Thelma Todd was an American actress who is best remembered for her comedic roles in films like ‘Monkey Business,’ ‘Speak Easily,’ and ‘Horse Feathers.’ She was known for her great comic timing, and her 17 short films with Zasu Pitts are proof of what a talented actress she was. These shorts were shot over a period of two years in the 1930s, and they are quite progressive considering the era they were shot in. In a career spanning just nine years, she had appeared in supporting and major roles in more than 120 movies. Her career started with silent films and she was one of the few actresses who were able to make a successful transition to sound films. She was at the peak of her career when her life was brutally cut short in 1935. She died under mysterious circumstances, with many arguing that it was a murder rather than a suicide or an accidental death. Despite having a very short career, she managed to leave behind an indelible mark on Hollywood.
Childhood & Early Life
Thelma Todd was born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA. Her father, John Todd, was Irish, while her mother, Alice Todd, was Canadian.
She was a bright child and exceled in her studies. She wanted to become a school teacher, so after graduating from high school, she enrolled at Lowell State Normal School to train as a teacher.
Her mother had other plans for her. She encouraged Thelma to take part in beauty pageants. She won numerous beauty contests, and in 1925, she was crowned ‘Miss Massachusetts.’
She also took part in the ‘Miss America’ contest in 1925. Though she did not win, she was spotted by talent scouts who were looking for new faces to star in their movies. On their recommendation, she joined the Paramount School for Junior Stars, a school that was set up by Paramount Movie Studio to train actors and actresses.
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Thelma Todd’s acting career began with collaborations with Hal Roach, who directed her in one or two comedy shorts. These comedy shorts proved that not only did she have great comic timing, but that she was also great at physical comedy.
She was noticed by Paramount Pictures, who signed her for a role in her first film, ‘Fascinating Youth,’ in 1926. The same year, she also appeared in ‘God Save Me Twenty Cents.’
In 1927, she appeared in ‘Rubber Heels,’ ‘Fireman, Save My Child,’ and ‘Nevada,’ which was a western and starred William Powell and Gary Cooper. In 1928, she had a role in a part-talkie film, titled ‘Abie’s Irish Rose.’
Her first full-length talkie film was released in 1929; the movie was titled, ‘Her Private Life.’ She essayed the role of Mrs. Leslie and the movie revolved around an English aristocrat who divorces her husband and elopes with a young American. Her transition to talkies was smooth because she had a very good and clear voice.
In 1931, Thelma Todd starred in 14 movies, of which ‘Monkey Business’ was the most successful. This was the Marx Brothers’ third movie, but it was their first movie to have an original screenplay. Thelma essayed the role of Lucille Briggs and was highly appreciated for her comic sense.
Though she loved doing comedies, she wanted to do dramatic movies also. In 1931, Ronald West, whom she was dating at that time, decided to establish her as an actress who could do dramatic movies also.
In 1931, the film ‘Corsair’ was released. It was a crime drama that was produced and directed by Ronald West and starred Thelma Todd (credited as Alison Loyd) and Chester Morris. The film fared poorly at the box office and Thelma went back to doing comedies.
From 1931 to 1932, she did 17 comedy shorts under the direction of Hal Roach. Zasu Pitts was her partner in these shorts and the first short was titled ‘Let’s Do Things.’ Thelma and Pitts were portrayed as the female version of Laurel and Hardy.
In 1932, she acted in the next Marx Brothers’ movie, ‘Horse Feathers.’ The same year, she was part of another successful film, ‘This is the Night.’ This was Cary Grant’s debut film and Thelma essays the role of his wife Claire.
Thelma Todd was a very level-headed person and knew that the career span of an actress was very short. In order to ensure that she had a steady supply of income once her acting career was over, she started her very own café, called Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café, in partnership with her ex-boyfriend Roland West. The café was opened in 1934.
The film, ‘The Bohemian Girl’ (1936), which starred Laurel and Hardy, was her last one. It was released after her death. Out of respect for her, it was decided that all her scenes, except one song, would be deleted from the movie.
Thelma Todd’s comedy shorts with Zasu Pitts and later on with Patsy Kelly established her as a comedian. These shorts were mostly about two girls determined to make it big in the city. Todd essayed the role of a sensible girl, while Pitts acted like a clown, forever getting into mischiefs. Todd was praised for her comic timing and glamourous looks.
Her film ‘Her Private Life’ (1929) was a major career milestone for her, not only because it was a box office success, but also because it gave her a solid footing in the film industry in the talkie era.
Family & Personal Life
Thelma Todd was linked to many men, including Ronald West, who was married when they began dating.
In 1932, she married Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco, who was a producer, agent, and small-time gangster. Theirs was a rocky marriage, punctuated with frequent bouts of domestic violence. They divorced in 1934.
On December 16, 1935, she was found dead in her car, which was parked in actress Jewel Carmen’s garage. Though her death was ruled as a case of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, many believed that she was killed. Ronald West, Pasquale DiCicco, and Lucky Luciano, the New York mobster, were the prime suspects in her alleged murder.
Thelma Todd was often referred to by her nicknames, The Ice Cream Blonde and Hot Toddy.