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Hal Roach Studios (Spotlight)
Remind Me

Introduction to Thelma Todd-Zasu Pitts Shorts

As the head of an independent studio that nurtured the talents of Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy, and the Our Gang kids, Hal Roach was ever seeking new comedians to replace those stars who either moved to other companies or faltered at the box-office. Female comics had never really caught on with the public -- not to the degree that the Chaplins and Keatons of the world had -- yet Roach had not given up hope that he could find the right comediennes to score with the viewing public. At the same time, Roach, like other producers at the dawn of the talkies, wanted to exploit the new sound technology with dialogue-driven comedies.

Thus was born the short-lived screen team of Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd, who appeared together in seventeen vehicles between 1931 and '33.

All the Pitts/Todd films were two-reelers, with the exception of the series opener, Let's Do Things (1931), which was released at three reels in order to establish their new comic personas.

That was followed up with Catch as Catch Can (1931), in which the comediennes play switchboard operators at the swanky Empire Hotel. One of the guests is a homesick professional wrestler, "Strangler" Sullivan (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams), who is tearing his room apart as an expression of his tender melancholia. Sullivan's manager, Harry (Reed Howes), notices the chemistry between the burly grappler and the frail, homely Zasu, and encourages the girl to "vamp the ole wrestler along," at least until after the Strangler's big bout. This sets in motion some painfully awkward flirting on Zasu's part (her pathetic attempts at seduction were oft exploited in the two-reelers). Thelma coaxes the Strangler to purchase a large and expensive hat for Zasu, and Zasu agrees to wear the hat to the match as a sign of her devotion. When she does -- and a spectator seated behind her demands that she remove it -- Zasu engages in a grappling match of her own in order to buoy the Strangler's confidence in the ring and maintain possession of her stylish new headwear.

Asleep in the Feet (1933) stars Pitts and Todd as a pair of Depression-era working girls who seek extra employment to keep a neighbor from being evicted. Another, more streetwise, friend (Anita Garvin) suggests they join her as taxi girls at a dime-a-dance joint. Upon stepping onto the floor, Thelma is shanghaied by a pushy sailor (Eddie Dunn), while drooping wallflower Zasu has difficulty drumming up business. Told that she will earn more dance tickets by spicing up her act, Zasu makes the mistake of performing a clumsily suggestive hootchy-koo just as the hall is invaded by a clutch of moral crusaders. Pitts dominates the remainder of the film, with her face painted like a live-action Betty Boop (complete with "Boop-oop-a-doop"), engaging in some dynamic dance moves, inspiring a couple of randy swabs to give the prudish reformers an impromptu lesson and swing.

Released on April 8, 1933, The Bargain of the Century was the second-to-last Pitts/Todd pairing. To get out of a speeding ticket on their way to a department store sale, Thelma tells the policeman (James Burtis) that Zasu's father is a police chief. When the real chief claims otherwise, it costs Officer Butterworth his job. Feeling bad for the ousted officer, the girls take Butterworth into their apartment and try to find him employment. He shows his appreciation by rigging their apartment with a variety of crime-preventing booby traps, all of which backfire in the classic slapstick tradition. When the police captain (Billy Gilbert) visits the apartment, Zasu and Thelma see their chance to redeem Butterworth (and finally get him out of their apartment). Unfortunately, Butterworth decides to impress the captain with a magic trick involving a hammer, the captain's prized pocket watch, and a hand-cranked ice cream freezer.

A comic cornerstone of the Pitts/Todd films was frazzled funnyman Billy Gilbert, who was the perfect foil to such dizzy dames as Pitts and Todd. Gilbert was a familiar (though too often uncredited) presence in comedies throughout the 1930s and '40s. Perhaps his most famous role was as the anonymous voice of Sneezy in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Curiously, Pitts and Todd had appeared together, but not as a team, in Alexander Korda's drama Her Private Life (1929), starring Billie Dove. They are said to have been good friends before and after their team work at Roach.

It wasn't a lack of success that brought the Pitts/Todd pairing to an end. According to Richard Lewis Ward's A History of the Hal Roach Studios, their films grossed an average of $71,139.36, which was neck-and-neck with Charley Chase, and significantly out-performing the Our Gang films. In fact, their films were successful enough for each of their contracts to be extended -- and therein lay the problem. According to Andy Edmonds's biography Hot Toddy, "The two had similar contracts, but the agreements did not run concurrently. Thelma's contract expired six months after Pitts's. At first they thought it was an oversight. Later, they learned the truth. Roach pulled the same stunt with Laurel and Hardy. He believed that allowing the contracts to expire at the same time gave the stars too much leverage, allowing them to walk out as a team. Holding one star to ransom left only one free to go, and half a team was usually no good to anyone."

"Roach threatened to let Pitts go altogether rather than meet her salary demand of $3,000 a week. She also demanded a percentage of the Todd/Pitts films, something no star on the Roach lot, and very few elsewhere, had acquired. Roach offered a slight pay hike, a flat-out no to the demand to own a piece of the action (even Laurel and Hardy could not get that) and gave her a 'take it or leave it' offer. She left."

Roach salvaged the series by replacing frail and clumsy Pitts with the masculine, wisecracking Patsy Kelly. Though the chemistry was radically different, those films were also successful, and lasted until the untimely death of Todd on December 16, 1935.

Pitts was one of a handful of people who attended Todd's private funeral service at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. According to Edmonds, "During the service, Pitts whispered to a friend, 'Why, Thelma looks as if she was going to sit up and talk.'"

Prior to appearing opposite Todd, Pitts had proven herself adept at drama in several films for director Erich von Stroheim, including Greed (1924), The Wedding March (1928), and the underrated Hello, Sister! (1933). But it was as a comedian that the public wanted Pitts, who went on to appear in supporting comic roles in film and television into the 1960s, making her final appearance in Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).

Director: Marshall Neilan
Producer: Hal Roach
Screenplay: H.M. Walker
Cinematography: Art Lloyd
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: Zasu Pitts (Zasu), Thelma Todd (Thelma), Guinn "Big Boy" Williams ("Strangler" Sullivan), Reed Howes (Harry), Billy Gilbert (Ring Announcer).

Director: Gus Meins
Producer: Hal Roach
Cinematography: Art Lloyd
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: Zasu Pitts (Zasu), Thelma Todd (Thelma), Billy Gilbert (Mr. Gilbert), Anita Garvin (Dance Hall Girl), Kay Lavelle (Landlady), Eddie Dunn (Sailor), Nelson McDowell (Undercover Policeman), Nora Cecil (Reformer), Julia Griffith (Reformer).

Director: Charley Chase
Producer: Hal Roach
Cinematography: Art Lloyd
Music: Leroy Shield
Cast: Zasu Pitts (Zasu), Thelma Todd (Thelma), James Burtis (Officer Butterworth), Billy Gilbert (Captain Schmaltz).

by Bret Wood


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