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Thelma Todd-Patsy Kelly Shorts
Remind Me

Introduction to Thelma Todd-Patsy Kelly Shorts

From l933 to 1935, beautiful Thelma Todd and wisecracking Patsy Kelly teamed for a series of 21 comedy shorts for Hal Roach. Their characters always shared their names, but there the resemblance ended. Usually they were working girls falling on hard times, forced to come up with quick schemes just to survive. In Top Flat (1935), for example, Kelly sees her friend, aspiring poetess Todd, leaving a posh New York City apartment house and thinks she's struck it rich. Todd lets her go on thinking that, even inviting Kelly and her boyfriend to visit her penthouse suite -- until they discover she's just the maid. Their relationship was usually as good-natured equals who might bicker but were always there for each other. But occasionally the films seemed to mimic the dynamics of Roach's Laurel and Hardy shorts. In Backs to Nature (1933), a camping trip gave Kelly the opportunity to drop wise-cracks, but for once she was also the butt of a series of physical gags, as she tripped her way through the sylvan setting as Todd fumed. Todd even got to play with her hat, like Hardy.

Roach actually was hoping to create a female Laurel and Hardy when he teamed them. Todd's first female co-star in his shorts had been Zasu Pitts, who more easily fell into bumbling Laurel-like roles. Kelly was brought on board when Pitts left the Roach Studios in 1933.

Beauty pageants were the door to screen stardom for Todd, who represented Massachusetts in the 1925 Miss America contest. That led to Hollywood, where she eventually signed with comedy producer Roach. They were a perfect match, for though Todd was one of the more versatile young actresses working in Hollywood during the early sound years, she had a special gift for comedy. Roach used her as leading lady opposite such great clowns as Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase and Harry Langdon. When Groucho Marx wanted a sexier straight woman than Margaret Dumont, Roach loaned Todd to Paramount, where she scored as his love interest in Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). She also shone in dramatic roles, playing Iva Archer, the cheating wife in the first screen version of The Maltese Falcon (1931). Todd was an astute businesswoman whose Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café was one of Hollywood's top watering spots. Its success may have been her undoing. When she was found dead in her garage in 1935, the police hastily ruled it a suicide. Her closest friends' incredulity and rumors, some borne out by Hollywood history, suggested that she had refused to cooperate with gangsters who wanted to use her club as a front. Her death is now considered a well-disguised mob hit.

Kelly was one of the many stage performers who came to Hollywood with the coming of sound. A comedienne on Broadway, she rarely strayed from her typecasting as the heroine's wisecracking best friend. Even when she was the film's nominal leading lady, as in Pigskin Parade (1936), she seemed to be looking for a bigger star in need of caustic advice on her love life. Kelly started with Roach, who loaned her to other studios for supporting roles in features. She was a particularly good fit with Warner Brothers, who was always in need of another brash, wisecracking comedienne for their fast-paced comedies and musicals about the plight of the working woman.

With Todd's death, Roach tried to keep the series going, pairing Kelly with Pert Kelton for one short and then Lyda Roberti for two shorts and a feature. When Roberti died, he dropped his efforts to create a female Laurel and Hardy. A few years later, Kelly and Pitts appeared together in Broadway Limited (1941). They only had one comic scene together, but their attempts to share a Pullman bed with a baby and a leaky hot water bottle echoed the actress' earlier films with Todd.

Kelly's off-screen drinking and public proclamations that she was a lesbian led to the end of her career during Hollywood's golden age. By 1943, she could only get films at PRC, the most poverty-stricken of all Poverty Row studios. Her friend Tallulah Bankhead came to the rescue, hiring her as a personal assistant cum housekeeper (some, including Kelly, said they were lovers). That kept her solvent until she was rediscovered by television. From the '50s on, she was a frequent guest on everything from The Love Boat to The Wild, Wild West. She also returned to the movies, often playing crusty housekeepers, and turned up as one of the crankier coven members in Rosemary's Baby (1968); she later won a Tony for her role as the wise-cracking maid in the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette. She died of cancer in 1981

. by Frank Miller



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