SUtS: Thelma Todd

Brandie’s choice: Monkey Business (1931)

Airing at 8:00PM EST

Thelma Todd is somewhat overlooked today, as not many modern audiences remember her tragically short career. She died at the age of 29, having completed over 100 short-subject and feature-length pictures in the ten years between her debut in 1926 and her death in 1935.

Her death was surrounded by controversy and is still considered by some to be one of the great unsolved mysteries of Hollywood history. In December 1935, Todd was found in her car, her death ruled a suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning. Conflicting reports resulted from the police investigation into Todd’s death; some acquaintances claimed she had been feeling depressed for some time, and still others firmly stated that Todd had been quite happy in the wake of an acrimonious divorce.

Whatever the cause of her death, whether intentional or not, the specter of her strange demise eclipsed attention to her rather prolific career, which is a shame. Todd was a wonderful actress, equally adept in comedy and drama (as demonstrated by her performance in the original 1931 film version of The Maltese Falcon, in which she portrayed Iva, Miles Archer’s devious wife). But her greatest success lay in divining laughs from her audience. Todd, a truly talented comedienne, held her own against some of her most manic and gifted male counterparts: Laurel and Hardy (see Carrie’s recommendation below), Charley Chase, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, and the Marx Brothers, her costars in my choice for today.

Monkey Business marks the third screen appearance of the Marx Brothers, and their first film from an original script. Their first two pictures, The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930), were based on the brothers’ Broadway shows. Business was based on a screenplay written by S.J. Perelman and Will B. Johnstone, but the film features so much improvisation on the parts of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo that assigning credit for certain parts of the script is a difficult task.

In the movie, the brothers play four stowaways on an ocean liner who are discovered by the irascible captain and his crew. After an extensive chase around the ship, the brothers find themselves on opposite sides of a gang war, wherein Groucho and Zeppo are hired as bodyguards for one gangster, Briggs (whose wife, Lucille–played by Todd–is lusted after by Groucho), while Chico and Harpo are hired as bodyguards for his rival, Helton. As you can imagine, the typical Marx Brothers’ nuttiness ensues.

This movie is usually ranked among the brothers’ best work (though I am partial to Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera myself). And though Todd is not the brothers’ most memorable female foil–that title belongs to the inimitable Margaret Dumont–she is none the less effective playing against notorious scene-stealer Groucho. You won’t quickly forget the so-called “Ice Cream Blonde” once you’ve seen her in action.

By the by, this was not Thelma Todd’s only encounter with the Marx brand of craziness: she would go on to costar with the Marx Brothers again in the following year’s Horse Feathers.

Carrie’s choice: The Bohemian Girl (1936)

Airing at 2:00AM EST

This caught my eye because of the title. The plot is pretty fun too: the Count’s daughter is kidnapped and raised by gypsies, and doesn’t know about her noble birth. Thelma Todd plays the gypsy queen’s daughter, in her last role before her death in 1935.

It’s a pretty classic story. Little Arline has some pretty rotten luck, getting kidnapped and then later thrown in the dungeon for trespassing on what should be her own property. It’s a fairytale kind of story, and that’s always fun. But it isn’t the same fairytale again, and there is certainly plenty of misfortune in this one, which could be why Disney hasn’t picked it up yet.

It has to be a fun movie. I mean, check out the costumes:

Straight out of a storybook. It’s classic on several levels, which adds to the levels of appeal.

Nobility, gypsies, secrets, errors… it has all the great plot twists we crave. Starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (oh yes…), along with Thelma Todd, it promises to be quite a movie. And by quite a movie, I mean quite a crazy movie. I’d be disappointed otherwise. I mean, just look at the poster. We all need a little comedic tragedy, or tragic comedy, or just plain insanity in our lives. However, this one plays at 2:00 am, so unless you’re a member of the late-night club, you might want to DVR it. I am!

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