In the classic 1941 W.C. Fields feature NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, Fields admonishes young co-star Gloria Jean for not wanting to attend school by stating, "You wanna grow up and be dumb like ZaSu Pitts?" Gloria quickly responds, "She only acts like that in her pictures. I like her."
In the late 1960s through about the mid-1970s, Fields became an icon for young people, and films like NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK were shown constantly on TV and at revival houses on college campuses. His mention of ZaSu Pitts would get a laugh due to her amusing name (which Fields mis-pronounced, but we didn’t realize it).
Author Charles Stumpf has given us Fields fans information about this fine comedy actress whose work dates back to silent films and lasted well into the television era in his biography ZASU PITTS: THE LIFE AND CAREER for McFarland and Company publishers.
This writer is most familiar with Ms. PItts for her teaming with Thelma Todd in a series of comedy short films at the old Hal Roach studios during the early 1930s. ZaSu and Thelma (who pronounced her co-star’s name correctly) were often called a female Laurel and Hardy (albeit both were slim), and their comical give-and-take were an interesting portent to the Lucille Ball-Vivien Vance type skits that would hit television in the 50s and 60s. Pitts also lent her comic presence to such films as RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935), and even played opposite Fields himself in MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH (1934).
Usually cast as the ditzy counterpart to Thelma’s more solid approach, or the prissy spinster type, Ms. Pitts actually began her screen career doing heavy drama in such films as Erich Von Stroheim’s GREED (1924) and THE WEDDING MARCH (1928). During the silent era, Ms Pitts played opposite actors like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Buck Jones; and was directed by the likes of King Vidor, Allen Dwan, and D.W. Griffith.
Stumpf’s book covers all of this material, right up to Pitts’ later cameos in films like Norman Jewison’s THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963) and Stanley Kramer’s IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (1963), released the year of her death; as well as starring opposite Gale Storm on the TV series OH SUSANNAH (1956-1960).
How Ms. Pitts went from solid dramatic work in films to making something of a name for herself in ditzy comic roles is covered very clearly in Stumpf’s study, which combines interesting biographical information with thoughtful assessments of her screen work. Pitts learned a great deal from her myriad of experiences working in movies of different genres, with different leading actors, and various directors. Debuting in 1917, she was a notable presence by the earliest talkies.
The fact that W.C. Fields felt that name-dropping in a 1941 feature would get laughs of recognition shows how Ms. Pitts was a formidable and established comic character actress with a discernible role in entertainment at the time.
Little has been known about ZaSu Pitts own life. She had a son and a daughter, for instance. They lived next door to Shirley Temple who often played with the Pitts children and remained friends with them into adulthood. There was some level of controversy in ZaSu’s life, including the still unsolved murder of Thelma Todd and some tabloid fodder. But Pitts was also listed among the highest paid film performers in an article from the early 1930s.
For those of us who delight in the unforgettable performances of Hollywood supporting players during cinema’s golden age, Charles Stumpfs book on one of the most likeable comedy actresses from that era is a most welcome addition to any library.
Sadly, Mr. Stumpf passed away in 2009 at the age of 80.
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