Thursday, June 11, 2009
Hot Toddy (the woman, not the drink)
From At the Circus -
Groucho: You know, if you hadn't sent for me I'd probably be home now in a nice warm bedroom, in a comfortable bed, with a hot toddy. That's a drink!
Chico: At'sa too bad!
Thelma Todd (1905-35), aka Hot Toddy, usually described (by me as much as anyone else) as 'a vivacious ice-cream blonde', was most decidedly not a drink.
One of the foremost comediennes of thirties Hollywood, she appears with the Brothers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers and, possibly because her participation in these films is invariably - if absurdly - described as a 'replacement' for Margaret Dumont, it seems to me that she has never quite received her due for the splendid showing she gives in both movies.
As gangster's wife Lucille in Business she is a wonderful straightwoman for Groucho, while in Feathers as 'college widow' Connie Bailey she is even more; she's a fully-fledged team player.
Few female stars of thirties comedy combined her degree of decorativeness with such genuine comedic assurance.
Rare was the great comedian of the thirties who did not call on her services at least once, and they were always enlivened by the association. There are not all that many pressing reasons for watching Buster Keaton's Speak Easily (1932): by far the most compelling one is his very funny and oddly erotic drunk scene with Thelma.
She also teamed most notably with Charley Chase in twelve of his thirties shorts (see especially All Teed Up  and The Pip From Pittsburgh [1931, of which more here]) and Laurel and Hardy in three shorts and the features The Devil's Brother (1933) and The Bohemian Girl (1936), released after her death.
Most important of all her comedy work, though oddly overlooked even today, are the series of shorts she made for Hal Roach starring herself and either Zasu Pitts or Patsy Kelly. Roach's aim was to create a female Laurel & Hardy; fortunately the films themselves transcend such crude mechanics and give Thelma in particular some of her best chances to shine. (I discuss this series at length here.)
What is often forgotten, however, is that she was also a more than capable dramatic actress: witness her work in the superb Counsellor At Law (1933) with John Barrymore and the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon.
Nonetheless it was with comedy that her name was indelibly associated, prompting director Roland West to change her name to Alison Lloyd when he gave her the dramatic lead in Corsair (1931), so as to shake off her pratfalling reputation. (On hearing of this, Hal Roach announced that when she returned to his studios he too would change her name, this time to Susie Dinkleberry, "so that no taint of drama will cling to her pyjamas.")
Her work with the Brothers is superb, and characteristic of Roach's own assessment that her value to his comedies was her combination of elegance and sexiness with a willingness to fall on her ass and take a pie in the face. Because she is genuinely sexy there is a sincerity to Groucho's sexual pursuit of her that contrasts markedly with his essentially mocking wooing of Dumont, and this desirability also creates a different dynamic when time comes for her to get thrown in the lake, or jumped and sat on by all the Marx Brothers at once.
As all Hollywood Babylon fans know, Thelma died tragically of carbon monoxide poisoning in her locked garage. It appears to be one of those occasions when the conspiracy theorists, through no fault of their own, actually got it right. Appallingly, this wonderfully talented woman was almost certainly murdered.
The garage connection makes it de rigueur to quote Groucho's line from Monkey Business: "You're a woman who's been getting nothing but dirty breaks; well, we can clean and tighten your brakes but you'll have to stay in the garage all night." But for years the line was habitually misquoted as "Now you be a good girlie, or I'll lock you in the garage." Quite why it was misremembered in this way I have no idea, but it went round like wildfire, and you can find it thus quoted in upwards of a dozen books, including Andy Edmonds's compulsive if occasionally flighty biography Hot Toddy.
Hal Roach eulogised her thus: "She was a favourite with everyone on the lot from the lowest employee to the highest. She was always joyous and happy... She was well-loved, and we will miss her."
The 82 year-old Groucho had his own memories of her in Richard Anobile's Marx Brothers Scrapbook, an equally infuriating and invaluable book that Groucho hated because it printed verbatim several long interviews more than generously salted with ribald comments he assumed were off the record.
Discussing the Paramount years, he recalled:
You know who I thought was cute? Thelma Todd. She worked in a couple of our pictures. I wanted to fuck her.
(Thanks to Lolita for the drunk scene!)