Before Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley, or Mary and Rhoda, there were Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. Separately, they were journeymen character actors in 1930s Hollywood. Together, they became the first major female comedy team, appearing in shorts that found them bonded as friends and career women struggling to make it on their own—the Depression-era answer to Abbi and Ilana of Broad City.
Over a two-year period, they made 17 shorts rarely seen since their theatrical release—and now collected for Thelma Todd & Zasu Pitts: The Hal Roach Collection 1931-33, a two-DVD set. Theyre revelatory viewing, progressive, and proto-feminist portrayals of two career girls in the big city, defiantly dependent on each other.
Hal Roach, the legendary producer who teamed up Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, envisioned Todd and Pitts as a female equivalent to his marquee stars. Blonde-bombshell Todd was a beauty queen plucked from Massachusetts by a talent scout and brought to Hollywood in the 1920s, where she primarily played comic relief in other peoples films. Kansas-born Pitts was a prolific character actress, so typecast as a comedienne that few directors took her seriously for dramatic roles (though her finest hours were in Erich von Stroheims epic, Greed). The contrast between them was more about character than looks. Todd was brash and confident, and Pitts a more dithery presence; think Olive Oyl.
“They have gumption; theyre unflappable,” explained Molly Haskell, film critic and author of the seminal book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. “Theyre looking out for each other; you could just feel the value of the twosome. . . . They are modern women. Hopefully, they will rise to the top—but in the meantime, theyre just going to wing it and figure things out.”
The duos first short, Lets Do Things, establishes their dynamic. Thelma and Zasu promote sheet-music sales in a department store. Pitts moons over her boyfriend, but a disapproving Thelma prompts her to remember why the two came to New York in the first place. “To advance ourselves, to meet the best people, and to do big things,” Pitts responds. By the end of the short, the boyfriend gets a pie in the face, courtesy of Todd.
“Theyre always going to have each others back,” Haskell noted. “I dont think theres any of the shorts where they fight over a man.”
Todd and Pittss gender alone made them somewhat revolutionary in their day. Comedy teams were primarily the province of men: the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy. “Slapstick was what men loved, and women didnt because the whole core of it was tearing things up,” Haskell said. “It was chaotic and women wanted order. The defense of the domestic was a womans role . . . and slapstick violated the sense of order and decency and uprightness. They didnt find it funny.”
But Todd and Pitts were both game for the physical stuff. In Lets Do Things, Todd suffers a throw-about throttling from a quack osteopath; in the courtroom comedy Sneak Easily, juror Pitts throws a murder trial into chaos when she swallows a piece of the evidence—an explosive.
But in their best shorts (which, like the rest of their work, were written and directed by men), the mayhem is mostly in the service of a female narrative, observed film historian Jeanine Basinger. “Its situational comedy,” she said. “If youre going to make a plot centered around women, what the heck is she going to do just sitting around the house? They have to get out there in some way. . . . When you look at these films, what you see is what [the creators] thought was a good comedy female situation in that era. You have the chaos over Zasus hat in the boxing arena in Catch-as Catch-Can, the high-society party in which they are fish out of water in The Pajama Party, and the department-store melee in The Bargain of the Century. . . . The American woman on film is really a pretty active person, unless she is just stooging it in a male genre. Things have to happen to them, and they have to react. These shorts reflect that very clearly.”
More than 80 years on, the Todd-Pitts shorts play surprisingly well. Their appeal, talent, and chemistry elevate even the most dated material. “I like [Todd and Pitts] so much, and enjoy watching them,” said Leonard Maltin, author of the recently published anthology, Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom and the essential 1970 book Movie Comedy Teams.
“I cannot tell a lie: the shorts are not all good. The gag men had a hard time coming up with suitable material that wouldnt de-feminize them or make them look outlandishly unladylike, but [Todd and Pitts] play well today because [the characters] arent so different from two young women trying to make their way in the world in 2018. The struggles they have by and large tend not to be sexist. If they lose a job, they are comically inept, or its a blown opportunity.”
Max and Caroline of 2 Broke Girls, which ran for six seasons on CBS earlier this decade, could be the granddaughters of Thelma and Zasu. Beth Behrs, who played fallen privileged high society woman Caroline, formed a formidable odd couple relationship with Max (Kat Dennings), a street-smart waitress trying to start her own cupcake business. Their chemistry, Behrs said, was instant, and their real-life friendship informed their onscreen rapport over the shows six seasons.
Though the actress was previously unfamiliar with Todd and Pitts, she watched a couple of their shorts on YouTube and saw a kinship with those aspirational woman. “It was important [Caroline and Max] were full-fledged women who really were entrepreneurs,” she said. “We never had a love interest for more than a season. It wasnt about finding a man; it was about loving each other and building the business from nothing, and the two of them going after the American Dream together.”
For Todd and Pitts, the dream ended when Zasu left the team in 1933. Hal Roach replaced her with Patsy Kelly. Todd, who had appeared in some Laurel and Hardy shorts, is perhaps best known today for her two films with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Her career was tragically cut short in 1935 when at the age of 29 she was found dead in her car. A grand jury ruled her death a suicide, but that did not explain bruises around her throat, a broken nose and other injuries; her death remains one of Hollywoods unsolved mysteries.
What do these 80+-year-old shorts have to tell us in 2018? “They show us what all old movies show us,” Basinger said. “They show us how it was, and they show us how it is. We can see attitudes, we can see women out in the world doing things, having ideas and speaking out. And they show us how we are today.”
Two Broke Girls ended its run in 2017. Behrs currently stars with Max Grenfield and Cedric the Entertainer in another CBS comedy, The Neighborhood, about a white couple that moves into a predominantly black neighborhood. The first seasons initial episodes have already glimpsed the comic possibilities in her characters relationship with her next door neighbor (Cedrics wife), played by Tachina Arnold. “There is an electricity between us,” Behrs said. “The writers saw it, and are exploring turning us into a Lucy and Ethel.”
More Great Stories from Vanity Fair
— Go deep inside the Academys popular-Oscar mess
— Comedy M.V.P. Jason Mantzoukas is taking center stage
— Patricia Arquettes getting the best roles of her life
— Fantastic Beasts: Examining the puzzle of Dumbledores sexual orientation
— Its O.K.—you can like Netflixs new artfully made Dogs series
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hollywood newsletter and never miss a story.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.