Trying to find a counterpart to his very successful comedy team Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, producer Hal Roach made several attempts to combine two female comedians. The first team with Anita Garvin & Marion Byron did only three films before both actresses separated. Nevertheless, their A PAIR OF TIGHTS is today seen as one of the greatest silent two reel comedies ever done. At the beginning of the 1930s the teaming of platinum blonde Thelma Todd with shy ZaSu Pitts and later with clumsy Patsy Kelly was a more fruitful idea, resulting in a series of sound shorts which ran successfully for five year until Todd's mysterious death in 1935. This series produced some great films of timeless fun that can easily compete with the best comedies of Laurel & Hardy. The 2-disc DVD set will present a selection of the best shorts in restored versions, most of them have never been released on DVD before.
Feed 'em and Weep - USA 1928 - Directed by: Fred L. Guiol - Cinematography by: George Stevens - Cast: Anita Garvin, Marion Byron, Max Davidson, Edgar Kennedy, Charles Hall, Frank Alexander - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: December 8, 1928
A Pair of Tights - USA 1929 - Directed by: Hal Yates - Cinematography by: George Stevens - Cast: Anita Garvin, Marion Byron, Edgar Kennedy, Stuart Erwin, Spec O'Donnell, Charles Hall, Edgar Dearing - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: February 2, 1929
The Pajama Party - USA 1931 - Directed by: Hal Roach - Cinematography by: Walter Lundin - Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, Elizabeth Forrester, Eddie Dunn, Donald Novis, Lucien Prival - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: Oktober 3, 1927
On the Loose - USA 1931 - Directed by: Hal Roach - Cinematography by: Len Powers - Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, John Loder, Claud Allister, Billy Gilbert, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: December 26, 1931
Show Business - USA 1932 - Directed by: Jules White - Cinematography by: George Meehan - Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, Anita Garvin, Monte Collins, Paulette Goddard, Charles Hall - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: August 20, 1932
Asleep in the Feet - USA 1933 - Directed by: Gus Meins - Cinematography by: Art Lloyd - Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, Anita Garvin, Billy Gilbert, Eddie Dunn, Kay Lavelle - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: January 21, 1933
The Bargain of the Century - USA 1933 - Directed by: Charley Chase - Cinematography by: Art Lloyd - Cast: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, Billy Gilbert, James Burtis, Harry Bernard, Fay Holderness - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: April 9, 1933
Beauty and the Bus - USA 1933 - Directed by: Gus Meins - Cinematography by: Hap Depew - Cast: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, Don Barclay, Eddie Baker, Tiny Sanfort, Charles Hall - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: June 19, 1933
Babes in the Goods - USA 1934 - Directed by: Gus Meins - Cinematography by: Kenneth Peach - Cast: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, Jack Barty, Arthur Houseman, Charles Hall, Fay Holderness - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: February 10, 1934.
Maid in Hollywood - USA 1934 - Directed by: Gus Meins - Cinematography by: Franci Corby - Cast: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, Constance Bergen, Don Barclay, Eddie Foy Jr., Billy Gilbert, Charles Hall - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: May 19, 1934
The Misses Stooge - USA 1935 - Directed by: James Parrott - Cinematography by: Walter Lundin - Cast: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, Herman Bing, Esther Howard, Rafael Storm, Henry Roquemore, Harry Bowen - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: April 20, 1935
Top Flat - USA 1935 - Directed by: William Terhune, Jack Jevne - Cinematography by: Art Lloyd - Cast: Thelma Todd, Patsy Kelly, Grace Goodall, Fuzzy Knight, Ferdinand Munier, Gary Owen - Produced by: Hal Roach Studios - Premiere: December 21, 1935
About the Thelma Todd comedies
By necessity, the primary business of the Hal Roach Studios lay in the production of film comedy, but the organization's secondary and supporting purpose, the creation of successful teams and ensembles, represents the most significant part of its historical legacy. Probably the most recognizable on-screen teams in the company's history are Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang, but very nearly from the beginning, Roach relied upon human interaction and the chemistry of individual talents in order to produce characters that audiences found believable, resulting in highly successful pictures. From wildly popular box office attractions made in the late teens by Harold Lloyd, Snub Pollard and Bebe Daniels, to second-tier, 1920s product featuring the likes of the 'Spat Family,' (Sidney D'Albrook and Laura Roessing) or 'Hunky-Dorey' (Earl Mohan and Billy Engle), the ensemble process at Roach resulted in consistently high quality short subjects that did not rely necessarily upon blue-ribbon star recognition.
By 1931 Roach had already attempted to team Anita Garvin and Marion Byron in three female situational comedies, but the teaming did not garner the expected appeal. In an effort to further exploit what he perceived to be a concept with a reasonable amount of box office potential, Roach set into motion the creation of a new female team intended to imitate the highly successful pairing of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. To that end, he engaged the talents of actress ZaSu Pitts and teamed her with Thelma Todd, who had been under contract to the studio for three years appearing in support of featured comedians such as Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy and Harry Langdon. One of the featured players in Eric Von Stroheim's 1924 feature Greed, ZaSu Pitts had worked in the film industry since 1917. By the early thirties, however, her comedic performances had completely overshadowed the substantial dramatic abilities she possessed and Pitts was reduced largely to B-list character roles. Thelma Todd had come to Roach in 1928 after having been dumped from starring features by First National Pictures subsequent to what she would later describe as an ugly 'casting couch' incident.
The Pajama Party is the third entry in the series and the second of three films to be personally directed by Hal Roach. In content and basic construction the film is pretty well representative of a typical Pitts-Todd adventure. ZaSu is the awkward, stumbling comic foil while Thelma counters as the mostly straight-playing eye candy. Together the Girls are meant to be taken as average, single young women negotiating the world of boyfriends, employment and life's simple tasks, all the while being subjected to a not-so-average parade of indignities, embarrassments and peculiar misfortunes most commonly of the slapstick variety. The film is a simple comedy of errors in which Thelma and ZaSu find themselves invited into the home of a wealthy society matron who has run their car off of the road and into a pond. Soaked to the gills, they are invited to stay the night where they crash the hostess' party in no small way. Pitts and Todd were supported by a talented cast, which included tenor Donald Novis, Elizabeth Forrester, Lucien Prival and Roach stalwarts Charlie Hall and Eddie Dunn. A memorable sequence comes at the beginning of the short when Novis and friends croon the song 'Thanks to You' as a part of a radio broadcast. Thelma Todd sits quietly by and observes. Her innate charm and genuine personality, however, add a bit of warmth to the scene. In many respects, it is the gentle force of moments spent out of character on the part of Thelma Todd that make the films far more engaging than they would otherwise be.
The fifth short in the Pitts-Todd series is On the Loose, which was also directed by Hal Roach. Most of the Pitts-Todd and Todd-Kelly shorts utilized plots that were so simple and character development so minimal that the films can be more readily assessed by directorial style. This entry is a pleasure in that respect, however, in that the whole of the action amounts to an incredibly well told joke replete with a punch line delivered by none other than Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It is a wonderful tribute to Roach's compositional talents and one of the best of the seventeen original films. Every turn of the action is stitched together neatly with the next using strands of recurring gags and catch phrases. In the film, Thelma, the far more world-wise and savvy of the two girls, guides ZaSu through yet another dreary date at New York's Coney Island. The outing has been arranged by an English swell who, after accidentally ruining their dresses and replacing them with pricey, custom designs, promises to take them someplace 'smart and original' to show off the new finery. At the end of the film, Messrs. Laurel and Hardy show up at the girls' door and offer their own invitation to the now hated pleasure park. After seeing the short, Robert Lynch, General Manager for MGM's Philadelphia office, would write to Roach: 'Dear Hal, I just looked at the Pitts-Todd comedy called On the Loose, and, I don't have to tell you that the gag of bringing Laurel-Hardy in on the tail end of that comedy just makes it a riot.' In many ways the note is a progress report on the reception of Roach's second attempt at female counterpart to his biggest team while ZaSu and Thelma may have been good, audiences preferred the original item.
Another departure from the average Pitts-Todd endeavor comes with Show Business, which is the tenth short in the series and debuted in theaters during August of 1932. The short was directed by Jules White in his only appearance at the Roach Studios and it is certainly a memorable effort and stands out as, probably, the most comedically violent entry in the series. The cast of supporting players is also somewhat unusual as it includes Monty Collins he of the sliding forehead - and Josephine the capuchin monkey. Anita Garvin turns in a bravura performance as a temperamental actress who is at constant odds with her surroundings much of which are influenced by the vaudeville act of Pitts and Todd and their trained monkey. As always, the plot is purely situational. The action centers around a conflict of personality between Anita, ZaSu and Thelma, a fair degree of it being channeled vicariously through the antics of Josephine the monkey the same animal that played opposite Buster Keaton (in The Cameraman, 1928) and Harold Lloyd (A Sailor-Made Mam, 1921), among others. The film is an exercise in the kind of clothes-tearing, knockdown, loud, screaming slapstick for which White could usually be counted upon. It is the kind of comedy that Thelma (by her own admission) was most comfortable with and she and ZaSu bear up to the bouncing they take with a fair degree of aplomb. Anita Garvin would later recall a bitter struggle with the monkey during a scene shot in her private compartment at the end of the Pullman car. She is fighting with the animal as it clings tightly to her back and is terrified by its unwanted presence or so we are asked to believe. In reality, Garvin was obliged to hold the monkey in place as it struggled to free itself from her grasp and urinated all over her night gown.
If Asleep in the Feet is not the best short in the Pitts-Todd series, it is certainly the most charming. It was directed by Gus Meins, who would later deliver eleven of the twenty-one Todd-Kelly efforts. The action centers around the simple notion of raising twenty dollars to help a fellow tenant make the rent by working for an evening as 'taxi dancers' at a local dance hall. Asleep in the Feet is brimming with heart, music and dance, yet succeeds comedically despite these distractions. In fact, it incorporates them so well that it provides, arguably, the best accommodation ever crafted for the individual qualities of both ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd. A wonderfully amusing scene results as an ultra-goofy ZaSu, spiffed up in cartoon-character lipstick and weirdly appointed eyelashes, struts around the dance floor, awkwardly regurgitating the anything-but-seductive words: 'boop-oop-a-doop.' Thelma barely has time to register her horrification as she dodges the persistent and unwanted attentions of Eddie Dunn the Department of the Navy's local representative by ducking in and out of the ladies' changing room. Meins gives both women an opportunity to shine and, at the same time, illustrates, rather nicely, the warmth and friendship between the two that existed off camera. ZaSu Pitts once said that she and Thelma needed only to make eye contact during a scene for the two to erupt in laughter, subsequently ruining take upon take. That connection between the two women is best summed up in the parting shot as Thelma embraces a tearful ZaSu and offers a reassuring laugh.
Entry number sixteen in the Pitts-Todd catalog is The Bargain of the Century, which was directed by Charley Chase. The influence of Charley Chase upon early screen comedy is pervasive and merits far more discussion than is possible here in these brief notes. Suffice it to say that his wealth of experience manifests itself in this case as a tightly wound and beautifully timed short. A song-and-dance man by trade, Chase usually conveyed comedy with a sense of rhythm. Though most notable in his silent work where whole scenes can be counted like music, there are some good examples to point to in this film. In an early scene, which takes place at a department store white sale, the dress shirt of Officer Butterworth, played by Otto Fries, is ripped out from under his jacket. Rather than simply tearing away in one, fell swoop, the shirt tugs away gradually in beats. In another instance, Fries, Thelma and series regular Billy Gilbert are sitting at a table eating ice-cream. For reasons too complicated and wordy to explain here, Thelma and Fries begin dumping spoonfuls of their own ice-cream into Gilbert's dish at rhythmic intervals. The intensity is built carefully and gradually to delightful effect at one point you can almost imagine the Anvil Chorus as an accompaniment to the action. The Bargain of the Century is full of such examples and in every instance they appear quite natural and not the least bit forced in their execution.
In mid-1933, ZaSu Pitts and Hal Roach failed to come to terms on a renewal of the comedienne's contract and, ultimately, Pitts decided to leave the fold. Roach felt that the series merited continuation and so the search for a new comedic foil was undertaken. That task resulted in the acquisition of Patsy Kelly. Kelly's smart-mouthed and tough (but nevertheless dumb) persona differed greatly from that of the plain-ditsy Pitts. That departure in tone is reflected in the construction of the films at a variety of levels. The working premise for the Todd-Kelly shorts centers around Thelma's natural ambition and Patsy's well intentioned, but disastrous, interference. In all, twenty-one shorts were made in this series between 1933 and 1935 and the plots ranged in concept from grand quests for fame and riches to simply getting a new car home in one piece. Predictably, the girls seldom meet with complete success. In each instance, Thelma's innate drive for achievement meets with that immovable force known as the Kelly spirit.
Further clouding their relationship is the knowledge of Patsy's real-life sexuality, which seems, at times, to influence the dialog and action. Though no suggestion of such a relationship between the two characters is ever overtly made (these kind of things were rarely discussed at the average American dinner table during the 1930s), there is an appreciable tension lurking below the surface. Clearly, there is more to Patsy's demeanor than the gruffness of your typical 'tough Irish dame from Brooklyn,' and her pet names for Thelma, most notably 'toots,' speak, at the very least, of an unrequited interest in her blonde friend. Thelma, for her part, seems largely oblivious to Miss Kelly's deeper affections, being usually preoccupied by the ever-increasing tide of general difficulty associated with Patsy's friendship. In the end, nothing ever comes of Patsy's interests real or imagined on our part.
Beauty and the Bus was the first short produced in the series. In this film, Thelma and Patsy win a brand-new Ford V-8 roadster at a movie theater raffle. The object of the plot is to get the car home in one piece. Needless to say, this does not happen. In fact, the mere presence of Patsy Kelly results in the wholesale destruction of an entire neighborhood of vehicles. As a first outing, the film is a remarkably good example of a typical Todd-Kelly comedy, which indicates three things about the series: 1.) the strength of the performers' personalities would carry the films; 2.) the dynamic between Todd and Kelly was a simple one requiring little development; 3.) the A-list writers were busy with Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang and Charley Chase. From the outset, the Todd and Kelly interrelationship is practically chiseled in stone. Even the technical staff employed for the first half of the series' run are fairly constant, with Gus Meins at the directorial helm for the first nine comedies. It seems likely that Roach wanted to provide a degree of constancy and foundation for the new team which had not necessarily been present during the production of the Pitts-Todd films. Wiped away with the departure of Pitts, however, was the sentiment in Todd's performance. No great bond of friendship would ever really manifest itself in the Todd-Kelly two-reelers as it had in the previous pairing. Nonetheless, Beauty and the BusS is a well-made comedy that makes good use of the Roach Studios' 'All-Star' cast members as supporting actors.
Babes in the Goods is a real treat for fans of the Hal Roach Studios' all-purpose inebriate, Arthur Housman. Story ideas meted out to Todd and Kelly were even less complicated than those prepared for Pitts-Todd and this short springs from a fine example of that condition. Fortunately, not much is needed by the ensemble of Todd, Kelly and Housman to put it over. Thelma and Patsy are window demonstrators at a department store who, through no fault of their own, oddly enough, are locked in the display window overnight. Arthur Housman plays a drunken spectator who turns up at rush hour and decides to make a night of it. In all, Housman, whose career in film began with Edison in 1912, would make three appearances opposite the team and in each instance his performance is both substantial and noteworthy. His reactions to the difficulties of Todd and Pitts in Babes in the Goods are priceless and represent the bulk of comedic material in the second reel of the short. Thelma and Patsy (who eventually wind up reduced to their underwear) are, quite literally, window dressing for Arthur's performance. When Thelma and Patsy are given funny things to do in this short, the gags seem terribly contrived and forced. Even though the soil may not have been a very fertile environment for sophisticated comedy and intricate gags, the short does make excellent use of character and even relies upon visual techniques standard in the making of silent comedy.
If sentiment ever found a place to live in a Todd-Kelly film, it must have taken up residence in Maid in Hollywood. The film industry is something that director Gus Meins must have cared deeply about, for everything to do with Maid in Hollywood is well thought out and well executed everything except the title, that is, because, apart from the reference to Hollywood, it makes exactly zero sense with respect to the plot. The film begins with a sobering perspective on Hollywood rejection. Thelma Todd has been unsuccessful in her attempts to make good in the movie industry and is facing a return home as a proven failure. From that tiny scrap of plot, Meins convinces us to invest some measure of hope in the film's potential. Moving forward through the action we love all there is to love, dislike all the right people and dread every moment when Patsy jeopardizes Thelma's last shot at success. Maid in Hollywood is a gem of the first order. In addition to a well-conceived and well-acted film, we are treated to a formidable dissertation on the art of effective sneezing by a certain Herr Wilhelm Gilbert. An outstanding supporting cast, which includes Don Barclay, Charley Rogers, Eddie Foy, Jr., Billy Bletcher and Constance Bergen, make this short one of the best in the entire series.
The Misses Stooge is one of those odd, mid-thirties Roach shorts that doesn't quite know just what it wants to be, meanders awkwardly through its plot commitments and then crashes before our eyes in a heap of exhausted ideas. The film is full of gags that seem to begin as elaborate devices, but, ultimately, take the action nowhere. It is a frustrating film in that no plot element is ever resolved in fact, it concludes in a frenetic, incoherent jumble. Director James Parrott, the younger brother of comedian Charley Chase, directed five of the Todd-Kelly titles in all. The Misses Stooge was his last directorial assignment at Roach. Glimpses of brilliance exist in this short, but that is all they are all too brief excursions into the surreal world of silent comedy physics. Parrott seems to have one foot planted firmly on those shores, but can't seem to bring the other down to solid footing in the realm of the real world in an effort to make it all work. None of the independent parts add up to a single sum and the result is an unbalanced, wandering film. On a brighter note, Parrott does extract some delightful interplay between Thelma and Patsy, and Herman Bing is a real hoot in the supporting role of Sazarac the Magician as he contends with both the Girls' wild antics and his own character's ineptitude as an illusionist.
Thelma Todd's favorite poem was something called "The Barrel Organ" by Albert Knopff. She memorized the lengthy composition and recited it during a high school class on girls' elocution. In Top Flat we are subjected to a few poems the Roach writers have ascribed to her character's pen. The verse is deliberately bad, but, if nothing else, it gives us an opportunity to hear Thelma recite poetry. It does not amuse Patsy, however, and this leads to another regular theme in the Todd-Kelly vehicles: the parting of the ways. Thelma, having taken umbrage at Patsy's criticism, storms out of the apartment the two share. At some undisclosed point in the future, she takes a job as a French maid at a penthouse on Fifth Avenue. Through a chance meeting with her old pal and a series of erroneous assumptions, Thelma leads Patsy to believe that she has sold her poetic work at a fabulous price. Patsy determines Thelma's address surreptitiously and shows up unannounced one evening with a pair of rowdies. A particularly memorable feature in this film occurs during a scene where the four principals are gathered around the piano and singer/comedian Fuzzy Knight performs an abridged version of his musical vaudeville act. The act is engaging enough, but watching Thelma Todd's reactions during this sequence results in yet another out-of-character boost to the scene. She seems to be getting a real kick out of his act just when she ought to be angriest with the roughnecks' antics. Patsy is at her manic best in this two-reeler and infuses just about every scene she enters with tension and energy. It may occur to the viewer that just as Thelma Todd seemed to be hitting her stride during the final months of the Pitts-Todd films, so does Patsy here in the last of the Todd-Kellys.
By the time Top Flat was being filmed, Todd was already planning for life after Roach as a restauranteur and businesswoman. She had determined to leave Roach upon the expiration of her contract. Another version of events suggests that Roach had decided not to renew her services. In either instance, it is unlikely the Todd-Kelly team would have survived. Her unexplained death, however, in December of 1935 secured her future as a sensational Hollywood tragedy a goldmine for the unscrupulous ghouls in the tragic blonde business. Roach would revive the notion of the female team again and in one such instance, interestingly enough, Patsy and ZaSu were engaged during the 1950s for a series of television programs that were intended in the same spirit as the Pitts-Todd and Todd-Kelly shorts this time featuring the trials and tribulations of a pair of middle-aged spinsters. Sadly, the Kelly-Pitts (or Pitts-Kelly) show did not materialize, though a handful of costume stills do exist.
DVD features (2-disc DVD)
- Feed 'em and Weep 1928, 16'
- New score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin)
- A Pair of Tights 1929, 19'
- New scores by Joachim Bärenz (piano) and Christian Roderburg (percussion)
- The Pajama Party 1931, 20'
- On the Loose 1931, 20'
- Show Business 1932, 19'
- Asleep in the Feet 1933, 18'
- Work in Progress: The Restoration of GOING GA-GA 5'
- ROM section with essays, documents and stills
- The Bargain of the Century 1933, 19'
- Beauty and the Bus 1933, 17'
- Babes in the Goods 1934, 19'
- Maid in Hollywood 1934, 19'
- The Misses Stooge 1935, 18'
- Top Flat 1935, 19'
- 20-page bilingual booklet with essays by Anke Sterneborg, Dave Stevenson and Cole Johnson
Edited by: Filmmuseum München
DVD authoring: Ralph Schermbach
DVD supervision: Stefan Drössler
First edition December 2010