I once saw a documentary about mysterious cases in Hollywood and one was about Thelma Todd. I had no idea who she was. They showed images and excerpts from the Marx Brothers movies Monkey Business and Horse Feathers in the 1930’s.
So who is Thelma Todd, and why is it we don’t know (or at least I) her like we know … I don’t know, Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Mae West or Maureen O’Sullivan…
Thelma was born in 1905 (as was my grandfather!) and died at age 30 from carbon monoxide poisoning. Back then it was stated that it was accidental, but in the weeks that followed her death many theories arose saying it could have been suicide or murder, one possibility shared in Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon (criticized but still an option shared by many).
She acted from 1923 till 1935 in over a 130 movies, silent ones in supporting roles and in talkies. She starred in 4 Laurel and Hardy movies as the wife (usually bad-tempered and cross at the mischievous behaving of the pair). It was mainly thanks to Hal Roach, also behind Laurel and Hardy productions, that her roles expanded into more interesting ones. She owned a place called the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. A popular hangout for Hollywood actors as well as locals and tourists. It was in the garage near the Café that she was found in her parked car.
Though the Grand Jury back then declared it was accidental poisoning, theories said that she turned on the car to get warm after returning from a late night. Being in a closed garage she must have dosed off. Others said she committed suicide cause she was depressed and faced financial problems. Then there are those who think her ex boyfriend, a mob guy, wanted her out-of-the-way.
I don’t think we will ever know the truth. Cause for one, the mystery surrounding her is what makes her appealing. The evidence stated can seem dubious or very logical to explain – which does not help. A talented woman who was taken so young only adds to the intrigue. Yet today, I don’t think that many people know who she was, which movies she played in and what she brought to it. It’s only a guess what roles she could have had and how far she could have taken her career.
What is very eery is the lines that Groucho said in Monkey Business only months before her death (which I only know thanks to Wikipedia, yes I confess it fully):
“You’re a woman who’s been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten those breaks, but you’ll have to stay in the garage all night.”
It was nothing but a coincidence, but still I found it very unsettling to read that knowing what happened to her.