★ The Complete Hal Roach/Thelma Todd/Patsy Kelly Comedy Collection
21 shorts, USA, 1933-1936; ClassicFlix
Comedy matchmaker Hal Roach, the auteur-producer who aligned the stars of Laurel & Hardy and The Little Rascals, envisioned a female duo with the same knockabout antics, slow-burn reactions, and crackerjack timing as his beloved male and juvenile franchises. Roach initially paired ZaSu Pitts, the comedienne whom Erich von Stroheim had cast brilliantly against type in Greed and declared “the greatest dramatic actress,” with Thelma Todd, a sprightly blonde contract player who’d appeared to charming if limited effect in Roach’s Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase shorts. The addled Pitts and wholesome Todd appeared in 17 popular two-reelers between 1931-33, but salary disputes ended Pitts’s association with Roach Studios, necessitating a new partner for Todd, whose stock had risen in the interim with a range of showcase roles (including the faithless wife of Sam Spade’s partner in the original 1931 Maltese Falcon).
Enter Patsy Kelly. The brash, Brooklyn-born character actress known as “the queen of the wisecracks” offered something different from what Pitts brought to the mix—whether or not the contemporaneous public knew what it was. An open lesbian off-screen and without an atom of demureness to her name, Kelly added a brazen and decidedly masculine energy that commingled with Todd’s fresh-faced allure to produce a not necessarily sexual but unquantifiable resonance (not unlike that of Laurel & Hardy, who shared a bed in their screen pairings and often drove each other to tears). The relationship of Kelly to Todd—pigeonholed as her sidekick but the catalyst for most of their adventures, with a taste for transgression surpassing basic slapstick necessity—adds a charged ambiguity to their sunny-single-girl-with-quirky-friend dynamic, like Mary and Rhoda with different notions of how to make it after all.
In their first, highly representative teaming, Beauty and the Bus (1933), the pals (who always used their real names on screen) win a car in a raffle; Patsy dares Thelma to speed, goads a cop into writing them a ticket, demolishes another roadster, and disavows all blame with a snarl. There’s a belligerence to Patsy, and an affinity in Thelma that goes beyond mere indulgence, which make the vignettes fascinating despite their silly plots and malaprop-rich (or poor) dialogue. ClassicFlix’s three-disc set includes all 21 Todd & Kelly shorts released before Todd’s tragic and controversial death in 1935, plus Roach’s efforts to reteam Kelly with Pert Kelton (too many kooks spoiled the broth) and exotic blonde Lyda Roberti (whose death in 1938 marked the end of the “female Laurel & Hardy” push). Sadly missing is the scene from the 1941 Roach-produced feature Broadway Limited that found Kelly and Pitts grappling with a Pullman bed and a baby, bringing the raucous roundelay full circle.