Friday, September 3, 2010

Kelly the Second

I mentioned in passing in yesterday’s post on the Thelma Todd-ZaSu Pitts comedies that I preferred those shorts over the ones the magnificent Thelma made with Patsy Kelly—but that’s not to infer that I don’t enjoy the Todd-Kelly efforts…I most certainly do. I reasoned that this might be because Monday’s showcase of these two-reelers in their Summer Under the Stars tribute contained many of the best entries starring Thel and Zase—but upon reflection, I think it might also have to do with the fact that I thought their chemistry was a lot stronger. Pitts’ characterization of the fluttery, scatterbrained but well-meaning naïf seemed to work better with the vivacious and street-smart Todd…and there are a number of moments in the shorts (Asleep in the Feet being a prime example) when their camaraderie is positively enchanting.

Patsy Kelly and Thelma worked well together, too—but I don’t think you had the same give-and-take as you did with Todd and Pitts. They mesh well together, but it’s obvious that though they were in solidarity either one of them could strike out on their own without missing a beat...whereas with Thelma and ZaSu it's almost like they completed one another, much in the manner of Laurel & Hardy. Patsy’s personality of the wisecracking tough cookie who hid a heart of pure gold (she’s the type of gal I’d like to have my back in a barroom brawl) could sometimes come across as a bit abrasive, and I think the individuals responsible for creating/writing these shorts had to be wary about making her a little too obnoxious (though there are a multitude of detractors at the IMDb who disagree).

Todd and Kelly’s first team effort, Beauty and the Bus (1933), was shown on TCM in July and I reviewed it here; it’s one of my favorites of their two-reelers and certainly a marvelous introduction to two very funny women. TCM chose to open their SUIS portion of Todd-Kelly shorts with Soup and Fish (1934), a short that I had previously seen on the channel back in June of last year. Thel and Pats work in a beauty salon, and one of the patrons, a Mrs. Dukesbery (Gladys Gale)—who thinks she’s talking to two of her friends, but they’ve beat a hasty retreat because they find the lady terminally boring—mistakenly invites them to a swanky to-do at her place that evening. Naturally, Madame Dukesbery has to be gotten out of the way for this short to work and to allow Thelma and Patsy can wreak havoc; she conveniently tends to her pet pooch (who’s supposedly at Death’s door) while the gals frolic and gambol at her affair. Finally, the Dukesbery butler…

…played by that great character veteran, Don Barclay—he even does the “Thank you gigantically” line in this one—calls Mrs. D to let her know that Thel and Pats are behaving like “wildcats”…and when she arrives, she learns that the two women are actually responsible for her guests having a great time.

Patsy’s character in Soup has a propensity for practical jokes, which sort of pushes her dangerously close to that obnoxious edge I mentioned earlier (I think she gets bigger laughs from a subtle running gag in which she keeps stepping on the train from Thelma’s gown)—it’s a bit overkill, and not really necessary because most of the big laughs come from the culture clash between her rough-around-the-edges persona and the sophisticates in attendance. When the guests sit down to dinner there’s no place for Patsy—so she grabs a chair from a corner of the room and scoots up to the table while grabbing some glasses and silverware from the guy next to her, remarking: “Hey, you got enough for both of us.” The guest of honor, a noble named Count Gustav (the indispensable Billy Gilbert), turns to Thelma on his right and observes: “She makes comical.” “Oh, yes—always clowning,” is Todd’s response, as she forces a smile.

Following Soup was One Horse Farmers (1934), a not particularly remarkable short that finds the girls snookered into buying “Heaven on Earth”—a piece of farm property known as Paradise Acres—from a fast-talking conman (James C. Morton) on the subway. “Paradise” turns out to be the world’s largest sand trap, and though there are some funny moments with the girls preparing to bed down for the night in their new environs (Patsy battles a Murphy bed, and the two women end up traveling back and forth across the floor via bathtub when a windstorm outside jostles the house’s foundation loose) it’s pretty much a standard affair.

…I love the look on Thelma’s face here—she’s apparently just graduated from the Oliver Hardy University of Camera Stares. Opened by Mistake (1934), the third Todd-Kelly SUIS outing, starts out strong—Thelma’s a hospital nurse who is dragooned into letting Patsy spend the night inside the place when she’s tossed out of her apartment—but the finish is sort of weak; there’s a prolonged sequence where Patsy and the head nurse (Nora Cecil) fight and cavort in slow motion after being exposed to ether…and why filmmakers thought this was funny back then is a mystery for the ages. This screen cap makes a dandy still, though.

Sing, Sister, Sing (1935) is a short that’s enjoyable if a little off-the-beaten-path: Thelma asks Patsy to be her roommate, and though you’d expect that Patsy would wear out her welcome with her rough-hewn personality—it’s Thelma who drives Patsy to distraction. Todd composes a list of “rules” for the hotel apartment, and one of them is that the two girls must never have an disagreement—but instead of counting to ten they’re to blow off steam by singing a snatch of song. Thelma then tells Patsy to try it out, but Patsy protests, arguing “I’m not mad!” Thelma continues to prod until Patsy is forced to warble: “I wake up with a song/A pretty melody…” (The constant repetition of this just gets funnier as it goes along.) Another choice routine finds Patsy trying on a series of hats—when told she has a lot of them, Thelma replies: “They certainly do accumulate”—looking for one that suits her. When she locates the perfect chapeau, she shows it off to Thelma…who informs her that the hotel may not be too thrilled about her selection, since her gal pal is modeling a lampshade.

But the wildest bit in Sister is Thelma’s little nocturnal jaunt around the side of the building—she’s a sleepwalker, and Patsy attempts to keep her pal from tumbling off the ledge and doing herself serious harm. Detractors will probably pooh-pooh this sort of thing because they clearly resort to trickery and rear projection but I’m a sucker for that kind of "daredevil" comedy and I don't necessarily consider it Harold Lloyd's domain and his alone—as Columbia comedy shorts director Edward Bernds once observed: “We never went wrong with a high-and-dizzy.”

The last two shorts shown on the Thelma Todd tribute are two of the best in the Todd-Kelly catalog; Hot Money (1935) finds the girl at the mercy of a killer (Louis Natheaux) loose in their apartment building who’s just filled the guy (Brooks Benedict) who entrusted Thel and Pats with $100,000 full of holes—and cops James Burke and Fred Kelsey are of little help, of course. Top Flat (1935) is the funniest of the Thelma-Patsy shorts that I’ve seen so far, and gets particularly high marks from Leonard Maltin in his book Selected Short Subjects: From Spanky to the Three Stooges (also known as The Great Movie Shorts). Thelma, an aspiring poetess, has a falling-out with roommate/chum Patsy—and swears that Pats will rue the day because the next time she sees her she’ll be wearing a fur coat and riding in a limo, living in a swanky penthouse apartment on Park Avenue.

The next time Patsy does run into Thelma, this prophecy has come to pass—or has it? Thelma’s really just putting on airs; she’s actually running an errand for her employers (she works as a French maid named “Marie”) but Patsy naturally thinks Thel finally managed to hit it big with her poetry. That evening, with her employers out on the town, Thelma gets a surprise visit from Patsy and a pair of cut-ups (one played by Fairmont, WV native Fuzzy Knight, the other by Garry Owen) who proceed to mine comedy gold with their loud, boorish behavior—the fellows start dropping bags of water onto unsuspecting passersby from the penthouse patio, and Patsy falls in love with the apartment’s luxurious bathtub…

Thelma tries to maintain the pretense that it’s her lodgings (when Patsy asks her why she’s speaking French on the telephone Thel replies matter-of-factly: “It’s a French phone") but finally has to come clean…and of course, the norms of comedy dictate that it’s at the same time Mr. and Mrs. Lamont (Ferdinand Munier, Grace Goodall) decide to call it an evening and return home. Thelma has her hands full trying to keep the Lamonts from discovering the gate crashers…and when Patsy’s clothes accidentally disappear down the laundry chute, things get a bit more complicated. Top Flat is a fast-moving pip of a comedy; it would be the last Todd-Kelly short in circulation before Thelma’s mysterious death in 1935 (although it was the girls’ penultimate two-reeler; All-American Toothache would be the final comedy, released in January of 1936); a tragedy that robbed the film world of a unique and special talent.

I’ve been fortunate to have seen a few additional Todd-Kelly shorts pop up on TCM from time to time, Three Chumps Ahead (1934), The Misses Stooge (1935) and particularly Maid in Hollywood (1934)—in which Patsy wreaks havoc on a soundstage that’s filming a screen test of Thelma. Many, many years ago before the dawn of DVDs I had a handful of Hal Roach shorts on some VHS tapes I owned (that’s where I first saw Hollywood) and one of them was a cute little comedy entitled Air Fright (1933), which features the girls as “airplane hostesses” assigned to a special flight in which an inventor (Barclay again) is demonstrating an ejector seat. Several of the counterfeit cinema sages at the IMDb have a tendency to woefully underrate these charming two-reelers but they’ve found a most welcome home here at Rancho Yesteryear. Do me a solid, TCM—let’s watch some more of these comedies sometime real soon.

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1 comment:

jason said...

You, sir, are a genuine, bonafide badass. Hats off!