In May, I received an e-mail from ClassicFlix asking me to contribute the back liner notes for a DVD collection that I knew would generate waves of enthusiasm throughout the classic film and movie comedy communities I associate with on Facebook. All 21 of the two-reel Hal Roach Studio comedies starring Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly would be making their Region 1 DVD debut; some of their shorts had already poked their heads on overseas collections (notably the Munich Filmmuseum Female Comedy Teams set) and on various Mom-and-Pop releases (I had a full set of all of Todd-Kelly shorts—as well as the Todd-ZaSu Pitts offerings—that I bought from Finders Keepers some time back) but other than the occasional showcase on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, they were out-of-reach where vintage movie fans were concerned. But that was about to change.
I have never been more jazzed about an assignment in my writing career, and I pictured—despite my considerable bulk—being lifted high over the heads of my fellow movie mavens in triumph when I broke this news on the Book of Face. There was just one thing—I had to keep mum about it until it was officially announced. Still, I managed to maintain a tick-a-lock, and even though there were one or two people who threatened to disassociate themselves from me when they learned I knew about it beforehand there was much rejoicing when the news finally broke. The Complete Hal Roach Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly Comedy Collection, a release in the company’s “Silver Series,” hit the streets on June 26…and if you find yourself in a situation where you can only buy one ClassicFlix collection (though I would certainly hope you’d buy many of them)—this is the one to get. (ClassicFlix has the set on sale right now for $19.98, so if that’s not an inducement I don’t know what is.)
“Lot of Fun” producer Hal Roach—after an initial attempt to create a “female Laurel & Hardy” in the silent era by pairing Anita Garvin and Marion Byron—had a great deal of talkie success with a distaff Stan-and-Ollie in Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, beginning with 1931’s Let’s Do Things. The Todd-Pitts comedies were very popular with movie audiences, and the delightful teaming of the two women only came to an end in 1933 (with One Track Minds) because Roach and Pitts couldn’t come to an agreement over her contract. Once Roach spotted Patsy Kelly in a production of Flying Colors, he knew she would be the perfect replacement; Patsy and Thelma continued the hilarity beginning with Beauty and the Bus (1933), with 20 two-reel comedies to follow.
“I gather you can write a synopsis without having to watch all of them, right?” ClassicFlix’s David Kawas asked me in that initial e-mail. As luck would have it, I had watched all of the Todd-Kelly shorts (thanks to the Finders Keepers set) but sitting down this weekend with the ClassicFlix release was a wonderful reminder of how enjoyable these little comedies can be. As Leonard Maltin writes in Selected Short Subjects, “Their early films (not, coincidentally, directed by Gus Meins) are among their best: Backs to Nature (1933) has the girls going on a trouble-prone camping trip; in Air Fright (1933) they are stewardesses at odds with nutty inventor Don Barclay, who’s devised a special ejector seat; and Babes in the Goods (1934) casts them as salesgirls in a department store who get locked in a display window overnight, much to the delight of perpetual-drunk Arthur Housman, who keeps a vigil on a fire hydrant all night so he can enjoy the show.”
“Later shorts run hot and cold,” Maltin continues, “with some, like The Misses Stooge (1935; where the girls are hired as assistants to magician Herman Bing), promising more than they can deliver, and others, like Slightly Static (1935), providing some unexpected surprises—here, some choice moments of Patsy tap-dancing.” Static is one of my favorite Thel-Patsy outings due to its right-up-my-alley plot—the girls are hired to act in a play on radio—but also because it features the first on-screen appearance from Roy Rogers, performing with The Sons of the Pioneers. I also agree with Leonard on Misses Stooge; if not for The Tin Man (1935; a head-scratcher with the girls menaced by a robot invented by Clarence Wilson) and Done in Oil (1934; this one features an embarrassing sequence with Patsy in blackface) I’d say it’s the weakest short in the franchise.
In Subjects, Maltin singles out Top Flat (1935) as the best of the Thelma-Patsy comedies. I think I may have stated it’s my favorite in the past but sometimes when you revisit these films you occasionally change your mind; I’m really quite fond of Maid in Hollywood (1934) for one simple reason—in a plot where Thelma gets a Hollywood screen test and Patsy, in her efforts to be helpful, wreaks havoc on the soundstage, there’s a delightful moment at the beginning when Patsy shows genuine affection for her “palsy-walsy,” noticing Thelma is really despondent at not having made good in Tinsel Town. (Patsy makes short work of Thelma’s would-be rival [Constance Bergen] so that Thelma can take her place—something that Thelma learns only as Maid is coming to a close.) This temporary “dropping of the mask” to show the affection the two women have for one another is why I prefer the Todd-Pitts short Asleep in the Feet (1933) to Leonard’s favorite, The Bargain of the Century (1933—though I certainly enjoy this one, too); Feet is furiously funny, but the sentimentality present in the short is the icing on the cake. (For the record, I’m also a big fan of the Thel-Patsy comedies Soup and Fish , I’ll Be Suing You , One-Horse Farmers [1934—Thelma’s Oliver Hardy-like facial expressions are worth the price of admission], Sing, Sister, Sing , Twin Triplets , and Hot Money .)
An All American Toothache, the final short in the Todd-Kelly series, was released to theaters a little over a month after Thelma Todd’s tragic death on December 16, 1935—an event that still provokes speculation today as to who may have been responsible. Hal Roach attempted to keep the franchise going by teaming Patsy with comedienne Pert Kelton in Pan Handlers (1936), but while Kelton was a very funny lady (check out Bed of Roses  or Sing and Like It  if you don’t believe me) she’s mostly the straightwoman in this two-reeler, and it just doesn’t come off well (though the scene where Kelton has to have Kelly say “aluminum” during her sales pitch [because Pert has difficulty with the word] did make me chuckle). Roach improved on this short by choosing singer-actress Lyda Roberti as Patsy’s next “palsy-walsy” in At Sea, Ashore (1936—which allows Lyda to do a musical number or two [her signature tune, Sweet and Hot] with the Avalon Boys [with a young Chill Wills]), and the women did well in a follow-up, Hill-Tillies (1936), and even better with the underrated feature Nobody’s Baby (1937). Roberti would come to a sadly premature end in 1938 after suffering a fatal heart attack, while Kelly continued her Hal Roach association with roles in features like Merrily We Live (1938), Road Show (1941), and Topper Returns (1941). (All three of the Kelly-Kelton-Roberti efforts are also on the ClassicFlix collection as bonuses.)
“We all had such a good time I didn’t feel right taking the money for them,” mused Patsy Kelly in later years about her work on the Todd-Kelly comedies. That sense of fun shines through in this ClassicFlix collection, where the best shorts are phenomenally entertaining and even the so-so entries have something of interest to keep you entertained. Shortly after the news came out about the Thel-Patsy set, there was fervent speculation as to if and/or when the two-reelers with Todd and ZaSu would see a DVD release. The fine folks at VCI/The Sprocket Vault/Kit Parker will answer your prayers in October with the release of Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts: The Hal Roach Collection 1931-33, a 2-disc collection featuring commentaries from friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts and Facebook compadres Randy Skretvedt and Brent Walker. For the Thelma-ZaSu-Patsy completist, author and friend James L. Neibaur’s McFarland book, The Hal Roach Comedy Shorts of Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly, will be available for purchase in December.