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 one of the first all-female comedy teams 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’s a nice little montage of Pitts and Todd demonstrating the proper way to pronounce ZaSu’s name (most people get it wrong):
For more on silent and slapstick comedy film don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
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.