On the ninth of October—a little less than two weeks from today—one of my DVD Holy Grails will finally be released. If you’ve been making regular visits to this humble scrap of the blogosphere—even before I packed up and moved in October of 2017 because there was more off-street parking and the schools were better—you’re aware that I have long been championing a Region 1 release of the two-reel comedy shorts that ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd made for “The Lot of Fun” (the nickname for the Hal Roach Studios) between 1931 and 1933. I need no longer whine: our good friends at The Sprocket Vault will unveil Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts: The Hal Roach Collection 1931-33.
Produced by friends of the blog Kit Parker (of Kit Parker Films) and film historian Richard M. Roberts, Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts has been one of the most highly anticipated classic movie DVD releases announced this year, if the people with whom I associate on Facebook are any indication (and I like to think they are). Before this Sprocket Vault release, fans of Thelma and ZaSu either had to hope for the occasional showcase on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (for example, the Summer Under the Stars tribute to Thelma back in August of 2010) or a 2010 Munich Filmmuseum release (which was “enhanced” in 2012) entitled Hal Roach: Female Comedy Teams, spotlighting five of Thelma and ZaSu’s two-reelers, five shorts with Thelma and replacement partner Patsy Kelly, and the three shorts featuring Roach’s first crack at a female mirthmaking team, Anita Garvin and Marion “Peanuts” Byron.
My pal Clint Weiler at MVD Visual (they’re handling the distribution of this Sprocket Vault release) was gracious enough to make sure a screener arrived in the mailbox of the House of Yesteryear, and Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts is a real dan-dan-dandy…if people are still using that expression (they probably aren’t). I have to come clean here and admit that I had previously seen many of the shorts on this 2-DVD collection…but fortunately for me, some of them escaped my attention. I know for a fact that I had not watched Let’s Do Things (1931), which kicked off the ZaSu-Thelma series (we tend to give Thelma top billing when we write about the shorts but at the time of release ZaSu was the bigger name) and got the franchise off to a promising start. Working girls ZaSu and Thelma have a double date thanks to “Pittsy’s” oafish boyfriend Milton (George Byron); Thelma’s escort for the evening is an osteopath (Jerry Mandy)—”But a Boston osteopath,” argues ZaSu—and the quartet winds up at a nightclub where Thelma pretends to be drunk in order to ditch her date…only it’s ZaSu who winds up potted (thanks to the doc’s homemade brew).
You’ll notice in the poster for Things on the right that the short was identified as a “Boy Friends” comedy; in audio commentary from Richard M. Roberts, he notes that the ZaSu-Thelma series had been inaugurated rather quickly with little thought of it being a continuing franchise at Roach. That’s why you’ll spot several of the performers from Roach’s “Boy Friends” in cameo roles in this one: Mickey Daniels as a bellhop, Mary Kornman as a cigarette girl (with a gum-chewing habit), David Sharpe and Gertie Messinger as the acrobatic dancers, and Dorothy Granger as the lead chorine among a line of chorus dancers (who figure in one of Things’ funniest gags when they’re victims of Dr. Mandy’s “treatment”). Let’s Do Things may not be a remarkable short but it is a breezy, entertaining one; the entire production has an extra bit of polish thanks to director Roach, and the musical numbers—particularly the one that opens the comedy, Them There Eyes, with Donald Novis on lead vocals and contributions from Thel and Zase—providing extra sparkle.
Silent film veteran Marshall “Mickey” Neilan (he helmed many of Mary Pickford’s feature film classics) was originally assigned to tackle the ZaSu-Thelma series; he’s credited with the second and fourth shorts, Catch-As-Catch-Can (1931—another winner in the franchise) and War Mamas (1931)—though RMR mentions in the Mamas commentary that studio records indicate it was Roach who handled the directorial chores…and the credit Hal receives for directing The Pajama Party (1931) should have gone to Neilan. Neilan struggled with personal demons while not on-set (read A-L-C-O-H-O-L-I-S-M) and wasn’t with Roach for long…which was a bit of a shame where the Pitts-Todd series was concerned, because the gentle situation comedy tone of the comedies soon switched to more physical, knockabout humor…to the detriment of the franchise.
Let me give you an example of the previous tone—and I need to state up front that while when I’ve discussed this short in the past I’ve kept mum about the surprise cameo at the end I’m not going to do it this time…so consider this your spoiler warning (rejoin us after the following three paragraphs and photo).
In On the Loose (1931), Thelma and ZaSu are fed up: every one of their potential swains knows of only one place to show a girl a good time, and that’s Coney Island. When a wealthy Britisher (John Loder) gets too close to a mud puddle with his automobile and ruins the women’s clothing…he buys them new frocks at a shop (run by Billy Gilbert!) and then proposes they go someplace ”smart and original” on the weekend (he’ll even bring along his buddy [Claud Allister] to make it a foursome). So where does this quartet wind up? Coney Island, of course!
As On the Loose prepares to call it a wrap, and our heroines settle in for a peaceful afternoon, there’s a knock at their apartment door and Thelma tells them to come in. It’s Mr. Hardy with his friend Mr. Laurel, and he asks the pair if they—to borrow a phrase from a title card in Double Whoopee (1929)–might “presume that you would condescend to accept my escortage?” When ZaSu asks the duo where they plan on taking them; Stan replies “Coney Island.” The world’s most beloved comedy team must then beat a hasty retreat down the hallway, since they’re on the receiving end of every Kewpie doll the girls have ever won being thrown at them by Thelma.
On the Loose is one of Thel and Zase’s best shorts; sure, there’s some physical slapstick (mostly in the amusement park sequence), but it never gets too out of hand and their femininity remains intact. The presence of Stan and Ollie is just the icing on the cake…but what I did not know until after I listened to the audio commentary (contributed by Facebook compadre Randy Skretvedt, author of Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies) is that they were originally slotted to make a similar cameo in A Pair of Tights (1929), the third and final Anita Garvin-Marion Byron comedy. According to Randy, L&H’s appearance is in Tights’ original shooting script, but apparently the presence of the duo threatened to overshadow the proceedings and so the idea was nixed at the last minute…then resurrected when On the Loose went before the cameras. (I also learned from one of Randy’s commentaries that the proper pronunciation of ZaSu’s name is “SAY-ZOO” and not “ZAY-SOO”—though the latter would appear to make more sense. Well, Hollywood is a funny town sometimes.)
In addition to RMR and Randy’s insightful audio commentaries there’s also input from Facebook chums Brent Walker (author of the indispensable reference Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory) and Rob Farr (one of the masterminds behind the slapstick comedy film festival known as Slapsticon). Brent, who does commentary for 1932’s Sealskins, apologizes for giving away the final gag in the film before stopping and musing out loud that we’ve probably already seen the short…otherwise, why would we watch the commentary version first? Rob’s solo commentary is on Strictly Unreliable (1932), one of four ZaSu-Thelma comedies directed by George Marshall; Marshall did pretty well as a Laurel & Hardy director (helming the shorts Their First Mistake  and Towed in a Hole —two of the duo’s best—and their second feature film Pack Up Your Troubles ) but came up short with the Pitts-Todd efforts…though I agree with Rob that Unreliable isn’t too bad because ZaSu’s antics (she turns Thelma’s stage act into a shambles) are priceless (she really sells the physical comedy). Sadly, the underrated Marshall’s name is on many of the weaker entries: Alum and Eve (1932) features a lot of unpleasant knockabout roughhousing in the first ten minutes alone, and The Old Bull (1932) gets my vote as the worst in the series.
The ZaSu-Thelma comedies got back on track with director Gus Meins, a comedy veteran who helmed such Pitts-Todd goodies as Asleep in the Feet (1933—my personal favorite of all the shorts) and Maids a la Mode (1933). I hadn’t seen Sneak Easily (1932), a sprightly outing (a spoof of the play/film The Mouthpiece) in which juror ZaSu accidentally swallows an explosive…much to the consternation of her pal Thelma (who’s the defense attorney trying to clear the inventor of a murder charge). Thelma is explaining to the jury that it would be impossible for any woman to put it in her mouth…let alone swallow it—but Zase is up to the challenge.
“Thelma…you remember that big plum I swallowed once?” ZaSu asks her chum. “I wish it had been a watermelon,” snarls Thelma in a low tone.
With the completion of their final two-reel comedy One Track Minds (1933)–which features Billy Gilbert, Sterling Holloway, and George ”Spanky” McFarland—the ZaSu-Thelma partnership came to an end because Roach couldn’t meet Pitts’ salary demands (she wanted four times what she was making, and his studio was in a kind of semi-receivership where the Bank of America was concerned, owing to a loan Hal had to take out to keep the “Lot of Fun” running). RMR makes a strong case that ZaSu didn’t like all the physical comedy (he notes that with the digital restoration of Red Noses  you can see the bruises on both ZaSu and Thelma…and you can) but there were no hard feelings between the employer and employee; Pitts would return in the 1940s for such Roach films as Broadway Limited (1941) and Niagara Falls (1941), and the TV series on which she had a co-starring role—The Gale Storm Show: Oh Susanna!—was also filmed on the studio lot.
The seventeen shorts featuring ZaSu and Thelma have been digitally restored by another Facebook compadre, Paul E. Gierucki of CineMuseum LLC—who’s hard at work on that second volume of shorts from the Mack Sennett laugh factory due to be released soon (at least I hope he is—get back to work, Paul!), and their presentation here—along with the audio commentaries and a wonderful photo gallery—makes this DVD collection a must-purchase for comedy fans and classic movie mavens. You’re also going to want to snap up ClassicFlix’s The Complete Hal Roach Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly Comedy Collection as the perfect companion set…and while you’re at it, check out The Sprocket Vault’s marvelous compendium featuring Thelma: Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies, Volume One 1930-31.