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It's Thelma Todd Day on TCM!

Leonard Maltin By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin August 29, 2010 at 4:00AM

Thelma Todd and her screen partner ZaSu Pitts.
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Thelma Todd and her screen partner ZaSu Pitts.

I’ve been in love with Thelma Todd for a long, long time, and I know a number of old-movie buffs who feel the same way about the beautiful blond comedienne. But I never dreamed that she would be spotlighted on Turner Classic Movies’ Summer Under the Stars series alongside such heavyweights as Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. (For a complete schedule, click here: www.tcm.com.

—death in 1935, which still ranks among Hollywood’s great unsolved mysteries. I prefer to celebrate her vivacious screen personality and comic savvy, which was appreciated by the best comedians in the business, including Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Charley Chase, Joe E. Brown, Wheeler and Woolsey, Jimmy Durante, and Buster Keaton, to name just a few.

Publicity cheesecake for the Hal Roach studio.

Whether she was playing straight-woman to Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers or demure leading lady to Charley Chase in one of his two-reel comedies, she brought a sparkle to every scene. Watch them together in The Pip from Pittsburgh (screening on TCM at 10:30 a.m. EST) and you’ll see what I mean.


Comedy producer Hal Roach also starred her in a short-subject series opposite ZaSu Pitts, hoping the duo would catch on as a kind of female Laurel and Hardy. The women were fine but the scripts were not, except in a few instances, and the same was true when Pitts bowed out and Patsy Kelly became Thelma’s partner. TCM is showing examples of both series, including the best entries, Bargain of the Century (at 4:30 p.m.) and Top Flat (at 7:30 p.m.)

Thelma and Groucho Marx in Monkey Business.

Thelma also appeared in dramatic parts, usually cast as “the other woman” or some form of vamp. In the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon (airing at 3:15 a.m. Tuesday) she’s Miles Archer’s widow, the role played by Gladys George in John Huston’s more famous 1941 remake. She could play the same kind of women for laughs, and often did; she seemed most at home in the field of comedy.

That sparkle I refer to was just as potent off-screen as on. She was well-liked by costars and coworkers alike at the Hal Roach studio, which was home base for much of her career. They refused to believe the theory that she killed herself because she was so full of life. I’m glad TCM is devoting an entire day to Thelma Todd and hope it will introduce her to a new generation of fans.

Thelma as Miles Archer’s widow in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon.

This article is related to: Journal