Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Bargain of the Century - 1933

“The Bargain of the Century” (1933) is one of a series of Hal Roach shorts featuring Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd, surely one of the most endearing comedy teams Hollywood ever produced. They were “Laverne & Shirley” before there was a Laverne & Shirley, but they also were equal parts Laurel & Hardy, and some sweetness all their own that went beyond mere clownish self protection in a rough world.

Charley Chase, whose comedic talent as an actor and writer gives him a slapstick slant as director for this short film, which begins with a car chase. Zasu and Thelma -- they played themselves -- are rushing to get to a department store sale, and they knock over a traffic cop in their Model A in the process. A motorcycle cop gives chase -- through city streets, over trolley tracks, loses them when they drive down what appears to be a subway entrance below the sidewalk and finally catches up to them with a sarcastic,

“Pardon me, but could you spare me a moment of your time?”

The ladies get out of the car, Thelma half dragged by the cop played by James Burtis, and attempt to explain, flatter, and flirt their way out of a ticket. Thelma Todd, a beautiful, and typical platinum blonde of the era, is the more street savvy of the two. Zasu Pitts, while not exactly a dummy, is more naïve and passive, which makes it funny that Thelma is always urging Zasu to do the flirting so that she herself can make with the fast talk.

Zasu, whose on-the-surface expressions of worry, befuddlement, and wonder, as well as the warble in her voice and her repetitious “oh, dear!” will probably instantly remind you of Olive Oyl. There’s a reason for that. Mae Questel, the originator of Olive Oyl’s distinctive voice, was imitating Zasu Pitts.

Flirting is a tough chore for the well-meaning but socially inept Zasu, however she’s a game girl and does her job as best she can, with hilarious results. In real life, Miss Todd was about 12 years her junior, but in this series, the girls are shown as being contemporaries with Thelma Todd taking a protective manner over Zasu. To be sure, they are always there for each other.

They worm their way into the cop’s good graces when Thelma tells him Zasu is the daughter of the police superintendent. They were driving like maniacs because they desperately need to get to a department store sale to buy three sets of bed sheets. But, since the 67 cent-sheets are only one to a customer, the cop agrees to go along and by the third set for them.

Yes, he’s not that bright, but he’s a good egg.

The opening of the store reminds one of those horror stories of Wal-Mart opening early on Black Friday, with crowds trampling people to get in first. Fortunately, the only one trampled here is the store manager, so that’s okay. A couple of interns with a stretcher scoop him up.

There is some rib-tickling, punching, and close-quarter contact to wrestle the sheets from other customers -- and a cute spot where Zasu ends up cuddling a chubby fellow in an effort to reach around him, and he gives her his phone number:

“MEtropolitan4000, and ask for Elmer”.

But, the charade is over when the real police lieutenant shows up, and the cop is fired. In the interrogation, poor Zasu keeps getting referred to as a “palooka”.

The girls feel badly for causing the cop to lose his job. And, as they do pretty much in all their shorts, they turn their energies to helping those less fortunate. They take him into their home. When they trudge home from work, he is there in an apron, like a houseman, not a very good houseman, but somebody who earnestly tries to pay his way. He sets up a series of Rube Goldberg-type alarms to ward off intruders, because after all, they are girls living alone. A siren screams when they open their door. A Morris chair is rigged to dump a person on his head.

In the funniest gag, Thelma opens the closet door, and a boxing glove mounted on the end of an extending scissors arm belts her in the side of the head. Yes, it’s crude, but the unexpected cartoonishness is a hoot.

But, the cop is not a reliable cook, for all his inventiveness, and Zasu is sent to fetch some grub from the deli downstairs. Here she meets Billy Gilbert, dressed in a sea captain’s uniform.

Billy, eating a banana at the time, of course, tosses the banana peel on the ground, and Zasu takes a spectacular fall. Of the two ladies, Zasu appears to be the more athletic, and though she was something like 39 years old when this film was made, demonstrates the suppleness, though not the grace, of a 14-year-old Romanian gymnast.

Billy carries her back to the apartment. Since she thinks he is not a sea captain, but a police captain, she and Thelma hope to butter him up to get their cop friend his job back. Billy is invited to join them for ice cream.

But, since this is 1933, nobody heads for Ben & Jerry’s at the store -- Zasu is sent to the kitchen to make some. Meanwhile, the ex-cop, trying to entertain the guest, pulls the old “pretending to destroy the watch” trick, while the Billy Gilbert’s real watch gets mistakenly ground up by Zasu in the ice cream maker. They end up pulling bits of watch works out of their mouths with each spoonful of vanilla.

Billy throws one of his patented fits and practically destroys the place, and they put the cop’s inventions to use to subdue him. The police arrive and the cop gets his old job back because Billy Gilbert is not just a sea captain, he is a wanted smuggler.

Though the ladies are backed up with all the elements of a Hal Roach production, and reliable character actors like Billy Gilbert, the charm of the duo is really their equal support of each other and their fellow man. Others got through the Depression with high adventure and sophisticated wit. These girls just stumble along until payday. For all the contrived boxing glove devices coming out of closets, this single motive makes them far more realistic than the grittiest Warner Bros. gangster movie.


Yvette said...

I am so fond of Zasu Pitts and her fluttery hands, Jacqueline. Though I've never seen this film. It sounds a hoot. Poor Thelma Todd, don't think I've ever seen her in a film.

The cop wisecrack you quoted had me laughing out loud. I love when that happens. They had some fun cops in those days. :)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Yvette, so glad to see a Zasu Pitts fan. Poor Thelma Todd is right, one of Hollywood's mysterious deaths. I don't know where her career would have taken her had she lived, but her chemistry with Zasu is a lot of fun.

Fred Theilig said...

I started a self education project to see the movies and stars I knew were famous. Now you've educated me about stars I SHOULD have known about. Too bad Netflix has no Hal Roach available on streaming.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Fred. Zasu and Thelma don't get much play, though TCM had a nice marathon of these and other Hal Roach shorts some weeks ago. These ladies deserve to be more well known.

Caftan Woman said...

The movie sounds like a lot of fun. I've seen Thelma work with Patsy Kelly, but so far Thelma and Zasu have eluded me.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Caftan Woman. We'll have to catch up with the Thelma and Patsy Kelly team sometime, too.

Lauren Hairston said...

I hope TCM shows this again soon! I love Zasu! Thanks for posting.

ClassicBecky said...

Jacqueline, I caught the TCM marathon and, since I had the day off, I think I got to watch almost all of the Zasu/Thelma shorts. I had never seen one before, and now I'm a huge fan. I liked your description of the girls as what would have been the case for most Americans at the time -- scraping by and praying for payday.

I didn't realize that Zasu was the inspiration for Olive Oyl, and now that you have told that, it makes perfect sense. Zasu was sos cute, and Thelma was a pretty woman who had no trouble playing a wisecracking dame. They were great!

Really good article about a new favorite duo for me.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much, Becky. I think we all owe TCM our thanks for showcasing this duo. I hope they do it again sometime, since I missed some of the Hal Roach shorts that day. I'm glad you had a chance to see them.

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