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ZaSu Pitts

by Susan King 


Several silent film actors including Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Vilma Banky and Karl Dane had a difficult time making the transition to the talkies because their voices were thin and reedy, or they had strong accents. Then there was ZaSu Pitts. 


Erich von Stroheim, who first directed her in his 1924 epic “Greed,” once described Pitts as ‘the screen’s greatest tragedienne.” And she certainly was in the controversial drama that initially was nine hours only to be cut down to two for its release. Ironically, she would later say the studio didn’t think she was “sexy enough” for the role.


She may have had a character actress face, but she had the chops.

 

Pitts is astonishing as Trina, the wife of a burly, temperamental, hard-drinking dentist named McTeague (Gibson Gowland). Neurotic and fearful, she turns into an insane miser when she wins $5,000 in a lottery. Instead of using the money after Mac loses his job, Trina hoards it away as the couple sink further and further into poverty, madness and violence. At one point, Trina has to have fingers amputated after Mac infects them after he bites them in a rage over finances. 


The New York Times raved: “ZaSu Pitts portrays the role of Trina, into which she throws herself with vehemence. She is natural as the woman counting her golden hoard and makes the character live when she robs her husband of trifling amounts.”


Von Stroheim cast her in his 1928 film “The Wedding March.” Her final silent was 1928’s “The Sins of the Father,” starring Emil Jannings. Like so many in Hollywood, she was fearful that sound was to be the death knell of her career.  


The Parsons, Kansas native — there is discrepancy as to what year she was born — became one of the busiest comic actresses in the talkies but was no longer considered for dramatic roles because of her voice. 


The New York Times’ 1963 Pitts obit described her as having “a drooping mouth, fluttering hands and a whimpering drawl. From the beginning of talking motion pictures, the first syllable she uttered on the screen was a signal for audience laughter…. More than any of her other characteristics, the voice established her identity and turned her into one of the screen’s most celebrated comediennes.”


She got a chance to do a drama in 1930’s Oscar-winning “All Quiet on the Western Front,” as Lew Ayres’ mother. But in previews audiences began to laugh when they heard her fluttery voice. So, she was replaced. 


Not that she had much time to think about losing the role. Pitts made 21 films alone during her first two years in the talkies. Hal Roach teamed Pitts with blonde bombshell Thelma Todd in a series of 17 pre-Code comedy shorts shot between 1931-1933. The duo excelled at snappy patter and slapstick. One of the best is 1931’s “On the Loose,” which finds the girls’ dates taking them to Coney Island; Laurel and Hardy even make a cameo. 


A 2018 Vanity Fair piece noted that Pitts and Todd were “the first major female comedy team, appearing in shorts that found them bonded as friends and career women struggling to make it on their own…. ‘They have gumption; they’re unflappable,”’ explained [film critic and author] Molly Haskell.  ‘“They’re looking out for each other; you could just feel the value of the twosome. . .. They are modern women. Hopefully, they will rise to the top—but in the meantime, they’re just going to wing it and figure things out.”’


Two years later after the end of the team, Pitts was riding high in Leo McCarey’s inspired comedy “Ruggles of Red Gap,” which was nominated for a best film Oscar. Pitts absolutely shines as Mrs. Judson, a widowed cook who falls in love with Marmaduke Ruggles (Charles Laughton), a British gentleman’s gentleman won in a card game by a nouveau riche American couple who is taken back to their home in Red Gap, Washington. The two end up opening a restaurant in the cow town. Laughton is wonderfully looney and sweet as Ruggles and Pitts matches him every step of the way 


Laughton originally wanted Ruth Gordon for the role; thank goodness he didn’t get his way. According to TCM.com “whether Paramount turned him down (Gordon had only been in one film as an extra in the 1915 silent ‘The Whirl of Life’) or she was unavailable (she was appearing on Broadway as the film was shooting) is not clear. But Pitts, an established eccentric comedienne known for her fluttery gestures and bewildered line readings, was an inspired choice.”


She continued acting in films, most notable as Cousin Cora in 1947’s “Life with Father.” Pitts also excelled on such radio shows as “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “Life with Luigi” and the “Lux Radio Theatre” version of ‘Ruggles” with Laughton. And she also tackled Broadway in 1944 in “Ramshackle Inn” and in the 1953 short-lived version of “The Bat.”


In the mid-1950s a cancer diagnosis didn’t slow her down. 


Pitts also found success on the small screen playing second banana to Gale Storm on the 1956-60 sitcom “The Gale Storm Show” as a shipboard beautician. She also appeared on “Perry Mason” and “Burke’s Law,” which aired posthumously in 1963. 


Her final two films were 1963’s “A Thrill of It All” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World,” both were released posthumously. 


Besides acting, Pitts also wrote a book of candy recipes called “Candy Hits,” which was published after her death in 1963. And in 1994, Pitts got a well-deserved tribute to her work as a silent actress. She was honored along with other silent stars, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow, with a postage stamp. 

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