Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pronounced ZAY-SOO

Monday’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to the late great actress-comedienne Thelma Todd was the most fun I’ve had watching TCM than I can recall from recent memory. As previously mentioned in this post, there were a good many of Todd’s feature films showcased—Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), The Devil’s Brother (1933), The Bohemian Girl (1936), etc.—but the scheduling of six two-reel comedy shorts that the vivacious comedienne made with the equally amazing ZaSu Pitts, followed by another half-dozen comedies with the divine Patsy Kelly, who replaced Pitts in 1933, was the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae. Honest to my grandma, it was like Christmas in August...or as Yair Solan mentioned to me on Facebook this morning, "an embarrassment of riches."

Here in the reading material portion of the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives, I have a dog-eared copy of Leonard Maltin’s Selected Short Subjects: From Spanky to the Three Stooges—a republished edition of his earlier The Great Movie Shorts (of which I also have a copy, and also dog-eared) and my personal bible to those great two-reel comedies from the past. Growing up as a young tad, I was fortunate in that some of the comedians in these shorts—notably the Stooges, but also Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy on occasion—were still getting a workout on local stations and especially TBS. But many of the two-reeler stars—Charley Chase, Ms. Todd and her two partners, etc.—were AWOL from television repeats, and reading the descriptions of these comedies only whetted my appetite into wanting to view them. At one time during the late 1990s and early 2000s you could find them showcased on the Hallmark Channel but by the time they had added that to our cable system they had stopped running them (not to mention the half-hour Gunsmoke reruns…but that’s a petty gripe for another day).

TCM, every now and then, will fill up the time needed to get to the next :00, :15, :30 or :45 mark with one of the Roach comedies on occasion—and if I happen to spot it on the channel’s schedule in time, I try to put something up on the blog for those of interested in recording and/or watching. I don’t honestly know why TCM doesn’t show the comedies more often—after all, you can only watch so many Pete Smith Specialties before grabbing the remote and switching it off, mumbling “G’bye now…” I think it would be splendid to set aside maybe an hour on, like, Saturday mornings and run 2-3 comedies. Perhaps some TCM bigwig reading this—maybe even Bobby Osbo himself—will say: “Hey—that’s not a bad idea” and implement such an idea with all deliberate speed. (And perhaps I’ll get a call from Amber Rose asking if I’d like to go out for pizza.)

In watching these shorts, I have to say—I enjoyed the Todd-Pitts two-reelers a bit more than the Todd-Kelly product…though this might be because the Todd-Pitts shorts chosen for SUIS are generally acknowledged to be among the comedy team’s best. TCM first rolled out the second of the Todd-Pitts collaborations, Catch as Catch Can (1931)—a breezy effort that features the girls as switchboard operators in a ritzy hotel…and ZaSu homesick for her hometown environs of Joplin, Missouri. Thel’s dating the manager (Reed Howes) for a wrestler (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) who’s also pining for home—and when he learns that he and ZaSu are practically neighbors (he hails from Lawrence, Kansas), he becomes infatuated with her, and she is smitten with him as well.

Harry the manager tells Thelma how the Zase is doing wonders for the wrestler’s—known as “Strangler” Sullivan—morale, and when Strangler asks Thel if there’s anything he can do for his newly acquired object d’amour, she suggests he purchase a hat that she’s had her eye on for quite some time. ZaSu has promised to wear this piece of millinery to the wrestling bout that night so that he’ll know his “Missouri rose” is in the audience…but some wisenheimer seated behind ZaSu and Thelma knocks the hat off in mid-match before the Strangler can see it, necessitating that she scrambled over and under the seats trying to retrieve it. The timeworn comic device of having Pitts frightened by a mouse (when I saw this, I thought: “That must be one seedy auditorium if they’ve got that bad a rodential problem”) finally attracts the wrestler’s attention, however…and he’s able to vanquish his opponent post haste.

TCM followed Catch with Red Noses (1932), another amusing Todd-Pitts romp in which the girls go to a Turkish bath to cure their colds…and end up at the mercy of Amazonian physical therapist Blanche Payson. I liked Noses, though your tolerance for it may depend on how funny you find women in slapstick situations—a criticism of the Todd-Pitts and Todd-Kelly comedies put forth by reviewers like Maltin, who’s argued that the Laurel & Hardy-like antics performed by the girls in many of the two-reelers aren’t always effective. Curiously, one of the shorts shown—the 1932 comedy Show Business—was directed by the king of violent slapstick, future Columbia two-reeler head Jules White…and he treats Thel and ZaSu far better in this go-round than, say, many of the comedies that he directed with birthday gal Vera Vague at Columbia in the 40s and 50s. Show Business features a funny performance from the unsung Anita Garvin, a talented female thesp who can be glimpsed in many of the Roach shorts (particularly in the Laurel & Hardy vehicles—my favorite is From Soup to Nuts [1928], in which she plays a society matron whose tiara keeps slipping down over her eyes), as a temperamental diva who’s inconvenienced on the same train on which Thelma and ZaSu are traveling as part of a theatrical troupe.

If the plot of Noses sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because White remade it four years later with Moe, Larry and Curly as A Pain in the Pullman (1936—directed by Jules’ brother Jack as “Preston Black”) and fifteen years later with Gus Schilling and Richard Lane in Training for Trouble (1947). I have to say, though—I enjoyed Thelma and ZaSu’s version best of the three…and it’s also interesting to note that perennial second banana Monte Collins plays the stage manager in both the Todd-Pitts and Schilling-Lane versions.

In Selected Short Subjects, Maltin opines that the funniest of all the Todd-Pitts comedies is The Bargain of the Century (1933), a superb short that finds Thelma and ZaSu entertaining an annoying houseguest in the personage of patrolman James Burtis, who loses his job as a result of an encounter with the girls and who hopes to get reinstated by kissing up to the captain of the force, played by the peerless Billy Gilbert. Gilbert isn’t really the captain, though; he’s a jewel thief mistaken for the boss by Thel and Zase and in a hilarious scene, Todd and Burtis are trying to keep Gilbert from discovering that Burtis has destroyed his watch in a magic trick gone sour by continuously ladling spoonful after spoonful of homemade ice cream into his dessert bowl.

Bargain was fun, but none of the Todd-Pitts shorts made me laugh harder than Asleep in the Feet (1933), which is my pick for the best two-reeler of the team of the shorts I’ve seen so far. Thelma and ZaSu are department store employees who are at the mercy of their stern landlady (Kay Lavelle)—heckbent on enforcing the rules of their apartment building, particularly the part about “no cooking” in the rooms. Lavelle is about to give one of their fellow tenants the old heave-ho…

…and though I couldn’t locate a credit for her at the IMDb, that tenant looks an awful lot like a young Ellen Corby…whose husband, Francis, worked at the Hal Roach Studios as a cinematographer—Corby herself served as a script assistant at the studio. Anyway, Thelma and ZaSu feel sorry for the girl who’s about to evicted—and one of the other tenants, a taxi dancer played by the ubiquitous Garvin, suggests they come down to the dance hall to try and earn the money the young girl needs to keep from being chucked out.

At the dance hall, Thelma can’t shake loose an amorous sailor (Eddie Dunn) who’s on shore leave and has decided her dance card is filled for the evening…while ZaSu finds herself almost as popular as rubella. Garvin volunteers to help Zase out by tarting her up and showing her how to attract customers with a “come hither” flirting style—the only problem is, the owner of the hall (Gilbert again) has just gotten a visit from the local constable (Nelson McDowell) and two bluenoses (Nora Cecil, Julia Griffith) who think he’s running some sort of sleazy joint and he bends over backwards trying to convince them the place is respectable. So when ZaSu hits the dance floor looking like a first-rate trollop, the hilarity naturally ensues…Pitts’ antics are positively priceless.

As the two-reeler wraps up toward the conclusion, Gilbert orders both Thelma and ZaSu out of the hall—and as they’re getting ready to leave, there’s a scrape between Garvin and another dancer that results in the girl receiving a black eye. When Billy agrees to give the woman $20 to settle the matter, ZaSu turns out the lights and in the melee that follows, Thelma ends up with a shiner as well. ZaSu and Thelma then collect another double sawbuck from the apoplectic Gilbert, and arriving home, the girls are relieved to know they’ve got the money to give to their fellow tenant—“But what I want to know is who gave me this black eye?” Thelma asks ZaSu.

A glance in the mirror reveals a mark on her face that could only have been made by a ring that ZaSu showed Thelma earlier. “I didn’t want to hit you,” she wails, “but we got the twenty dollars.” The two women laugh and embrace as the music swells up and out. Asleep in the Feet is a 24-karat gem; it moves along at a steady clip and is stuffed with laughs and peppy music courtesy of Leroy Shield…and I liked the camaraderie between Thelma and ZaSu, which is very reminiscent of the relationship between the beloved Stan and Ollie.

The final Todd-Pitts short shown by TCM—Maids a la Mode (1933)—is also first-rate, and re-teams the ladies with Billy in a comedy that casts Thelma as a dress model and Zase as a seamstress who are fired by Gilbert after a mishap involving a fashion demonstration for a society lady (ZaSu is making some last-minute alterations to Thel’s dress and both of them get stuck on a treadmill). Gilbert has a change of heart when he needs the girls to deliver some dresses to a customer, and as the two women are en route to complete the task they meet up with a friend (Leo Hall) of Thelma’s who invites them to a swanky shindig he’s throwing. Thelma and ZaSu don’t have a thing to wear—and decide to wear the dresses they’re supposed to be delivering to the party...an affair that, as is often the case in two-reel comedies, their boss has been invited to as well.

I love this outfit that Thelma models in this short, by the way—kind of a combination between a wedding dress and a nun’s habit. The highlight of this comedy is when a party guest accidentally unravels the back of ZaSu’s gown, necessitating some repairs by Thelma in a bit highly reminiscent of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (ZaSu stands in front of a curtain while Thelma furiously sews behind her). But Thelma sews ZaSu into the curtain, and at one point, Pitts ends up swinging to and fro, careening into party guests in a wild and hysterical display of physical comedy.


And now that I’ve told you how much I enjoyed the antics of Ms. Todd and Ms. Pitts—here’s a brief tutorial on the correct pronunciation of Pitts’ first name, courtesy of YouTube:

Tomorrow: a look at the six shorts featuring Thelma and new partner Patsy Kelly.

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2 comments:

Amanda said...

I simply adored Thelma Todd day on TCM. The shorts with Zazu were the highlight of the day. I have never seen them, so it was absolutely fabulous. I'm afraid I didn't get much done that day, but I sure laughed a lot :)

mndean said...

I was really happy to beef up my collection of Zasu/Thelma shorts and was especially pleased the ones they ran mostly weren't ones I already had. TCM runs so many things unannounced that I miss a lot of shorts.