Thelma Todd: Fetching Funny-Lady Who Was Maybe Murdered

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Today is the birthday of every classic comedy lover’s principal heart throb Thelma Todd (1906-1935). Originally trained to be a schoolteacher, Todd also participated in beauty pageants, competing for the title of Miss America in 1925 as Miss Massachusetts. The exposure from the national pageant attracted movie producers. Her first film was a supporting role in the 1926 feature Fascinating Youth; her first comedy was the 1927 film Rubber Heels with Ed Wynn and Chester Conklin.

While Todd continued to appear in non-comic films to the end of her career, the most famous of these being the original version of The Maltese Falcon (1931), her lasting reputation was to be as a comedienne, and she co-starred with an unusually long list of the top funny men of her day. Her immense utility arose in the rare fact that she was stunningly beautiful, possessed of grace and charm, yet funny. And she was equally adept at playing vamps and “nice” girls. She had a sort of “game” quality; she seemed willing and able to interact with the comedians at their own level, on their own terms, creating a kind of magic in their scenes together.

She could be anything: the girl next door; an angry wife; a socialite; a gun moll, or even a vamp

While she had appeared in a number of silent comedy features, such as 1928’s Vamping Venus with Charlie Murray and Louise Fazenda, it was in the early sound era that she made her permanent mark. Starting in 1929, Hal Roach cast her in shorts opposite Charley Chase, Harry Langdon and Laurel and Hardy. She was so popular in these that she was a natural choice when Roach decided to form an all-female comedy team in 1931, hoping to recreate the success he’d had with Laurel and Hardy.(Initially she was paired with Zasu Pitts, later with Patsy Kelly).

While these comedy shorts were being regularly cranked out, she also appeared in features, such as her two with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932); two with Joe E. Brown, Broadminded (1931) and Son of a Sailor (1933); Speak Easily with Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante (1932); Palooka with Durante and Lupe Velez; two with Wheeler and Woolsey, Hips, Hips Hooray and Cock-Eyed Cavaliers (both 1934); and features with Laurel and Hardy such as Fra Diavolo 1933 and The Bohemian Girl (1936). And there were also ensemble comedies and musicals like Sitting Pretty (1933) with Jack Oakie, Jack Haley and Ginger Rogers; and The Poor Rich (1934) with Edward Everett Horton, and Edna May Oliver. 

In 1931 she worked on the pirate picture Corsair with director Roland West. The two were to become lovers and co-owners of a successful restaurant called Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. Unfortunately Todd’s young life was cut short in late 1935 when she was found dead in her car of carbon monoxide poisoning. Because there was some evidence that she had been roughed up (and she had little motive for suicide) there was some suspicion of foul play, with suspects including West, her ex-husband Pat DiCiccio (a movie producer), and some shady mob backers of her club. But the mystery was never solved, although some claim West confessed on his death bed. The story has many of the qualities of the many whodunits Todd starred in and West directed.

Her joint, the Sidewalk Cafe

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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