mannequin
What Happened to Jones
Monte Carlo
Early to Wed
Sunny Side Up
Risky Business
Her Big Night

1927
Casey at the Bat

1928
13 Washington Run
Wife Savers
Buck Privates
The Wedding March
Sins of the Fathers

1929
The Dummy
The Squall
Twin Beds
The Argyle Case
Her Private Life
Oh, Yeah!
Paris
The Locked Door
This Thing Called Love

1930
No, No, Nanette
Honey
All Quiet on the Western Front (appeared in silent version)
The Devil's Holiday
Little Accident
The Squealer
Monte Carlo
War Nurse
The Lottery Bride
River's End
Sin Takes a Holiday
Passion Flower
Free Love

1931
Screen Snapshots Series 10, No. 6 (1931) (short subject)
Finn and Hattie
The Bad Sister
Beyond Victory
Seed
Let's Do Things (short subject)
A Woman of Experience
Their Mad Moment
Catch as Catch Can (short subject)
The Big Gamble
Penrod and Sam
The Pajama Party (short subject)
The Guardsman
War Mamas (short subject)
The Secret Witness
On the Loose (short subject)

1932
The Unexpected Father
Broken Lullaby
Seal Skins (short subject)
Steady Company
Red Noses (short subject)
Shopworn
Destry Rides Again
Strictly Unreliable
The Trial of Vivienne Ware
Strangers of the Evening
Westward Passage
The Old Bull (short subject)
Is My Face Red?
Make Me a Star
Roar of the Dragon
The Vanishing Frontier
Show Business (short subject)
Blondie of the Follies
Back Street
Alum and Eve (short subject)
The Crooked Circle
Once in a Lifetime
The Soilers (short subject)
Madison Sq. Garden
Sneak Easily (short subject)

1933 They Just Had to Get Married
Asleep in the Feet (short subject)
Maids a la Mode (short subject)
Out All Night
The Bargain of the Century (short subject)
Hello, Sister
One Track Minds (short subject)
Professional Sweethearts
Her First Mate
Love, Honor and Oh Baby!
Aggie Appleby Maker of Men
Meet the Baron
Mr. Skitch

1934
The Meanest Gal in Town
Two Alone
Three on a Honeymoon
Sing and Like It
Love Birds
Private Scandal
Dames
Their Big Moment
Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch
The Gay Bride

1935
Ruggles of Red Gap
Spring Tonic
She Gets Her Man
Hot Tip
Going Highbrow
The Affair of Susan

1936 Thirteen Hours by Air
Mad Holiday
The Plot Thickens
Sing Me a Love Song

1937
Merry Comes to Town
Wanted
Forty Naughty Girls
52nd Street

1939 The Lady's from Kentucky
Naughty But Nice
Mickey the Kid
Nurse Edith Cavell
Eternally Yours

1940 It All Came True
No, No, Nanette

1941
Uncle Joe
Broadway Limited
Niagara Falls
Weekend for Three
Miss Polly
Mexican Spitfire's Baby

1942
Mexican Spitfire at Sea
The Bashful Bachelor
So's Your Aunt Emma
Tish

1943 Let's Face It

1946 Breakfast in Hollywood

1947 The Perfect Marriage
Life with Father

1950s Francis (1950)
Denver and Rio Grande (1952)
Francis Joins the WACs (1954)
This Could Be the Night (1957)

1960s The Teenage Millionaire (1961)
The Thrill of It All (1963)
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)



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