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 [1930] 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!)


Lolita said...

Hahaha, that last quote! I hadn't heard that one before! Being a Marxist, you may perhaps know if the following story about Chico and Tallulah Bankhead meeting at a Hollywood party is true or not:

Once, at a party, one of her friends brought along a young man who boldly told Bankhead that he wanted to make love to her that night. She didn't bat an eye and said, "And so you shall, you wonderful, old-fashioned boy."[5][6] Another version of the story holds that Bankhead met Chico Marx at a party before her reputation had overturned the presumption that William B. Bankhead's daughter would be disgusted by Marx's typically crude (yet generally effective) approach. According to Dick Cavett, after Marx had been cautioned to be on his best behaviour with Bankhead, the two first spoke at the punch bowl. "Miss Bankhead." "Mr. Marx." And, as everyone breathed a sigh of relief, Chico told her, "You know, I really want to fuck you." "And so you shall, you old-fashioned boy."[7]

From Wikipedia's Tallulah Bankhead article.

Personally, I think it's a credible story. But it's always shocking to read about one's idols using such profane language! But it's fun, haha.

Thanks for linking to my blog, Matthew!

Matthew Coniam said...

Hello again Lolita - you have become disembodied, I notice.

I hadn't heard that story before, but it's highly plausible, if half of what one reads about Chico is true...
Dick Cavett gives it the stamp of reliability too. Reliable chap, Dick Cavett.

That's far from the extent of Groucho's profanity in the book. I may quote some more as the occasion allows, so put a sheet over the budgie's cage...
(That's an old English joke which will probably mean absolutely nothing to you whatsoever.)

damian said...

Did Chico say all that in an Italian accent?

Lolita said...

Yes, my boyfriend decapitated me. Quite unneccessary, but it works.

I thought so too. I like Dick Cavett. Oh, I'd love to read that! Do you recommend buying Marx Brothers Scrapbook? Or will my naïve thoughts about the world be ruined for ever?

I liked the expression! You Englishmen have such a wonderful language. Eddie Izzard comes to Stockholm in December, so I will enjoy a whole evening of British humour!

Of course! Or... Maybe Matthew's Chico article a few posts ago will clear that up (or just further confuse you) - was Chico playing an Italian, or did he play a guy pretending to be an Italian? One could just start wondering about the Universe expanding.

Matthew Coniam said...

Ha! I-a really-a want I should-a fuck-a you!

That definitely sounded much funnier than it reads.

Scrapbook is worth reading, but your jaw will drop and things will never be the same again...
By the way, we don't consider Eddie Izzard to be truly English, because he wears women's dresses.

David C. said...

I first heard the story of Chico and Tallulah Bankhead as recounted by Dick Cavett. Whether it's true or not, I'm not sure. Just to further confuse things, there's a version out there that replaces Chico with Zeppo.

As to The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, I'd say it's worth buying. Yes, Anobile published a lot of stuff that Groucho would have preferred left out, and in fact Groucho tried to stop the book from being release. I think the book is worth having as much for the interviews with other people as those with Groucho. Where else can you read an interview with Gummo?

Matthew Coniam said...

While we're on the subject - anyone else see that interview with Betty White where she claimed to have sex with all five Marx Brothers simultaneously (or something)?:

David C. said...

She claimed it was only 3 of the brothers. If you watch the segment, it's all done with tongue firmly in cheek. Besides, any woman who pronounces Leonard Marx's stage name as "Cheek-o" couldn't have been boinked by any of the brothers.

Matthew Coniam said...

Which three? The report I saw said "all three" so I'm guessing Groucho, Harpo and Chico...
What an odd boast, though. Like bragging about having done it with both Laurel and Hardy, or all six Three Stooges...

damian said...

Maybe it was like the bedroom scene in Duck Soup with the 3 Grouchos, or the sofa scene with Thelma Todd (the college widow)in Horse Feathers.

As for sex with the (six) three stooges, that doesn't even bear thinking about, imaging the sound effects!

nuk nuk nuk

Anonymous said...

Have you seen this:

The song by Kalmar-Ruby is apparently a left-over from Duck Soup and I can easily imagine Zeppo and Groucho performing this with, say, Ruth Hall and Thelma.

/Mikael Uhlin

Matthew Coniam said...

Absolutely wonderful! Thanks so much. EVERYBODY GO LOOK AT THIS NOW!!!