ZaSu Pitts (1894-1963) was an actor who starred in many silent dramas, although with the advent of sound films, her career consisted of mostly comedy. She overcame her unusual looks and peculiar voice, which had served her in silent films to play dramatic roles, using them to invent a new persona for the talkies.
I was more than a little amused by her name when I was a kid and was given to repeating it nonsensically. So here is the deal with the name: Because her mother’s two sisters, Eliza and Susan, both wanted her named after them. Her mother did not want to disappoint either of them, so she formed the name from the last two letters of Eliza and the first two letters of Susan and she became “Zasu”.
She worked for several studios, including Universal, MGM, and Famous Players-Lasky. Some of her favorites were The Little Princess (1917) and Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), both opposite Mary Pickford, whose husband Douglas Fairbanks cast her in A Modern Musketeer (1917).
Her most famous silent film role is Trina Sieppe, the greedy wife in the Erich von Stroheim silent masterpiece Greed (1924). Her performance was haunting and spellbinding. Von Stroheim called her:
“The greatest tragedienne of the screen.”
Pitts career peaked in the 1930s, especially in comedy shorts teamed with Thelma Todd. In the photo below they both have bobbed hair while in bed together in On The Loose (1931). Don’t ask.
She played the mother in the anti-war classic All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), but after audiences laughed at her during the preview, her scenes were reshot with Beryl Mercer. After that, she was mostly cast in comedic roles for the remainder of her film career. My favorites are Finn And Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), and Ruggles Of Red Gap (1935).
Director Alfred E. Green wrote: “She has been on more cutting-room floors than any other actress.” She was noted as a scene-stealer who often overshadowed the star in any film. Her scenes were sometimes cut to keep peace on the set. She was fired by D.W. Griffith from The Greatest Thing In Life (1918) because Lillian Gish was jealous, but Pitts told the press:
“Of course, I was flattered. But I was out of a job again.”
Pitts worked a lot. She liked working. She made at least 500 films, from 1917 to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963. That’s a half-century of non-stop employment in the fickle world of showbiz. She worked on stage, radio and television. I totally admire that.
Pitts left this world in 1963, taken by that damn cancer at 69 years old. You can currently find her at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, with a view of the MGM lot.
Pitts wrote a book of candy recipes: Candy Hits By Zasu Pitts (1963), published posthumously. It’s nice to make some extra money after death. I hope to do that with my cookbook: Stephen’s Meals Are The Pitts (2020).
Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoon is based on Pitt’s likeness and voice.
In Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941),the great W.C. Fields asks his niece, played by Gloria Jean: “Don’t you want to go to school? You wanna be dumb like ZaSu Pitts?” She replies: “She only acts like that in pictures. I like her!”