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It's Thelma Todd Day on TCM!

by Leonard Maltin
August 29, 2010 4:00 AM
9 Comments
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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.

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9 Comments

  • E. Chase | September 5, 2010 12:28 PMReply

    Hey everyone--the marathon was on TCM Turner Classic Movies! NOT AMC. AMC is no longer the channel for those who like un-interupted classic movies, TCM is wonderful, but on most cable and satellite services only is available on higher priced packages.

  • Kevin Butler | September 3, 2010 11:19 AMReply

    Dear Lenny,

    I've just seen the Thelma Todd movie marathon on TCM last week..

    What a wonderful tribute to one of the movies' most talented and

    charming performers.

    I enjoyed the films that she did with L&H and her work with Ms.Pitts

    and Ms.Kelly..but I also got to see her working with Messers:Wheeler &

    Woolsey in"Hips,Hips,Hooray!" and"Cockeyed Cavailers".

    Ms.Todd was a truly talented lady..it's sad that we lost her all too soon in

    that tradgeic situation back in the winter of 1935.

    We can only imagine..what she could have accomplished in other medias

    asside from films..if she had lived?

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and happy memories of the films

    of Ms.Thelma Todd/"The Ice Cream Blonde",

    Kevin S.Butler.

  • Bernard Waltzer | September 3, 2010 5:53 AMReply

    I'm so glad that TCM showed many Thelma Todd movies. Amazing that she performed in so many and yet didn't live to the age of 30. It was so enjoyable to watch her, but it's hard to do so without thinking about the many reports of her self destructive escapades. I Googled a number of her movie co-performers and was saddened to learn of how many died young and were probably alcoholic.

  • Chuck Munson | September 2, 2010 5:32 AMReply

    I couldn't find any mention of the Thelma Todd marathon, so when I had a minute to come back and recheck Leonard's post, I discovered a big ooops on my part for naming AMC rather than TCM (not once but twice no less!). Thanks to Craig for his kind and correct aside! And yes, now that I have my cable channels straight again - it is indeed TCM that I have watched more of for the classics in recent years.

  • Ryan | August 31, 2010 7:10 AMReply

    Aside from the Marx/L&H fare I had never seen Todd's stuff. But I was very impressed yesterday. SHOW BUSINESS and CATCH AS CATCH CAN were probably my two favorites.

  • Drew | August 31, 2010 6:56 AMReply

    I am certainly a new Thelma Todd fan (having never even heard of her prior to today, since I'm only 32 years old and haven't seen many old films). I stumbled onto the TCM marathon this morning, and was struck by her beauty and magnetism on the screen. Her story is tragic, but thankfully there is the unique value of film as a medium that reaches across generations.

  • Craig Seavers | August 31, 2010 6:46 AMReply

    The choices of the Thelma Todd films by TCM were fun ones. (Aside to Chuck Munson - it's been years since AMC has shown classic films like these. Very grateful for TCM.) Thelma Todd sure had the talent to do any kind of script that was handed to her.

  • sheila floyd | August 30, 2010 9:14 AMReply

    While I had heard her name a lot; I'd never really watched a film aware of who I was watching. So I've enjoyed the day. I swear I think I remember reading in F. Scott Fitzgerald's collected letters that he thought her the most beautiful the current day actresses. I think in profile she looks like a Drew Barrymore.

  • Chuck Munson | August 30, 2010 4:49 AMReply

    Leonard,
    Thank you (and by extension AMC) for introducing or re-introducing some of these wonderful stars who seem to suffer only by the passage of time from the general public and not by the strength of their abilities. I was familiar with ZaSu Pitts (with a name like that, who'd forget it once they heard it?!), but only "recognized" Thelma Todd's name. You can see joie de vivre in that wonderful smile in your posted photos and I will have to check your AMC link to see if any of these will be repeated this week,

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