Long before there was Lucy & Ethel, Laverne & Shirley, or the 2 Broke Girls, there was Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. No, these aren’t made-up names. In the early 1930s, when legendary comedy producer Hal Roach decided to create a female version of Laurel & Hardy, he chose Thelma and Zasu for the assignment. And they were wonderful in the 17 short subjects they starred in together.
But let’s back up a bit and focus on Thelma especially. Why? She made more of a mark on film comedy than even many fans of the classic films may realize, as a great number of revered comedy stars benefitted greatly from their onscreen collaborations with her. She has the distinction of having played the comic foil for Ed Wynn, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and others, but not simply as a passive object of raised eyebrows, leering smiles, or snappy one-liners. She knew her stuff, and more than held her own playing opposite film’s comic geniuses. Her work deserves to be remembered and enjoyed, even more than eight decades after her untimely death in 1935.
Thelma was a ridiculously beautiful blonde who had been discovered by a talent scout after winning a Miss Massachusetts beauty pageant. Before long, she was playing various supporting roles in silent comedy shorts for Mack Sennett and others, before Roach signed her to begin her comedy career in earnest. In her most notable early films for Roach, she appeared with silent film star Charley Chase in his own series of sound comedies for the studio, beginning in 1929. The two were a team in all but official billing, and had terrific chemistry (which reportedly continued off-screen as well). Many of the plots were variations of Charley’s attempts to win over Thelma, with complications or misunderstandings getting in the way.
The most famous of these include The Pip From Pittsburgh and Looser Than Loose, which you can check out on YouTube if you so desire (and which I highly recommend).
Just as it seemed the two would be officially billed as equal co-stars, Roach decided he wanted to pair Thelma with another female to create a new team, starring in a separate series of two-reelers (think of them almost as sitcom episodes running about 20 minutes each, without the commercials).
Zasu Pitts (pronounced “Zay-su”) had made a name for herself primarily as a dramatic silent film actress, but her forays into comedy proved even more popular, with her sad eyes, put-upon demeanor and gently fluttering hands as she spoke. When teamed with the vivacious and energetic Thelma, she provided a perfect contrast as the more cautious and socially awkward of the two, usually getting pulled into Thelma’s plans without time to object.
Roach was so enthusiastic about the new team that he directed many of their shorts himself, until his other duties as studio chief prompted him to leave the directing to others. A few of the best in this series include Let’s Do Things, Pajama Party and On the Loose (which, like the Chase shorts, can be seen on YouTube.)
But Thelma was also busy with other appearances at the time. She foiled for silent star Harry Langdon in his first sound film, worked to great comic effect with Laurel & Hardy in their own first talkie, Unaccustomed As We Are, served as the object of desire for the Marx Brothers in both Monkey Business and Horsefeathers, and appeared in still more films with Laurel & Hardy throughout the early ’30s.
She also shared a number of memorable scenes with Buster Keaton in his 1932 sound film Speak Easily (when he was reluctantly partnered with Jimmy Durante).
When Zasu left Roach studios to pursue other projects–and quite an impressive career of her own in both comic and dramatic roles–Roach replaced her with Patsy Kelly, who provided a more brash, streetwise persona to mesh with Thelma’s onscreen character. The two continued the series with twenty-one more shorts together.
It was fortunate for Thelma that she was recognized for her comic skills, and not just for her beauty. In 1934, she opened Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café, a restaurant/night club on the Pacific Coast Highway, which became a popular night spot for Hollywood types, and those of a less savory variety. Thelma herself was known as a party girl, unfortunately attracted to men with violent personalities (it’s been written that her own father could be abusive, and her mother forced her into the beauty contest which brought Thelma an unexpected career change, from that of schoolteacher). Gangsters, such as Lucky Luciano, sought to acquire a piece of her popular restaurant, and wanted to keep Thelma herself as a trophy of sorts.
On December 16, 1935, Thelma was found dead in her garage, sitting in her car, from carbon monoxide poisoning. While it was ruled a suicide, there were several bruises and marks on her body that suggested that she had been assaulted shortly before. Those who mingled with her at her restaurant the previous evening didn’t notice anything unusual about her behavior, especially nothing resembling depression or distress. Several suspects have been considered for murder in the decades since, but the case has never been solved. Thelma was only 29 years old.
There’s no telling how far her career could have continued on its upward trajectory, possibly including starring roles in comedy features, a la Carole Lombard. Fortunately, we are still able to enjoy Thelma’s beauty, comic timing, and appealing energy in dozens of films, all with just a click. So, do yourself and favor and have some laughs, courtesy of the wonderful Thelma Todd.
Until next week…