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Behind the Camera: The Shorts Circuit
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Remind Me

George Marshall Shorts

Strictly Unreliable (1932)
The Old Bull (1932)
Alum and Eve (1932)
The Soilers (1932)

George Marshall, the director of such memorable genre-bending comedies as Destry Rides Again (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), spent his early career helming a variety of short subjects at a number of studios. He began at Universal in 1916, turning out numerous western shorts, some starring Harry Carey. Marshall made both shorts and the occasional feature at Fox in the 1920s, and directed a series of Bobby Jones golf shorts at Vitaphone-Warner Bros. in the early sound years. By 1932 Marshall had landed at Hal Roach Studios. In the early 1930s at Roach, Marshall was in the midst of directing comedies with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (the feature Pack Up Your Troubles [1932], as well as shorts like Their First Mistake and Towed in a Hole, also in 1932), when he found himself in charge of four shorts featuring the female comedy team of ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd. Pitts and Todd had first been paired by Roach in a three-reeler called Let's Do Things (1931); they made 16 more two-reelers in two years. In 1933 Pitts left the series to concentrate on feature work, and Patsy Kelly was recruited for another 21 shorts with Todd. Thelma Todd died (under mysterious circumstances) at the age of 30 in 1935.

The first Pitts-Todd short directed by Marshall, Strictly Unreliable (1932), does not particularly play out like a team effort, coming off as more of a solo ZaSu Pitts comedy. Thelma Todd gives fine support, but so do Roach regulars Billy Gilbert and Charlie Hall. ZaSu is a housekeeper in a boarding house for show people; as such, she is always on the outside looking in. As the short opens, she is literally doing that as she watches a dancer/contortionist practice through the keyhole! ZaSu attempts the contortionist moves herself in the hall, threatening to tie herself in knots. Thelma is getting kicked out of her room by the landlady, leading to various hijinks as the landlady's out-of-work actor brother (Bud Jamison) moves into her room. The highlight of the short, though, occurs when ZaSu stumbles onto a stage show and thinks the proceedings are real. A villain (Billy Gilbert) is engaged in a drawing-room drama and pulls a gun. ZaSu is certain that she has been shot, but merely ends up in a variety of other vaudeville acts, including on the top chair belonging to a group of acrobats! ZaSu's style of underplayed reaction ("If someone don't get me down pretty soon, I'll get mad") is truly put to the test in this sequence.

Producer: Hal Roach
Director: George Marshall
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: Zasu Pitts (Pitts), Charlotte Nemo (Mrs. Hawkins), Bud Jamison (Bud), Billy Gilbert (The Actor), Symona Boniface (The Actress), Thelma Todd.
BW-19m.

In The Soilers, the girls are "working their way through college" by selling magazines door-to-door. Their sales pitch is only falling on the deaf ears of suburban housewives, so they decide to go to the City Hall building downtown and pitch to the men behind executive office doors. They have no trouble attracting customers, as Thelma adjusts her stockings in front of the smoked-glass doors. The girls also attract the attention of Detective Bud Jamison, who is protecting the Judge from threats he has been receiving. This short falls on some tired slapstick clichés involving banana peels and revolving doors, but has an occasional gem. At one point six people, a workman's ladder, and a revolving door are tangled in a variety of ways. As often happens in these shorts, Thelma's dress is accidentally hiked up to show some leg ("Well, Thelma – your skirt was almost up to your neck").

Producer: Hal Roach
Director: George Marshall
Film Editing: Richard C. Currier
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: Bud Jamison, James C. Morton, Charlie Hall, ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd.
BW-20m.

The Old Bull opens with the girls taking a drive in the country. Experienced driver Thelma lets ZaSu scoot over (with great difficulty) to the wheel and take over. Against rear-screen projection, the car goes out of control and into a farmyard; pigs, chickens, bees and cattle have to duck before the girls plow into a barn. As in most of the George Marshall-directed shorts, the girls end up untangling themselves from more objects – wires, clothes, coyote traps, milk buckets, etc. The major conflict is apparently an escaped circus lion and the farmhands' attempts to keep out of the lion's way while they hold onto the girl's car (to pay for the damage they have done to the barn). The funny conflict, though, is between the girls and a persistent, biting duck that follows them around throughout both reels.

Producer: Hal Roach
Director: George Marshall
Film Editing: Richard Currier
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, Otto Fries, Bobby Burns.
BW-20m.

Alum and Eve finds the girls pulled over by a cop (James C. Morton) for speeding. He somehow comes to the conclusion that ZaSu is pregnant and gives them an escort to Peaceful Valley Hospital. The hospital orderlies have quite a time getting ZaSu on a gurney, in a scene featuring some very Olive Oyl-like under-the-breath mutterings from Pitts. More complications ensue in getting ZaSu out of the gurney – Thelma, the cop, a nurse and two orderlies are tangled up in it before they are done. The rest of the short is spent with scenes of the girls trying to escape the hospital; they must contend with a parade of newborns, doctors with enormous hypodermic needles, dogs under observation for rabies, and a vial of pucker-inducing Powdered Alum. The nurses come to expect that ZaSu might be going mad – "You can't miss it – always shows in the mouth first." To disrobe the lovely Miss Todd in this outing, the filmmakers have her lose her skirt on a convenient nail while sliding out a window!

Producer: Hal Roach
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: H.M. Walker
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, James C. Morton, Almeda Fowler, Bobby Burns, Otto Fries.
BW-18m.

In his 1970 book, Movie Comedy Teams, Leonard Maltin notes that the publicity department at Hal Roach Studios emphasized the notion that Todd and Pitts were "the Laurel and Hardy of comediennes." Maltin writes that "Director Marshall took the publicity literally and decided to give ZaSu and Thelma a Laurel and Hardy look by having them do physical, knockabout comedy. His films with the girls...consist mainly of ZaSu getting stuck in something or other, and Thelma trying to bail her out. This type of humor really doesn't suit Pitts and Todd, and simply isn't funny. With Laurel and Hardy in the same situations, it might be hilarious, but when ZaSu gets stuck in a hospital cart in Alum and Eve, and Thelma, a cop, and two male orderlies become intertwined, the impact is nil. When [director] Gus Meins took over the series in 1933, he found a better formula for the girls – situation comedy with slapstick undertones."

By 1933 Marshall had left Roach and was directing a few comedy shorts for Mack Sennett and Paramount Pictures, as well as more golf one-reelers for Warner Bros. He began his feature career in earnest after arriving at Fox in 1934, directing such films as the romance Wild Gold and the musical 365 Nights in Hollywood (both 1934). He began to hit his comedic stride in features with the Will Rogers pictures Life Begins at Forty and In Old Kentucky (both 1935).

by John M. Miller

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