Zasu Pitts, Funny Lady with a Funny Name

 

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First things first. Before I can gush on about this distinctively funny lady with the fluttering hands that stole every scene, one must learn how to say her name correctly. Oh sure, many of my ‘old movie weirdo’ friends may know, but it’s a common mistake. To honor her properly, let’s begin with this lesson, provided via Thelma Todd and ZaSu herself:

YouTube: ZaSu Pitts: Learn My Name!

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Now that we all know how say “Say-zoo,” a name which is a combo of her aunts Eliza and Susan, let’s explore the memorable ways this distinctive lady who began life not too far from me in Parsons, Kansas, became one of the most recognized faces in Hollywood.

Her most notable characters were the woeful worrywarts. Physically, her appearance was defined by delicate, thin lines and a frequent focus on her ever- waving, fidgeting fingers. Her tiny mouth was shaped like a kewpie doll with the corners often turned down. Her large, soft eyes were doe-like and she usually looked upward. Her voice had a distinctive mumbling of melancholic concern, often with an “oh dear…” muttering to herself. She gained the reputation of stealing every scene.

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ZaSu’s signature characterizations were such a fan favorite she was parodied in cartoons, a reflection that she was immersed in pop culture. If you’ve seen Olive Oyl from Max Fleischer’s Popeye the Sailor cartoons, you are already familiar with the signature ZaSu Pitts tone and voice. She was also featured in Looney Tunes, in Hollywood-ribbing toons like “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood.”

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Pitts often faced the challenge of looking too similar to Lillian Gish. Here, with Mary Pickford, THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1917).

Born Eliza Susan Pitts on January 3rd, 1894 (her 124th birthday is next month), the family moved to Santa Cruz, California seeking sunnier opportunities. Despite her shy demeanor and bird-like qualities, Pitts was a natural performing on stage and moved to LA by age twenty-one. Working a small part with icon Mary Pickford, A LITTLE PRINCESS (1917) was her first break on the big screen.

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Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece GREED 

Soon, she was starring in one-reelers and feature films, working with greats like directors King Vidor and Eric Von Stroheim (i.e. the silent masterpiece, GREED)- in a range of parts from tragedy to comedy to drama. Her popularity increased in the 1930s, with a demand for her in character roles in comedies. She was partnered in series with Thelma Todd (Hal Roach promoted the two as a female Laurel and Hardy) and with Slim Summerville.

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mastering comedy with Thelma Todd

The 1940s brought her success to radio, vaudeville and Broadway, working with the biggest names in entertainment. She transitioned easily to television in the 1950s, in popular roles like cruise ship beautician Elvira Nugent on “The Gale Storm Show.” But this decade also introduced ill health, with a cancer diagnosis. As a fitting tribute to her own career, her last role would be in the epic ensemble of comic legends, in IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963). Even with health battles, she continued working until her death at the age of sixty-nine on June 7, 1963.

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Pitts’ last role in IT’s A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD

ZaSu Pitts was a true wallflower success story. She proved that a shy girl from Kansas, with more matronly than cover-girl looks, could be a huge star as a character actress. She worked from the silents to the sixties, in every entertainment medium (film, radio, vaudeville, television and on Broadway), from dramatic roles to comedy, and she worked with some of the biggest stars and filmmakers in Hollywood’s heydays.

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The more ZaSu films I watch, the more I am thoroughly charmed by her. And to see her range from tragic epic dramatic roles like GREED to super silly shorts with Thelma Todd, I am also in awe of her talent. What a character!

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This article on character acting legend ZaSu Pitts is my contribution to the 6th annual WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and yours truly. You can read the other entries on character actors from this blogathon from days one, two and three:

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Comments

  1. She sure was an amazing talent. I first knew her as Gale Storm’s friend in The Gale Storm Show. I love these pros who work right up to the end, Thanks for co-hosting a great annual event.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank YOU, Marsha! She was such a fun talent, wasn’t she? Wish they had more interesting character actors today like ZaSu, as they did back then. They often really made the film.

      Like

  2. Zay-soo is definitely one of my faves, we were just watching DAMES the other night, and she is the backbone of that film. “Oh, Cousin Ezra”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think too, the silent/early sound era allowed for more variety of looks. Not to sound like Norma Desmond, but the faces were more distinctive. Few actresses (or actors) looked alike back then

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true. I love those distinctive looks and signature styles of mannerisms. Such interesting faces. How boring to have everyone go for the same look as we often see today. Blah! ZaSu was one of a kind.

      Like

  4. Loved your description of the screen work of Zasu Pitts.

    Last year at the University of Toronto they screened a found “lost” film from 1924 called Secrets of the Night. It’s a wacky comedy mystery and – guess what! – Zasu Pitts owns the show! No surprise to fans. That is exactly what she did her entire career.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Her on-screen instincts seemed to be on the money, every time. She was marvelous in those whacky comedy mysteries and I’d love to see more- including the “Secrets Of The Night.” I love to hear of “lost” films being discovered, then enjoyed on the big screen. Thanks, Paddy!

      Like

  5. Great post. Zasu was a very underrated actress as Greed demonstrates. She could and should have been bigger, but at least she was never out of work.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Le Magalhaes says:

    ZaSu is so lovely! I always smile when I see her sweet face. I must now watch more of her films with Thelma Todd – I was sold at “the female Laurel and Hardy”.
    Thanks for the kind comment! Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks

  1. […] Co-host Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled provides a pronunciation refresher while honoring the oeuvre of Zasu Pitts. […]

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