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 the passive object of raised eyebrows, leering smiles, and snappy one-liners. Thelma 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 won the Miss Massachusetts beauty pageant while awaiting acceptance to Paramout Studios’ school for aspiring actors. Before long, she was playing various supporting roles in silent comedy shorts until producer Hal Roach signed her to begin her comedy career in earnest. In her most notable early films for Roach, she appeared 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, given their onscreen chemistry. Many of the movie plots were variations of Charley’s attempt to win over Thelma, with inevitable complications or misunderstandings getting in the way.
The most famous of these shorts include The Pip From Pittsburgh and Looser Than Loose (both of 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 his new, female incarnation of Laurel & Hardy, to star in a separate series of two-reelers .
Zasu Pitts (pronounced “Zay-su”) had made a name for herself primarily as a dramatic silent film actress, but her occasional 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, or landing them in any number of uncomfortable situations.
Roach was so enthusiastic about the new team that he directed many of their shorts himself, until his other duties as studio chief necessitated 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.
Thanks to Roach’s generous contract, Thelma was also busy working on other films at the time. She foiled for silent star Harry Langdon in his first sound film appearance, 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 (in which he was reluctantly partnered with Jimmy Durante).
When Zasu left Roach studios in a contract dispute (but continued an impressive career of her own in both comic and dramatic roles) Roach replaced her with Patsy Kelly, who provided a brash,
streetwise, New York-style persona to mesh with Thelma’s onscreen character. The two continued the series by filming twenty-one more shorts together, most of which offer great comic energy, with some surpassing the Thelma-ZaSu shorts.
It was fortunate that Thelma was, at the time, recognized for her comic skills, and not just for her beauty. In 1934, she became hostess of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café, a restaurant/night club on the Pacific Coast Highway, which became a popular night spot for Hollywood types, as well as those of a less savory variety. Thelma was not the owner (her ex-lover, Roland West, was), but she was happy to greet guests and keep the fun going among the patrons. Unfortunately, the site also attracted a number of gangsters who sought to acquire a piece of the establishment, in order to turn into a gambling den. Thelma was adamantly against the idea.
On December 16, 1935, Thelma was found dead in her garage, sitting in her car, from carbon monoxide poisoning. While the coroner ruled it an accidental death, most observers question the many incongruous details connected with the scene. It had the appearance of suicide, but 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 murder suspects have been considered in the decades since, but the case has never been satisfactorily 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 comedy (and dramatic) films.
The Thelma-ZaSu shorts, and the Thelma-Patsy shorts, are available as DVD box sets, as are her shorts in the Charley Chase series. So, do yourself and favor and have some laughs, courtesy of the wonderful Thelma Todd and cohorts.
Thanks to my friend Michelle Morgan, who lives across the pond, and who wrote the wonderful and much-needed Thelma biography Ice Cream Blonde, which helped me keep my facts straight for this blog entry.
Until next week…