In 1916, at the long-forgotten L-Ko silent movie studio in Hollywood, a director sized-up a mousy-looking would-be actress and asked, “What do you come around here for, looking half dead all the time?”
“Half dead” turned out to be what propelled ZaSu Pitts to a six-decade career as one of the early movie era’s most popular sidekicks. Pitts became famous in the 1930s and 1940s for her deadpan deliveries and daffy, distracted manner.
Born in Kansas, her family relocated to Santa Cruz when she was 7. Her unusual name — pronounced “zay-sue” — was an amalgam of letters in the names of two aunts, Eliza and Susan. According to an interview in 1919 in the Los Angeles Times, she came to Southern California with the intention of becoming a detective, but when she found out she’d have to “trap lady shoplifters and such small fry” she decided to be an actress instead.
Small roles in silent movie shorts gradually increased and her first lead came as a money-mad wife in director Erich Von Stroheim’s 1924 epic, “Greed,” which he submitted in a nine-hour cut. Cost overruns by the unyielding Stroheim led to him being virtually blackballed as a director and the film was eventually released at two hours length. Pitts’ early career was cemented by the movie and she moved back and forth easily between dramatic and comedic roles.
Sound in the movies tilted Pitts’ reputation as a comedian; by 1930 she was so firmly entrenched in the public mind as synonymous with lighter fare that at an early preview for the Oscar-winning “All Quiet on the Western Front” her appearance in the drama caused audiences to laugh and she was cut from the film.
For the next 20 years she was usually cast in comedies as a supporting lead, invariably playing boarding house spinsters, unmarried aunts, wide-eyed wallflowers. Her vocal take on these roles was to speak in a sad, flat monotone, channeling the droning accent of her Kansas birthplace. She accompanied the voice with doe-eyed expressions of resignation and fluttery sighs at the unfulfilling dreariness of life.
What made the whole package work, though, was screenwriters giving her characters a scene or two to reveal the raging passions beneath the dowdy exterior.
A sample of these conflicting qualities at their peak potency comes in the 1940 Warner Bros. comedy “It All Came True” where a man-shy Pitts recognizes Humphrey Bogart as a gangster on the lam and threatens to reveal him unless he becomes her boyfriend — “you’re so cruel, so masterful,” she drones at Bogart. Bogart reacts with a menacing combination of rage and fear, seemingly less terrified at being exposed than at the thought of being enslaved for life as Pitts’ romantic consort.
With this persona firmly in place for the rest of her career, Pitts’ popularity was widespread. Her influences popped up in unlikely places — for the role of Olive Oyl in the animated cartoon version of “Popeye,” the actress doing the voice-over caricatured Pitts’ quavery voice.
Her film roles diminished in the 1950s and she turned to sporadic television work. Pitts’ final movie came in the 1963 star-laden comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” a cameo as Gertie, a confused, distracted switchboard operator.
— Christopher Smith for the Los Angeles Times March 3, 2010