Monday Glamour Starter --- Thelma Todd
If there are any ninety-year old readers prepared to finally confess in the matter of Thelma Todd’s unsolved 1935 murder, we are ready, indeed anxious, to take your statement. Having waited seven decades to get this thing cleared up, I’d like to close the file on this one (not that anyone has access to the original investigation paperwork, it having disappeared generations ago as part of the "cover-up"). Whatever else she may have accomplished, this is what Todd will be best remembered for. Just a body slumped over a car seat in the wake of what Fred MacMurray would call a "monoxide job". People still make pilgrimages to her garage (it’s still there) and there have been wildly differing theories as to what happened to Thelma. I say it was just a grotesque accident --- involuntary manslaughter at best --- with the presumed miscreant, and all his friends and associates, having been dead for so long as to make the possibility of further clarification all but impossible. We might as well go back and try again to unmask Jack The Ripper. The little bit of Thelma Todd that’s left in the public consciousness, once you take away the mystery, is a handful of appearances with comedians whose names have survived, and the woman must have been doing something right, because she worked with some greats. There was even a Thelma Todd starring series at Hal Roach --- two-reel comedies in which she and ZaSu Pitts (later Patsy Kelly) paired off as a kind of distaff Laurel and Hardy. The fact these comedies are all but impossible to see now is courtesy of Hallmark Cards, regrettably still in custody of the Roach library. The Todd/Pitts/Kelly shorts were a real trail mix of mirth and tedium --- some of them are pretty funny, others sheer torture --- all fascinating. Zazu’s easier to take than Patsy. Even a subdued Patsy (and Patsy was never subdued) is akin to root canal without benefit of anesthesia, but at least there’s Thelma, and she’s always a welcome sight, especially on those occasions when she effects costume changes on camera, and there were happily lots of those …
There’s a Thelma Todd celebration coming up in Manchester, New Hampshire on July 27, 2006. You can read about it HERE. Manchester is only thirty miles from Thelma’s birthplace in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was born a hundred years ago this year, and they’ll be celebrating her birthday on July 29. There was a New England cousin who’d spent her life collecting on Thelma. When she died, they had an auction of all the memorabilia, and some newspaper sent down one of those I’m a well-adjusted writer with a normal life who’s come to interview all these geeks and wierdos at the old movie sale type articles. Very condescending, as is most of mainstream media’s coverage of such events. Always kind of sad when the product of a lifetime’s effort is so callously disposed of, but that’s the bittersweet, if not inevitable, finish for all collectors (and their collections). Thelma herself had cleared out of Lawrence by the time she was twenty, gone to Hollywood with an armload of loving cups from various Lion’s Clubs and the promise of stardom to come. That was slow in arriving, as there were tens of thousands out there just like her, but after an uncertain start with ingenue roles (here’s one of them --- Thelma with a young Gary Cooper and rival William Powell in 1927’s Nevada) she lucked into comedy parts. This was a niche conventional actresses on the rise were less ambitious to fill --- indeed she was typecast from then on, and efforts to drama-tize Thelma, even to the point of giving her a new name (Alison Loyd) were doomed to failure. Corsair with Chester Morris (shown here) was a 1931 experiment, but already Todd was so familiar in comedies that audiences wouldn’t accept her in anything else (her partner ZaSu Pitts had the same problem).
Multiple smash-ups, both on account of drinking and ongoing lack of motoring skills, nearly got Thelma killed (a palm tree jumped out in front of her car on one occasion), but she managed to get into a lot of product before that night in December 1935 when the lights went out. Without going into Byzantine detail, let’s just say that Thelma’s death has never been satisfactorily explained. The maid found her dead in the garage, with no signs of violence (some theorists differ on that point), and evidence indicated she’d perished amidst the fumes of her car engine. Had Thelma gone there during the chilly night to warm up? There’d been a fight with live-in Roland West (former major director down on his luck, but well connected in Hollywood power circles), and he’d banished her from the house. There’s convincing evidence he followed her down to the garage and locked her inside, but no indication she’d struggled to get out. In fact, Todd was found in the front seat. West supposedly went down the next day to check on her and found the grisly result of having sealed that door the night before. From there, it was just a matter of waiting out the discovery by an innocent third party, then feigning surprise when told. Investigators even got a confession out of Roland West, but all that was deep-sixed "for the good of the industry." Shortly before his own death in 1952, West spilled it again to close friend Chester Morris, and Morris eventually passed it along to Alex Gordon and Bill Everson. All this sounds a lot more plausible than another Todd biographer who asserts that Thelma was offed by Lucky Luciano's mob after she’d gotten mixed up with the notorious racketeer and killer. That’s the story that’s gotten the most airplay, and it’s admittedly made to order for the Mysteries and Scandals viewership, but I prefer the West angle. On the other hand, as I posited at the beginning, we may be addressing the (elderly) killer with this very post, and I may indeed be jeopardizing my own life by even exploring the matter!
Thelma was known as the "ice cream blonde" ("… and everyone wanted a lick" must surely have been a refrain on the lips of various Hollywood lotharios). This negligee shot with the phone is from the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon (her part in the remake was played by Gladys George!). Laurel and Hardy benefited from Thelma’s presence in several shorts --- too bad there weren’t more --- this one is Chickens Come Home, and she’s gorgeous in it. Monkey Business was one of two Marx Brothers features in which she participated. The other was Horse Feathers, but that one was code-cut in the late forties, and what’s left of Thelma’s key scene with the Brothers is so mutilated as to be almost incoherent. Too bad Universal hasn’t been able to locate better elements on this 1932 release. Buster Keaton was near a point of no return when Speak Easily found him sharing scenes with Thelma. This office exchange with John Barrymore in Counselor At Law also fell before the Code’s ax for a 1953 re-issue --- what’s left is still fine, but this missing footage appears to be gone forever. That's James Finlayson as a suspicious husband in The Devil’s Brother, and ZaSu Pitts poses with Thelma for a portrait heralding another Hal Roach short comedy. Their two-reelers generally ran ahead of Our Gang and The Boy Friends in terms of rentals, but behind Charley Chase and of course, the Laurel and Hardy series, which was the biggest earner of all. Hard to imagine them beating out Roach’s Rascals, considering how forgotten the Todd/Pitts shorts are today. This final image is something of a rarity --- Thelma Todd in The Bohemian Girl, a feature just completed at the time of her death. Preview audiences apparently saw Thelma, but hasty reshooting in the wake of her mysterious death found the part recast and virtually all her footage removed. This sequence with Antonio Moreno was not seen by the public, and very few stills of Thelma from this film have been published --- in fact, the only other one I’ve seen is in Randy Skretvedt’s excellent book, Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind The Movies.