THE HAL ROACH COLLECTION 1931-1933
Produced by Richard M. Roberts and Kit Parker
Digital Restoration by Paul Gierucki
17 Short Films. Approx 340 minutes
2018 The Sprocket Vault
Think of these funny, spunky gals as Depression Era Lucy and Ethel, or Laverne and Shirley. Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd starred as good-hearted, energetic bumbling working girls in a series of comedy shorts produced by the brilliant Hal Roach.
Zasu Pitts, with her nervous persona, and skinny frame, somehow recalls Popeye’s Olive Oyl, yet she started her film career in great dramatic silent films by Eric von Strohiem, such as GREED (GIF, below) and THE WEDDING MARCH. She soon moved over to comedy, and her spinster-like voice made her perfect for early sound merriment.
You can see right away how New England born Thelma Todd got her start in silent era Hollywood. Despite the camera loving her big eyes, and slightly pudgy face, her early career was a struggle.
Todd was up for the female lead in Howard Hughes’ epic HELL’S ANGELS, but Jean Harlow got the part instead. It took Hal Roach to sign this blonde beauty to appear in short films showcasing her natural comic ability. Thelma sharpened her comedic skills by working with such laugh-masters as Charley Chase, The Marx Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton (This writer feels after seeing her in Keaton’s SPEAK EASILY, Keaton and Todd should have become a comedy team) Thelma’s double takes and sudden tingles of anger are most memorable.
The Sprocket Vault, which brings DVD and Blu-Ray revival to classic films, including the films distributed by VCI Entertainment and Kit Parker Films, has released THELMA TODD AND ZASU PITTS- THE HAL ROACH COLLECTION 1931-1933. It’s two discs of 17 Roach produced Pitts/Todd shorts. Beautifully restored by Paul Gierucki and Cinemuseum, LLC, we can now enjoy these funny, sometimes bizarre and telling pre-code comedy gems.
Like Roach’s OUR GANG series, the Todd/Pitts films were comedic looks at life during The Great Depression. Thelma and Zasu often played struggling working class girls. They often weren’t the Gold Diggers looking for the easy ride. They wanted to work, no matter what slapstick chaos they would cause.
In ASLEEP IN THE FEET (1933) Thelma and Zasu are co-workers and room-mates in a rooming house. They wish to save their broke neighbor from eviction by earning twenty dollars as soon as possible (about the same as $ 380 in 2019) . They go to a dance hall where lonely men get to dance with sprightly young girls for a fee. Another dance girl (Roach comedy regular Anita Garvin) suggests the two girls dance in a more sexy manner. This happens the same time a trio of frightfully crusty and moral vice squad investigators enter the dance hall, looking to bust the place. Jittery club owner Billy Gilbert does what he can to keep his club working on a safe Sunday School level. With it’s laugh-out-loud moments, ASLEEP IN THE FEET recalls the Our Gang shorts where the slum living kids scramble to help somebody who is in worse condition then they are.
In ON THE LOOSE (1931) Thelma and Zasu double date two British gentlemen to an afternoon at Coney Island. This short not only allows for some fun carnival based slapstick gags, but gives a great insight to how much fun amusement park rides were generations ago. There is a terrific running gag with Zasu’s date constantly annoying a young girl’s bullying boyfriend (Hal Roach’s resident brawny funny-man Otto Fries). The short ends with an annoyed Thelma and Zasu being asked on a date by their nieghbors, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (making a cameo).
It seems all comedy teams (except for The Marx Brothers) were required to do a haunted house comedy, and Zasu and Thelma’s entry into this sub-genre is a wild surreal hoot. In SEALSKINS (1932), Thelma is a struggling reporter looking to find who stole a valuable seal. Thelma doesn’t know this is a “on a document seal”. She thinks this seal is of the barking and fish-eating variety. She takes Zasu to a creepy looking hotel in search for said seal. Local “circus freaks” are staying there. A gigantic man, living skeleton and other strange types cause the girls to create more chaos until they capture the slippery fish-eater. They get great comedy support by Roach regulars Charlie Hall and Billy Gilbert. Hal Roach fans will enjoy hearing Marvin Hatley’s familiar OUR GANG musical tracks grace the action in many of these shorts.
In 1933, Roach replaced Zasu Pitts with wise-cracking Patsy Kelly. Thelma and Patsy continued to make comedy shorts until Thelma Todd’s mysterious death in 1935. Perhaps it was the sexy, pre-code plot elements in such shorts as ASLEEP IN THE FEET or shapely Thelma Todd often winding up in her underwear kept these shorts from family friendly television syndication. This is where the OUR GANG and LAUREL AND HARDY shorts gained new generations of audiences and fans. The Sprocket Vault has done a terrific job restoring these must-see shorts, and coupling them with fun, informative commentary tracks.
Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts were the personification of depression era slapstick fun and survival; two never-say-die upbeat gals who never play the victim card.