Todd and Pitts

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I’ve heard it my whole life, from people I know and those I don’t. It’s a short phrase, one that ignites a fire in me every time I hear it: Women aren’t funny. 

Every once in a while, a movie will come out that “proves” the hilarity of women. Bridesmaids, Mean Girls, Girls Trip, and Booksmart all made it to the top of the list in terms of groundbreaking female-led comedies. These movies did not only showcase women in comedic roles, they were written by women as well (although Girls Trip was co-written by a man). 

But, women have been making audiences laugh for a long time, even if it doesn’t seem that way. In the silent film era, female comedians like Mabel Normand wrote and directed comedic films and starred alongside Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops. Some of the comedic women from this era made a successful transition to talkies, such as the innovative and hilarious duo Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd. 

Today we are going to discuss how this duo came to be, the lives of the individual women, and their lasting impact.  

https://www.amazon.com/Roach-Comedy-Shorts-Thelma-Pitts/dp/1476672555

History

  • Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd were the first major female comedy team, with shorts produced by Hal Roach Studios.
    • Hal Roach Studios was a Television and Motion Picture studio
      • It was the greatest comedy studio of the 1930s, though people tended to look down on comedy shorts as not real cinema.
      • Patsy Kelly, who worked for Hal Roach, said that he was the best boss she had ever had.
    • It was known for teaming up Laurel and Hardy, as well as the group of children that would become known as The Little Rascals. 
    • Ever since Hal Roach struck gold with Laurel and Hardy, he wanted to create a female counterpart. He had had success with female comedians in the past, and it seemed like a no-brainer that audiences would embrace two funny leading ladies.
      • The issue with the male-led comedies was that women weren’t finding their slapstick antics very funny. In the 1930s, the majority of women felt that  their job was to keep order in households and in daily lives.
      • Film critic Leonard Maltin pointed out, “Comediennes cannot use the same material as comedians and get the same results.” Whether or not you agree with this sentiment, it seems to be a prevailing belief in the film industry, especially since the time of Pitts and Todd.
    • Pitts and Todd weren’t the first women that Roach teamed up, but they were the first ones that got the attention of the masses. 
    • Together they made 17 two-reel comedies before Pitts left the studio and was replaced by Patsy Kelly.

Before we talk about the shorts themselves, let’s take a look at their lives

  • Zasu Pitts
    • Zazu Pitts’ name was Eliza Susan Pitts. Her nickname came from the last syllable of her first name and the first syllable of her middle name. I’ve heard it many different ways, but she insisted that it was pronounced (Say-Soo) and that is how Thelma pronounces it in the shorts.
    • Zasu was a shy child, but she was encouraged to join the theatre to overcome her shyness. She learned quickly that her nervous facial expressions and mannerisms would be great for comedy!
    • At age 21, she went to Hollywood and made a name for herself in comedy and drama. Her forlorn expression was especially helpful in dramatic productions, though her drama career did not last. 
      • Some, even Zasu herself, thought that her shy demeanor and “unglamorous” looks were negative qualities. Zasu took those parts of herself and used them to advance her career in comedy.
    • By the mid 1920’s, Zasu was a well-established  actress. In 1924, she appeared in 10 films alone. One of them was “Greed” an epic drama. The director of that film believed she was the greatest dramatic actress at the time and claimed it was a tragedy every time she was cast in a comedy. 
    • But, when movies made the transition to sound, Pitts couldn’t seem to continue as a dramatic actress. She was even replaced in “All Quiet on the Western Front” when she unintentionally made the audience laugh.
    • Pitts leaned in to comedy, and made the best of a bad situation. She appeared in shorts and comedic features until 1931 when she got paired with the bombshell comedian Thelma Todd.
  • Thelma Todd
    • After the death of her brother when she was just four-years-old, Thelma Alice Todd wanted to be one of the boys to replace the son her parents lost. She was naturally funny and wanted to become a teacher, but after she won Miss Massachusetts in 1925, she was discovered by a talent scout and invited to study acting at The Paramount School in New York.
    • After appearing in an Ed Wynn comedy in 1927, she made her first Hollywood film. 
    • Her career was jeopardized when she was propositioned at a Hollywood party, and fired from a movie because she said no. (#metoo?) 
    • Just as silent films became talkies, the freelancing Todd found her way to Hal Roach Studio where she was cast in the first Laurel and Hardy talkie “Unaccustomed As We Are.” 
    • Over the next few years, Todd found success alongside other comedians like Charley Chase and Harry Langdon until Zasu Pitts found her way to Hal Roach in 1931.
  • Pitts & Todd
    • Hal Roach believed that Thelma’s brash, confident demeanor would play well off the shy Zasu. When the actresses met, they immediately became friends and filming was easy-going on the sets. By the time these women worked together, Pitts was a screen veteran and Todd an established comedian. Both knew what their skills were, both knew their characters as well as themselves. 
    • Thelma played the wise girl, often finding a way to get them out of trouble. Zasu was the less intelligent, innocent woman who often got them into trouble. 
    • Both women wanted the freedom to be in other projects, and Hal Roach granted that for them.
    • In an era of The Three Stooges and Marx Brothers, these two women broke new ground in comedy. Audiences saw these women in a new way. Remember when we said that women of the 1930s didn’t appreciate slapstick? Well, these two presented physical comedy in service of the female narrative. Although the shorts were still written by men, it was really the female leads that made them successful. 
    • The storylines may seem dated today, but by and large they are still relatable. Thelma and Zasu are two “modern” women just trying to survive in the big city. They have jobs, troubles with men, and almost never troubles with each other. They support each other, and they aren’t overly sexual or ditzy. These are women that could be living today. 
    • So, let’s talk about three of our favorite shorts from these two: Let’s Do Things (1931) On The Loose (1931) and Bargain of the Century (1933)
      • Let’s Do Things
        • Directed by Hal Roach himself, this was their first short.
        • This is a great example of how the women were there for each other. Thelma urges Zasu to find out what her boyfriend intends for her. She ultimately stands up for Zasu after being treated horribly by men.
      • On the Loose
        • Also directed by Hal Roach, this short had a cameo appearance from Laurel and Hardy!
        • This is an example of the women as a team, collectively agreeing that they are both tired of Coney Island. This short has great lines that poke fun at the attention that Todd gets over Pitts for her looks. The women both fulfill the wise woman role, getting the best of the men that take them to Coney Island. They are in this together, Pitts didn’t get them into trouble this time. 
      • Bargain of the Century 
        • Directed by Charley Chase, in this short the girls get a cop fired and spend the rest of the short trying to get him re-hired so he will stop living with them. 

After 17 shorts together, Zasu left Hal Roach studio. She was soon replaced with Patsy Kelly who in her own right was very funny alongside Thelma Todd. They continued to make shorts until 1935. 

Thelma Todd’s Death

  • In 1935, Thelma Todd was incredibly successful as an actress. She had a cafe, and was still starring in shorts alongside Patsy Kelly. 
  • She had recently been divorced from Pat DiCicco, a movie producer and alleged mobster connected to Lucky Luciano. 
    • Luciano was a notorious 1930’s mobster. 
  • On December 16th, 1935, she was found dead by her employee Mae Whitehead. She was only 29 years old. 
  • “Because Miss Todd within the past few months had been the recipient of several extortion notes threatening her with death unless she paid $10,000, and because no apparent reason existed for her taking her own life, investigating officers desperately sought an answer to the mystery of her death. Coagulated blood marred the screen comedienne’s features and stained her mauve and silver evening gown and her expensive mink coat when she was found. Her blonde locks pathetically awry, in the front seat of her automobile in the garage of Roland West, film producer and director, in front of West’s residence at 17531 Pasetano Road, less than 500 yards from Miss Todd’s cafe on the Roosevelt Highway.”
  • Suspects
    • Pat DiCicco
    • Roland West
    • Stalker
    • West’s estranged wife 
  • Over her career she appeared in 120 features until her death.

 

Today we have Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and Broad City’s Abby and Ilanna. Before that, there was Laverne and Shirley, and of course Lucy and Ethel. But, none of that might have been possible without Pitts and Todd. 

Zasu Pitts

 

Watch their shorts here: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GLUliI0e8k&list=PLIrWJQzxB8BseeC3FeutO5nG4HdME7HWX

 

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/11/thelma-todd-zasu-pitts-female-comedy-team-old-hollywood

 

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