Guest Author - Amber Grey
When famous comedic duos and trios are mentioned, who first comes to mind? The Three Stooges. The Marx Brothers. Laurel and Hardy. Ma & Pa Kettle. Isn’t it curious that no one seems to remember or mention the teaming of comediennes Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts?
Both women knew how to craft comedy well before they were joined by “Laurel and Hardy” producer Hal Roach. By the time Thelma Todd was twenty years old, she had been recognizable by audiences from the silent film era as being an actress who could “sit there and look pretty.” Because of her glamorous good looks, Thelma became known as “Hot Toddy.” But with the advent of the “talkies,” Thelma proved to be not just a pretty face when her appearances in a few “Laurel and Hardy” skits were scene-stealing. She was also able to hold her own up against the heavyweight trio “The Marx Brothers” in not one but two of their films, “Monkey Business” (1931) and “Horse Feathers” (1932). Meanwhile, ZaSu Pitts had a background which included Vaudeville and being critically acclaimed for her dramatic work in Erich Von Stoheim’s “Greed” (1924) as well as her comedic work in “The Dummy” (1929) and “Blondie at the Follies” (1932).
It was producer Hal Roach who had a number of comedic successes credited to him, his biggest success being “Laurel and Hardy.” For his next project, he had envisioned a female version of his famous duo and had complete confidence that it would be just as successful. When he teamed up Pitts and Todd, he said, “I think you two can pull it off.” And they did. The basic plot line for their shorts were about two girls having fun, getting into trouble (mostly because of Pitts) and always finding an hilarious way out of it all. The duo exerted in incredible comedic timing and physical comedy with Pitts being in the spotlight for most of the physical jokes. For instance, in one of Pitts/Todd shorts titled “Red Noses,” the girls visit a Swedish spa to get rid of their colds and hilarity ensues when they try out the odd contraptions. In one scene, Pitts dangerously tosses herself around on a mechanical horse while her hands and feet are tangled in the reins and footholds. Meanwhile, Todd sits off to the side and hysterically laughs at her friend. And throughout most of their shorts, there was always something important being thrown out the window like their stew in “Asleep In The Feet” (1933). The team was so successful that Todd was able to buy her own café on Pacific Palisades called The Thelma Todd Palisades Café.
After making seventeen classic shorts, the team split up in 1933 when Pitts decided to pursue her career elsewhere. Pitts was replaced with Patsy Kelly and became the new female comedy duo. The teaming of Todds and Kelly turned into a different kind of chemistry and character. Whereas Pitts got them into trouble with her nervous clumsy behavior, as her replacement, Kelly did it with her sharp-tongue and brash attitude. They made twenty-one successful shorts together before the sudden and mysterious death of Todd. Her old partner Pitts had attended the funeral. Afterwards, Pitts continued her career with such famous films as “Life With Father” (1947). Her last film being a telephone operator in “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) which featured other classic comedians and actors including Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman and Sid Caesar.
The Pitts and Todd duo must be ranked with the other great comedic duos because there was a world of change going on in Hollywood and in the country. The female players of the movie studios had to grasp with their new roles in the “talkies” as the Great Depression reared its ugly head and shifted many actresses’ characters to just wanting to find rich husbands. The Pitts and Todd series showed female independence in a zany, fun way. Sure, the scripts were not the best, which often left the 30-minute shorts with open-ended finales, but Pitts and Todd did their best to show up the material and always did.