The Female Laurel & Hardy

Deciding what endures as classic and what is left to moulder in the can is an essentially arbitrary process, informed as much by such factors as availability of prints, individual tastes of archivists and restorers, the accident of whatever was most popular at the time and the short memories of audiences as by anything approaching objective consensus. And the spectacle of lost films being rediscovered and belatedly taking their place in the pantheon of greats is hardly rare. 
So it is odd to reflect that there exists an entire body of work – nearly forty short films – that has completely fallen off the map, yet is so manifestly of interest to historians, cineastes and general audiences. By whatever criterion of worth one wishes to adopt – historical significance, artistic merit, importance to students of the genre, funniness – they are as rewarding as the works of any other thirties comic artists.

Thelma Todd, an ice cream blonde with a persona that chimed perfectly with her times, did fine support work for Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers and a few straight roles on pre-Hays women’s pictures. (Alas, she is perhaps best known for her mysterious death, which was certainly nasty, almost certainly murder, and sufficiently shrouded in rumour and conspiracy to warrant a chapter in Hollywood Babylon and a tv movie.)
Zazu Pitts was a durable supporting character comedienne who upstaged a number of headliners (among them Abbott & Costello, Bob Hope, Francis the Talking Mule and the entire cast of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) between 1917 and her death in 1963. (Her early dramatic appearances including lead work in Von Stroheim’s Greed and The Wedding March were swiftly forgotten when her forte for comedy was discovered, and by 1930, it is claimed, her straight appearance in All Quiet On The Western Front had to be cut after preview audiences laughed at the sight of her.)
Bringing the two together for a series of double-act short farces was the brainchild of producer Hal Roach, whose production company supported a vast array of star and supporting comics. The most famous of all were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and in Todd and Pitts Roach was convinced he had found their female alter egos.
So Thelma is the savvy girl about town who knows the angles but somehow seems to miss out on the lucky breaks. Zasu is slow, gangly, and accident-prone and a constant threat to Todd’s attempts to appear sophisticated. Working, rooming, socialising with Todd’s smart city-girl, Pitts has trouble opening sofa beds and tins of milk, is scared of mice, and says things like “I’ve only been away from the farm for about a year.”

The most widely seen of their films, because Laurel and Hardy make an in-joke appearance at the end, is, thankfully, a beauty. On The Loose (1931) begins with the two returning from yet another visit to Coney Island: apparently the unimaginative choice of every single pair of city slickers that takes them out on a date. Zasu has sand in her shoes, and both are griping about men, and reflecting on the line of knick-knacks on their shelves, each a prize from previous trips to Coney. With slow, naturalistic languor, they keep up this running commentary as they undress and get into their shared double-bed where, beautifully picked out in moonlight, their recollections gradually change tone from resentment to nostalgic amusement, and as the scene fades they are helpless with laughter.

After twenty or so films, Patsy Kelly replaced Zasu’s measured, nasal musing with raucous machine gun wisecracks and graceless comments in inappropriate settings. She is brash, far more attractive than she is supposed to be, and like Stan Laurel she can hit a spoon in such a way as to make it fly in the air and land in a wine glass.
(Despite only taking the lead in one feature film [1936’s Kelly the Second], Irish-American Kelly enjoyed a long career in comic support, often in servant roles, and finished in elderly character spots, mainly for Disney but also in Rosemary’s Baby and Sam Fuller's Naked Kiss; she died in 1981.
Actually, to call her comic support is a little disingenuous: she’s a shameless scene-hogger, even without dialogue. Cast as Billie Burke’s maid in Topper’s Return she spends the greater part of the film stood behind her pulling faces while she speaks.
An outspoken, unabashed lesbian, Kelly contributes a delightful interview to Boze Hadleigh’s book Hollywood Lesbians (in which the author exercises his moral duty to hector unwilling, elderly actresses into revealing aspects of their private lives they wish to remain private while simultaneously asking them almost nothing about their fascinating films and careers). But Kelly's chapter is a joy; she's happy to talk openly, and you can hear her voice barking out every snappy reply. Asked if she had a crush on Jean Harlow she replies, “The Pope Catholic?” And here she is on Mae West: “the dame’s illiterate and she’s got whole generations believin’ she wrote her own movies – bullshit!”)

With Kelly's arrival, a new kind of sassiness enters the films, and knowing that she is a lesbian makes the often casual physical intimacy of her relationship with Thelma seem all the more fascinating. This certainly comes to the fore in Babes in the Goods (1934), in which they are trapped overnight in the display window of a department store and must undress and share a bed, with the voyeuristic approval of Roach drunk Arthur Housman, leading an enthusiastic contingent of street-level onlookers.
Their relationship even achieves touching, Stan and Ollie-like proportions in Top Flat (1935), where a disagreement over Thelma's reluctance to contribute the household coffers, and instead to sit around writing pretentious poetry, leads to them going their separate ways. Later, when Patsy sees Thelma in a luxury apartment building she assumes she has become a famous poet; she is, in fact, merely the occupant's maid. Patsy turns up unexpectedly with two musical friends, and their loud, crass behaviour, and obliviousness to Thelma's discomfort, is played beautifully for farce.
Roach had in fact already attempted the ‘female Laurel and Hardy’ experiment with Marion Byron and Anita Garvin but it hadn’t taken, unsurprisingly since the chief strength of Laurel and Hardy’s on-screen relationship is that it is accidental, organic, instinctive. No pre-thought could have conceived of so deep and eccentric a marriage, still less attempt to cast it. Producing a female Laurel and Hardy as if from ingredients in a cake was a risky tactic, since what you were liable to end up with is lifeless pastiche, as meaningful as one of those MGM shorts in which all the parts are played by dogs.
Which is to say that the Todd/Pitts/Kelly films shouldn't have worked either, and it's surely true that on a first encounter with them you won't be able to avoid making comparisons.
Dialogue is by their regular writer HM Walker, and incidental music instantly recognisable from their soundtracks plays throughout. Stan and Ollie’s stock company (Arthur Housman, Billy Gilbert, Charlie Hall, Anita Garvin) are mostly present, albeit cast with a little more freedom than usual. The characterisation and writing are often pleasingly subtle, the situations broad.

I thinks it's fair to say that the Todd-Kelly films are by and large superior to the Todd-Pitts ones, even though it is hard to say precisely why. Certainly Pitts is as capable a comic actress in her own idiom as Kelly is in hers. No, the sole difference as far as I can see is that Pitts was cast in deliberate imitation of Stan Laurel, whereas Kelly was a substitute (and an admirably left-field one) introduced when the format was already off and running. So the need to play it exactly like Stan and Ollie had abated, and Kelly could do her own thing.
This also liberates and ventilates Todd’s characterisation; her one-note desperation at Pitts’s general helplessness now replaced by a more varied set of responses to a character by turns infuriating, ingratiating, sympathetic, crass, loud, resourceful, cynical and often in knowing opposition to her social pretensions. Now the films revolve around Todd’s anger at Kelly’s refusal to conform to her standards of social behaviour, rather than Pitts’s mere inability to.
This is not to denigrate the Pitts films. Both series are rich and strange things. They all have the tang of reality about them, in the dialogue, deliciously salted with the slang and clich├ęs and lost topical references of their time and place, in the settings, and in the attitudes displayed by the girls towards the situations they encounter.

It seems obvious that a lot of the dialogue is improvised. You get a sense of it in such scenes as the one in Catch as Catch Can (1931) where Todd and Pitts continue a private conversation while simultaneously working as hotel reception telephonists. While chatting and taking calls they also keep up a fast and detailed commentary on the callers (“It’s the guy in 476 asking for more ice; now what can one man want with all that ice?”) It has the snap and pace of real speech, and it’s very funny.
One is instantly struck by the desire to speak specifically to female audiences via a concentration upon such areas of common experience as the inscrutability of boyfriends, social one-upmanship and the changing pace of city living. (The stars often play shop girls griping about difficult customers and demanding bosses – they are always being fired, giving notice or newly hired.) And sometimes they really do surprise you: Todd and Kelly’s complete inability to take care of a baby in Babes In The Goods contrasts markedly with Stan and Ollie’s casual mastery of parenthood in Their First Mistake (1932).

And since these are at all times Hal Roach films, there’s always a fair measure of clothes falling off and random, fatalistic slapstick.
This latter plays especially oddly - odd for all the reasons that Roach slapstick is odd anyway, plus a whole bunch more because it’s happening to girls. (This is of course largely by force of habit: Hal Roach does slapstick. Like Republic Studios, so used to the conventions of the low budget westerns in which they specialised that even their horror films tend to have lots of barroom brawls and stagecoach chases in them, it’s largely instinctive. The idea that it might play differently when a landlady keeps horrendously banging her head on her window than it does when it’s Charlie Hall would probably have never occurred to Roach, though it’s pleasant to remember that he gave Todd her contract in the first place was because, by his own account, she was elegant and sexy but looked to be the sort of gal who nonetheless wouldn’t mind falling on her ass or taking a pie in the face.)

But Roach, unlike Sennett, say, really did have one eye on social reality.
He seemed to sense instinctively that an obvious way of attracting an audience is to show them aspects of their own lives, and speak in something like their own voice. Chaplin may have made more show of dealing with the human condition, but there is something very abstract and symbolic about his world. Roach’s films lack this universal vagueness. They are set clearly in America, in the twenties or thirties, in times of often harsh deprivation and much struggling to stay above water.
There is something utterly convincing about – to pick an example more or less at random – the disreputable tavern in Our Relations (1936) where Laurel and Hardy are taken to the cleaners by a pair of keenly delineated opportunist good time girls. In One Good Turn (1931) they are knocking on doors offering to chop wood in exchange for a sandwich at a time when thousands of Americans were doing exactly that. Many of these films were made in the pre-Code Depression years and are surprisingly frank in their treatment of sexuality, poverty, drunkenness, drug addiction, prostitution and other forms of exploitation.
The Todd-Pitts-Kelly films, by offering a woman’s angle on this world (hesitantly at first but soon with assurance and aplomb and despite all-male credits behind the cameras) seem even more sharp and alive to the pulse of their times.
Asleep In the Feet (1933), for example, is about taxi dancing: Thelma and Zasu are invited by neighbour Anita to supplement their daily earnings by working at a seedy dance hall run by an unusually nervous Billy Gilbert. The sense of depression-era desperation is clear and strong, the matter-of-fact specificity of its socio-historic trappings remarkably potent.
The backgrounds and situations sometimes achieve documentary-like vividness – so much so that when they start slipping on nailbrushes and falling in the bath the effect is almost allegorical. It’s as if the bad luck these characters are afflicted with goes far beyond economic deprivation and into almost cosmic realms, and the films start to look like Schopenhauer had a hand in the writing.

Social status humour is a staple used throughout the films, often in bizarrely contrived set-ups.
Invited to a fashionable birthday party under false pretences in Pajama Party (1931), Thelma instructs Zasu to behave only as others do. She passes a group of bright young things reclining in patio furniture, just too late to hear the line “I don’t care what you say, I know perfectly well a girl can fall off a horse from that position and break her shoulder” but in time to see the two disputants illustrate their respective conceptions of what position a girl would be in if she has just fallen off a horse, and hold the poses as a lively debate ensues. Ever keen to not look out of place, she joins them on the floor, languidly assuming an equally bizarre contortion.
A later Todd-Kelly film, Soup and Fish (1934) restages the same basic premise, but now it is not Zasu’s gaucheness but Patsy’s open antagonism toward social pretension that Thelma has to worry about (always in addition, of course, to those less predictable indignities that the Roach universe heaps on its denizens). Patsy has for some reason acquired a loutish mania for hand buzzers and similar practical joke gadgets, and Thelma ends by suffering the twin embarrassments of having a hand-buzzer down the back of her dress and a companion whose immediate response is to rise to her feet and clap in time with her gyrations, then ring out a melody on the wine glasses with her knife and fork.
Even as the guests make it clear that a woman of her sort is not welcome among their ranks, Thelma still retains a measure of additional embarrassment at being seen there in the company of Patsy. (Though like Ollie she is indomitable in her refusal to crawl away and die: even after falling clothed into a bath in Pajama Party she tries to save face, first by feigning amusement, then by pretending to scrub herself with a loofah fully dressed.)
The series seems to deliberately strive for this kind of cosmic surrealism by building bizarre catastrophes from the most prosaic foundations. The Charley Chase-directed Bargain of the Century (1933) begins with Thelma and Zasu deciding to buy some new sheets. By asking a policeman to help protect them from the crush of other customers they accidentally get him fired and guiltily invite him back to their flat for dinner. Then they mistake Billy Gilbert for a senior policeman and invite him too in the hope of getting the first one reinstated. Instead, he decides to attempt a magic trick with Gilbert’s watch; it ends up smashed to pieces in the ice cream. Then, with what passes for inevitability in Roach’s universe, Gilbert goes berserk and starts destroying clocks. .

The Todd-Pitts sequence ended in an unfortunate and unnecessary way. Though Roach hired both stars at the same time, Todd’s contract ran six months longer to prevent the pair striking together for a pay rise when the time came to renew contracts. With Todd still on his books, Pitts’s position would be weakened, and Roach could always threaten to team Thelma with someone else.
This was in fact standard policy for Roach teams, and is the reason why, when Stan Laurel got a little uppity in 1939, the peculiar Zenobia got made. (A teaming of Oliver Hardy with Harry Langdon, silent superstar long since reduced to lowly Roach gag-writer, it was not a success, thus inadvertently strengthening Laurel’s bargaining position and also denying us ‘The Hardys’, a projected series with Ollie as the harassed head of an all-American household.)
If Roach thought a female Laurel and Hardy would be easier to intimidate he miscalculated: Pitts walked out and continued her successful career elsewhere. Todd remained, and resumed business as usual with Kelly, until fate intervened tragically when she was found dead in her garage in December 1935.
Roach tried matching Kelly and Pert Kelton (who had co-starred with Todd in her last completed feature Lightning Strikes Twice, released only a couple of weeks before her death), then with Lyda Roberti, but after just two films Roberti also died, at the age of twenty-seven.