Pitts, ZaSu (1898–1963)
Pitts, ZaSu (1898–1963)
American actress. Born on January 3, 1898, in Parsons, Kansas; died of cancer on June 7, 1963; second daughter and one of four children of Rulandus Pitts and Nellie (Shea) Pitts; graduated from Santa Cruz (California) High School, 1914; married Thomas S. Gallery (a boxing promoter), on July 24, 1920 (divorced 1932); married John Edward Woodall (a tennis champion and real estate broker), on October 8, 1933; children: (first marriage) Ann Gallery; (adopted) Donald Gallery.
The Little Princess (1917); Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917); A Modern Musketeer (1917); A Society Sensation (1918); Better Times (1919); The Other Half (1919); Poor Relations (1919); Bright Skies (1920); Patsy (1921); Is Matrimony a Failure? (1922); For the Defense (1922); Poor Men's Wives (1923); Three Wise Fools (1923); Tea—With a Kick (1923); Daughters of Today (1924); Triumph (1924); The Goldfish (1924); Changing Husbands(1924); The Legend of Hollywood (1924); The Fast Set (1924); Greed (1924); The Great Divide (1925); A Woman's Faith (1925); Pretty Ladies (1925); Thunder Mountain (1925); Lazybones (1925); Wages for Wives (1925); Mannequin (1926); Monte Carlo (1926); Early to Wed (1926); Sunny Side Up (1926); Her Big Night (1926); Casey at the Bat (1927); Wife Savers (1928); Buck Privates (1928); The Wedding March (1928); Sins of the Fathers (1928); The Dummy (1929); Twin Beds (1929); Oh Yeah! (1929); Paris (1929); This Thing Called Love (1929); No No, Nanette (1930); Honey (1930); All Quiet on the Western Front (silent version, 1930); The Devil's Holiday (1930); Monte Carlo (1930); The Lottery Bride (1930); River's End (1930); Finn and Hattie (1931); Bad Sister (1931); Beyond Victory (1931); Seed (1931); The Guardsman (1931); The Unexpected Father (1932); Broken Lullaby (The Man I Killed, 1932); Strangers of the Evening (1932); Make Me a Star (1932); Back Street (1932); Blondie of the Follies (1932); Once in a Lifetime (1932); They Just Had to Get Married (1933); Out All Night (1933); Professional Sweetheart (1933); Her First Mate (1933); Meet the Baron (1933); Love Honor and Oh Baby! (1933); Mr. Skitch (1933); The Meanest Gal in Town (1934); Love Birds (1934); Sing and Like It (1934); Private Scandal
(1934); Dames (1934); Their Big Moment (1934); Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934); The Gay Bride (1934); Ruggles of Red Gap (1935); 13 Hours by Air (1936); The Plot Thickens (1936); Forty Naughty Girls (1937); 52nd Street (1937); Nurse Edith Cavell (1939); Eternally Yours (1939); It All Came True (1940); No No, Nanette (remake, 1940); Broadway Limited (1941); Miss Polly (1941); Meet the Mob (So's Your Aunt Emma, 1942); Tish (1942); Let's Face It (1943); The Perfect Marriage (1947); Life with Father (1947); Francis (1950); The Denver and the Rio Grande (1952); This Could Be the Night (1957); Teenage Millionaire (1961); The Thrill of It All (1963); It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).
Known as the "Girl with the Ginger Snap Name," ZaSu Pitts played leading and supporting roles in the silents and early talkies, making over 150 movies during a career that spanned close to 50 years. Highly acclaimed for her dramatic roles in the silent films Greed (1924) and The Wedding March (1928), Pitts was also noted for her scatterbrained comic character roles during the 1930s, notably in films she made with Thelma Todd and Slim Summerville.
Pitts, whose unusual first name was pronounced "zay-zoo" and devised in honor of two paternal aunts, Eliza and Susan, was raised in Santa Cruz, California, where her mother ran a boardinghouse after the death of her father in 1908. A mimic from an early age, Pitts went to Hollywood immediately from high school and began her film career as a supporting player in two films starring Mary Pickford , The Little Princess (1917) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917). Frances Marion , then scenarist for Pickford, had given Pitts her first break. In her early films, Pitts played a series of ugly ducklings, perfecting a woebegone persona that she said was patterned after one of her schoolteachers.
Pitts' most challenging acting roles came from director Erich von Stroheim, who cast her in Greed despite objections from the studio that she was "not sexy enough." The movie, adapted from the Frank Norris novel McTeague, was a highly realistic drama about avarice and human degradation. It was also long (42 reels finally cut to 10 before its release) and controversial, winning accolades from some critics and condemned by others as "a vile epic of the sewer." Paul Rotha in The Film Till Now (1931) wrote that Pitts' portrayal of the hoarding wife was one that "has never been equalled by any other American actress at any time." As well, Pitts turned in a powerful performance as the lame princess in The Wedding March (1928), another von Stroheim vehicle, this time exploring the seedy side of imperial Vienna. Pitts' last silent role was opposite the great tragedian Emil Jannings in The Sins of the Fathers (1928).
With the advent of talkies, Pitts' career required adjustment. At the suggestion of von Stroheim, Lewis Milestone cast her in the epic talkie All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but when her high, squeaky voice caused preview audiences to laugh, her scenes were reshot with Beryl Mercer in the role. Pitts apparently took it in stride, limiting herself from then on to comic characters for which her voice became an asset. During the 1930s, she made a series of 13 highly successful shorts with Thelma Todd and several features with Slim Summerville. She also played memorable characters in The Guardsman (1931), with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne , and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), in which she was a western maid who married an English butler, portrayed by Charles Laughton (said to be her favorite role). During the 1940s, her career began to slow, although during the '50s she was rediscovered on television, appearing in the series "Oh! Susanna," which later became "The Gale Storm Show."
Pitts was married twice; her first husband was boxing promoter Thomas Gallery with whom she had a daughter Ann in 1923. In 1926, when her close friend, actress Barbara La Marr , died, Pitts and Gallery adopted La Marr's son Donald Michael. (Pitts would retain custody of both children after her divorce in 1932.) In October 1933, she married former tennis champion John Edward Woodall, who went on to a career in real estate. Pitts came out of retirement in the 1960s to appear in Teenage Millionaire (1961), The Thrill of It All (1963), and her last film, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). She died in 1963.
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Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts