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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getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon

In April of this year the world lost Mickey Rooney, an entertainer whose career spanned an unbelievable nine decades.  Born in Brooklyn New York on September 23, 1920, Rooney was on the Vaudeville stage almost before he could talk and appeared in his first movie at the age of six.  From there the movies became his life.  With sidesteps into radio and television Mickey Rooney maintained an enviable relationship with audiences for nearly the entire span of his life.

“The audience and I are friends.  They allowed me to grow up with them.  I’ve let them down several times.  They’ve let me down several times.  But we’re all family.”

Mickey Rooney would have celebrated his 94th birthday this September and in tribute getTV is dedicating a substantial portion of the month’s programming to him.  Aurora of Once Upon a Screen (@CitizenScreen), Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club (@Paula_Guthat) and I, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled (@IrishJayHawk66) are thrilled to join forces with getTV for their first ever blogathon collaboration to celebrate Rooney’s career with The getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon running the entire month of September.

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In case you’re not familiar, here’s all About getTV…

getTV is a digital subchannel available over the air and on local cable systems dedicated to showcasing Hollywood’s legendary movies. The network, operated by Sony Pictures Television Networks, launched in February 2014.  It features Academy Award® winning films and other epic classics titles. getTV distribution is close to covering nearly 70 percent of all U.S. television households across 65 markets, including 40 of the top 50 designated market areas (DMAs). The network is broadcast by Sinclair Broadcast Group, Univision Television Group and Cox Media Group owned stations and others. For information, visit getTV and connect with the network on Facebook and Twitter @getTV.

getTV’s programming in September will include a Labor Day Marathon dedicated to Mickey Rooney as well as themed double features every Thursday at 7 PM EST, as follows:

Thursday, September 4 – Nautical Musicals

Richard Quine’s SOUND OFF1952: 7:00 PM ET; 10:40 PM ET

Richard Quine’s ALL ASHORE, 1953: 8:50 PM ET; 12:30 AM ET

Thursday, September 11 – Crime Tales

Peter Godfrey’s HE’S A COCKEYED WONDER, 1950: 7:00 PM ET; 10:40 PM ET

Richard Quine’s DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD, 1954:  8:45 PM ET; 12:25 AM ET

Thursday, September 18 – Military Comedy

Don Taylor’s EVERYTHING’S DUCKY, 1961:  7:00 PM ET; 11:10 PM ET

Richard Quine’s OPERATION MAD BALL, 1957: 8:50 PM ET; 1:00 AM ET

Thursday, September 25 – Young and Older Mickey

Roy William Neill’s BLIND DATE, 1934:  7:00 PM ET; 12:20 AM ET

Carl Reiner’s THE COMIC, 1969: 8:35 PM ET; 12:20 AM ET

You can access the entire getTV schedule here and check to see if getTV is available in your area here.

The getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon

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If you’d like to submit a blog post (or several) dedicated to Mickey Rooney – on his life, career, television work or a particular film – you can do so by submitting the entry to any one of the event hosts throughout the month of September. 

Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and Twitter @IrishJayHawk66

Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Twitter @CitizenScreen

Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Twitter @Paula_Guthat

We ask only that you please do the following:

  • Leave us a comment or send us a Tweet with your preferred Rooney topic
  • Let us know when you post your entry so we can promote it
  • Please copy @getTV on all tweets related to this event
  • Include the blogathon banner provided by getTV in your post as well as the following statement:

“This post is part of The getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a ScreenOutspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club taking place throughout the month of September.  Please visit the getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month and any of the host sites for a complete list of entries.”

  • Have fun!

Thank you!

Participants

OPERATION MAD BALL – Once Upon a Screen

THE BLACK STALLION – Outspoken & Freckled

NATIONAL VELVET – Minoo for Classic Movie Hub

PULP – Paula’s Cinema Club

ALL ASHORE – Vintage Cameo

Rooney at Disney: PETE’S DRAGON (1977) & THE FOX AND THE HOUND (1981) – The Great Katharine Hepburn Blog

HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI –  Blog of the Darned

“Andy Hardy” vs. 1950’s PICTURES – Critica Retro

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