Stars of Slapstick #47: ZaSu Pitts
This is one in a series of posts we are producing in connection with our new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, available from Bear Manor Media in February 2013.
Today is the birthday of ZaSu Pitts (1894-1963). Your average film buff knows her from her character performances from the 30s through the 50s, culminating with her final role as the switchboard operator in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It’s generally acknowledged that her quavery, nervous, spinster persona was the model for Mae Questel’s voice over work as Olive Oyl in the Fleischer Popeye cartoons.
But what is lesser known (at least I didn’t know it until researching my current book) is that she formed one half of the first all-female comedy team with Thelma Todd in a series of Hal Roach shorts from 1931 through 1933. The brainstorm was Roach’s; he wanted to replicate the success of Laurel and Hardy with ladies. Pitts had been acting in silent films, both comedies and dramas, since 1917. (Her most significant dramatic role was in Von Stroheim’s Greed, 1924). But people liked to laugh at her; she was typecast for comedy.
In 1933, Pitts left Roach and was replaced in the team by Patsy Kelly. These films seemed to work better – - Kelly’s earthier, working-class energy bring a quality that had to have been a model for the grosser slapstick antics of Lucy and Ethel and Laverne and Shirley. In 1935, Todd died under mysterious circumstances. She was briefly replaced by successively, Pert Kelton and Lyda Roberti. When Roberti herself died in 1937, Roach shelved his ill-fated idea of a lady team.
Here is a clip from the 1932 Pitts and Todd comedy On the Loose featuring a hilarious cameo by Laurel and Hardy as a couple of cheapskate dates:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.