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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Thelma Todd

If anyone is disposed to finally clear up the mystery of Thelma Todd’s 1935 death, we are eager to take your statement. Having waited for going on a century, we’d all welcome closure (original investigation paperwork disappeared generations ago as part of the "cover-up"). Whatever else she accomplished, Todd will be best remembered as the body slumped over a driver's wheel in the wake of what Double Indemnity's Walter Neff would call a "monoxide job." Fans yet make pilgrimage to the grisly site where speculation continues as to what killed Thelma. I say it was a grotesque accident, involuntary manslaughter at best, the perpetrator, and all of friends and associates, so long dead as to make further clarification all but impossible. We could as profitably unmask Jack The Ripper. What is left of Thelma Todd in a public's consciousness, apart from circumstance of her passing, is support work with comedians whose names do survive, and surely she did something right, because Todd appeared alongside some greats. There was a Thelma Todd starring series at Hal Roach, two-reel comedies where she and ZaSu Pitts (then later Patsy Kelly) paired off as a distaff Laurel and Hardy. The Todd/Pitts/Kelly shorts were a trail mix of mirth and tedium, some pretty funny, others an ordeal. Zazu is easier to take than Patsy. The weakest of these comedies at least had Thelma, always a welcome sight, especially on occasions when she effects costume changes on camera, and there were happily lots of those …

Thelma Todd's birthplace was Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was born in 1906. There has been local recognition, one most noteworthy for her centennial. There was a New England cousin who spent her life collecting on Thelma. When she died, they auctioned the memorabilia. Sad when product of a lifetime’s pursuit is so casually disposed of, but there is bittersweet finish for most 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, she lucked into comedy parts. This was a niche conventional actresses on the rise were less ambitious to fill, indeed she was typecast from there on, efforts to drama-tize Thelma fallen on deaf casting ears. A new name was tried (Alison Loyd), but doomed to crowd inclination to laugh rather than take her seriously. Corsair with Chester Morris was a 1931 experiment, but crowds wanted her no way other than comedy (two-reel partner ZaSu Pitts had the same problem).

Multiple smash-ups, both on account of drink and ongoing lack of motor skills, nearly got Thelma killed (a palm tree jumped out in front of her car on one occasion), but she'd work steady until that night in December 1935 when lights went out. Short of further and Byzantine detail, we may best concede that Todd’s death has not. likely never will be, satisfactorily explained. Her maid found the body, no signs of violence reported at the time, evidence indicating Todd perished amidst fumes from her car engine. Had she gone there during the chilly night to warm up? There was a quarrel with live-in Roland West, a director down on his luck, but well connected in Hollywood
power circles. He had banished her from the house, then followed her to the garage and by several accounts locked her inside. There was no indication she struggled to get out. In fact, Todd was found in the front seat of her car. West by several accounts, including possibly his own, went down the next day to check on her and found the result of his having sealed the door . From there, it was a matter of waiting out discovery by an innocent third party, then feigning surprise when told. Investigators are said to have got a confession from Roland West, this suppressed "for the good of the industry." Shortly before his own death in 1952, West made his peace again to actor and close friend Chester Morris, which Morris passed it along to producer Alex Gordon and film historian William K. Everson. All this strikes me as more plausible than another Todd biographer who asserts she was offed by Lucky Luciano's mob after being involved with the notorious racketeer and killer. This the naturally the account that has gotten most airplay since. More recent researchers, online and in print, have taken a saner approach and done much to correct the record. Assist toward this has been increased access to Thelma Todd's output and a present generation's embrace of her life and pleasing performances. 

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 The Bohemian Girl 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.


Blogger Dave said...

I've been mocked for this before, but I think Drew Barrymore is a dead ringer for Thelma -- certainly closer in looks than Loni Anderson. I wouldn't want to see another biopic, as Drew lacks the charm, intelligence, and humor that Thelma gave us, but still . . .

10:49 PM  
Blogger convict 13 said...

Thelma most certainly had a great career in front of the cameras, working with the greatest comedian's of the day. It would be good if she would be remembered for that alone.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Nevada screened at CINEVENT this past weekend, as did the Todd-Pitts comedy On the Loose and the Todd-Kelly short The Tin Man. All were presented as a Todd Centennial tribute.

11:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

July is going to be Thelma Todd Month at I love her (and also see her in Drew Barrymore). I never discuss her death with anybody, because her life and films are much more worth talking about IMO.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@Dave; Bullcrap, she's still here, and she's gone on to do more than Thelma Todd ever did (including having kids and playing one of the ill-fated Bouviers in Grey Gardens.) I'd like to see her as Thelma Todd in a movie, and I have a feeling that she'd pull it off.

People just LOVE to diss current actors, but guess what? After we're all dead and gone, people will be considering these actors just as 'classic' as the ones on this and other nostalgia blogs.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

In all fairness to Thelma Todd, unlike Drew Barrymore, she didn't start her acting career as a child, but still managed to cram in about 120 films in 9 years by the age of 29 and was highly rated by some serious legends of that era.
It's unfair to compare their careers on any level as Todd never got to complete hers.
However, I do like both actresses and up to about 10 years ago, Drew would have been my choice to play Thelma Todd in a biopic.
Anyone who's seen a hell of a lot of Todd's publicity portraits should have at some point noticed a resemblance between the two, even their profiles are strikingly similar.

5:36 PM  

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