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Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Want Excitement! I Want to Hot-Cha-Cha-Cha!

A Week in Byron’s Hollywood Dept., Day Four: We’re spending a few days celebrating some of the actors who created the character archetypes of the classic motion pictures.

                                                                 

Thelma Todd
WHAT SET HER APART from the platinum blondes of the early ’30s was that she could hold her own with the best of the comedians. Sure, Harlow worked with Gable and Barrymore, but Thelma Todd went up against the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, even Wheeler and Woolsey (who pushed censorship limits to the max. Their “So This Is Africa” may be the most enjoyably tasteless film of the pre-code era, with the most unexpected ad-lib).

Thelma Todd started out, as did so many, as a beauty queen, and her earliest films, which were silent, included her for that purpose only. As the talkies took over, she was fortunate enough to be working for Hal Roach, who started her off in the first Laurel and Hardy talking picture, a two-reeler titled “Unaccustomed as We Are.”

She’s the incredibly polite and obliging wife of irascible Edgar Kennedy, which can only mean that she’ll end up in camisole and step-ins in Hardy’s apartment as his own wife, sharp-tempered Mae Busch, is returning.

From there, Roach teamed her with ZaSu Pitts and then Patsy Kelly in a series of shorts films, and she returned for five more Laurel and Hardy pictures, including her final one, “The Bohemian Girl.”

But she may be best remembered as Groucho’s foil in two of Marx Brothers Paramount classics: “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers,” neither of which featured Margaret Dumont, his usual object of romance. In “Monkey Business,” she’s a bootlegger’s wife, and Groucho’s courtship begins in her stateroom on board a ship. It hits many surreal notes, as when she declares, “I want excitement! I want to hot-cha-cha-cha!” and Groucho grabs a conveniently located guitar to accompany a madcap dance she performs.

Her character remains unfazed by his antics, as if she senses his deeper longer. Or simply knows how to deal with writer S. J. Perelman’s brand of nonsense.

With Laurel and Hardy:
"Unaccustomed as We Are"
The guitar comes out again in “Horse Feathers” when Groucho takes his turn at the recurring song “Everyone Says I Love You,” serenading Todd, now playing a “college widow,” in a canoe. She tries to inveigle football signals from him by using baby talk; he causes her to fall overboard. It all seems to make sense.

If the Humphrey Bogart “Maltese Falcon” didn’t wipe the 1931 version from our collective memory, she might still be remembered as the widow Archer, with whom this Sam Spade (Ricardo Cortez) has been carrying on.

Todd did a backstage musical – “Two for Tonight” with Bing Crosby in 1935, and it’s clear that she could have settled into a long career at least as a Joan Blondell type, if not making a Ginger Rogers-esque break for top-billed stardom.

But she’d opened a nightclub called Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café a year before in Pacific Palisades, a place popular enough to attract gangsters along with its Hollywood clientele. It’s plausibly speculated that Todd’s death, at 29, of carbon monoxide poisoning, wasn’t the suicide that was ruled after she was found in the garage of her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, but rather a mob hit. The case never has been conclusively settled.

An unfortunate result of her death was that her work in “The Bohemian Girl” was severely cut. Like the earlier “Fra Diavolo,” in which she also appeared, this was an operetta re-worked to suit the antics of Laurel and Hardy. Whatever sense of scandal-avoidance led the Roach studio to re-shoot scenes and scissors others into mincemeat has left us with a barely-comprehensible mess.

"Monkey Business"
Thelma Todd’s film legacy numbers over a hundred titles, if you count the many shorts, and they continue to creep into some kind of availability. Turner Classic Movies has celebrated her with mini festivals, and you’ll easily find websites that offer endless speculation about her demise.

But look for her in “Monkey Business.” Follow her to Joe Helton’s party, where Groucho tries to cuddle with her outside on the porch. “Don’t,” she insists. “My husband mught be inside and if he finds me out here he’ll wallop me.”

“Always thinking of your husband,” pouts Groucho. “Couldn’t I wallop you as well?” He’s persuasive enough (it’s 1931 and he is Groucho) to inspire her to embrace him and declare, “Why, I think I’d almost marry you to spite that double-crossing crook!” Which brings out all his misguided sense of nobility. “Mrs. Briggs,” he says solemnly, “I’ve known and respected your husband for many years. And what’s good enough for him is good enough for me.”


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