The early decades of Hollywood and film are filled with far too many tragedies: young deaths and careers cut short by scandals. We’ve talked about some of those names here before, stories of mysterious deaths and things gone wrong. Thelma Todd is yet another name that fits on that list.
She also fits on another list: stars in early comedies that are sorely unremembered. Both leading actors and secondary actors alike, there are a wealth of early comic actors whose careers have faded. Thelma Todd is another one of those names as well.
Although best known for her roles in comedy talkies, Todd’s career actually started in silent films. Some of her earliest roles weren’t even comedies, either. From the very beginning, she found herself working with big stars in dramas: Gary Cooper, William Powell, Richard Dix, among others. For those first few years, she moved around different genres in supporting roles.
When 1929 hit, she not only found her niché, but had what could be considered a breakout year as well. She received her first starring role in the comedy/mystery film Seven Footprints to Satan. That wouldn’t even be her only comedy/mystery film that year alone, as the mixing of genres was popular for a brief period. And as a member of Hal Roach’s studio, she found herself working with the biggest names in comedy: Charley Chase, Harry Langdon and Laurel and Hardy.
From there, the comedy roles just never stopped. She rarely starred on her own, but played the leading female many a time. As silents gave way to talkies, she remained regular foil to Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy. She also starred opposite Harry Langdon a few more times, as he continued on the downswing of his career.
Her few starring roles at this same time came as duo in shorts with other females: first with Zasu Pitts and then Patsy Kelly. Pitts herself had a remarkable career, as a star in silents like Greed before becoming a prolific character actress.
But 1931 and 1932 were years of many highlights, far greater than her shorts. Todd appeared in the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers and Monkey Business, along with Buster Keaton’s Speak Easily. She also landed a rare dramatic starring role in Klondike, appeared in Clara Bow’s Call Her Savage and in a little film called The Maltese Falcon.
It certainly looks like the she was just hitting the peak of her career at this point. But she never reached heights like 1931 and 1932 again. She spent the next couple of years making those shorts with Patsy Kelly and appearing in films that were not as a major as the ones the previous years. And by 1936, she would be dead.
The circumstances of Thelma Todd’s death have always been shrouded by mystery, what led to her fate being a matter of controversy. The facts are as follows: She was found dead in her car, located in the garage of Jewel Carmen. Carmen was recently divorced from Roland West, director and business parter of Todd. It’s known that Todd was out at a party the night before. Evidence suggested that she died of carbon monoxide poisoning, which the coroner later ruled accidental. An apparent cut on her lip was the only physical evidence that seemed to suggest otherwise. But questions persisted. Was Roland West responsible for her death? Or, as some even suggested, was the mob involved?
There are many reports that Roland West provided a solution through a deathbed confession. But most places don’t seem to even know where this piece of information came from. The Life and Death of Thelma Todd provides a different explanation of West confessing, not on his deathbed, but rather to police. The source of this information was allegedly Hal Roach, who heard from police that West admitted to locking her in the garage, not knowing it would kill her. As the story goes, West thought he was only teaching a lesson.
Whatever was ultimately Thelma Todd’s fate, it should not overshadow what was a brilliant career by a woman who could be funny with everyone. For a brief period of time, Thelma Todd was at the top of the comedy world, trading barbs and laughs with the funniest people in the world. And that is what really should be remembered.