Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Lions and Bulls and Woman Drivers, oh my!

The Old Bull (1932)
Starring: Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, and Otto Fries
Director: George Marshall
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Thelma (Todd) is helping her friend ZaSu (Pitts) learn how to drive on a country back road. After ZaSu crashes into a barn, the ladies are stranded in farm country when the angry farmer (Fries) refuses to let them have their car back until they pay for the damage. When the news reports that a lion has escaped from a nearby circus, Thelma cooks up a plan to retrieve the car.

From 1931 through 1933, Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts co-starred in 17 short films from the same production company that brought us the team of Laurel & Hardy. In fact, Todd & Pitts are very much like a female version of Laurel & Hardy, with Todd being the "brains" and Pitts being the " simple, clumsy one"... although there is none of the abuse and venom between the two ladies that so often creeps into the interactions between the two gentlemen.

"The Old Bull" was the ninth film in the series, and it goes straight into the comedy with the barest of introductions of the two main characters, because I assume the filmmakers felt that viewers were familiar with Todd and Pitts's respective characters at this point. Even for viewers who weren't, once Pitts' foot gets twisted and stuck on the gas pedal, sending the car accelerating out of control, it's crystal clear who's who in the comedic line-up.

And for the whole 19-minute run-time of the film, Todd excels as a "straight man" to Pitts' goofiness and pratfalls (although Todd also gets the opportunity to do some gags of her own). The bits revolving around animals--primarily the duck that torments ZaSu on and off, and the lion that you know would eventually show up to make Thelma's stage hoax a reality--are top-notch, and they will have you laughing out loud more than once. Pitts and Todd both have perfect comedic timing, and they play well off each other.

Unfortunately, they are let down by the director and the script. The car crash sequence--where the ladies are zooming around a barnyard in the out-of-control car thanks to ZaSu's stuck foot--goes on too long. Individual moments in the sequence are hilarious, but the spans between them are each many seconds too long, making something that only lasts about a minute and half feel much longer. The sequence would have been stronger if we'd been spared some of the rear projection scenes of the ladies flailing in the car (although maybe 1932 audiences had a different reaction than a viewer in 2018 who is used to car chases and crashes enhanced with digital effects). As for the script, the film just sort of stops. While I can see the ending is a resolution of sorts, it still felt lacking, and I was left wanting more.

"The Old Bull" is one of the 17 film contained in the two DVD set Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts: The Hal Roach Collection 1931-1932. I will eventually review each film in the set here at Shades of Gray. (I started in the middle, because I accidentally put Disc Two in the DVD player and was too lazy to get up and change it.)

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