The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
more of these biographies I write, the more appreciation I have for how exciting
the silent era of film really was. There was really no inkling yet of how
massive a phenomenon films would become, and because of that, the hierarchies
that distinguish the A-listers and B-listers today did not really exist at the
time. It was therefore a much more grassroots business, with talent scouts
combing the country, not for the next huge star, but for people with enough
beauty and enough talent to grace the screen. As Thelma Todd’s story reveals,
this was an era when a beauty queen could wind up becoming a huge star working
on films that, unbeknownst to them, would go down as movie classics.
Thelma was born on July 29, 1905 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which was not far
from New Hampshire. Though always a beauty, it was her smarts that characterized
her early years. She was a great student, and longed to one day become a
schoolteacher. Now, usually it’s the child who wants to dream the impossible
dream and the parents who reign their kids in. In this case, Thelma’s mother
wanted her to capitalize on her looks instead of her brain, and insisted that
she enter a few beauty pageants while in college.
Thelma was a natural on the pageant circuit, and soon moved on from county
contests to state pageants. In 1925, she won the title of “Miss Massachusetts”,
which made her eligible for Miss America. She didn’t win, but while there, she
was discovered by one of the period’s many talent scouts on the hunt for movie
Her entry into movies began soon thereafter with the “one reeler” short films
that were common at the time. Most of them were comedies, and it was here that
Thelma began honing her craft as an actress. The Paramount people saw her
performances in some Hal Roach shorts, and signed her on to work on their
pictures. By 1927, when she was 21 years old, she made her debut film, the
romantic comedy Fascinating Youth. Paramount wanted to use this film to showcase
their emerging star. It paid off.
The same year, she had a small role (but a credited one) in God Gave Me Twenty
Cents, and this seemed to cement her status as a charismatic force. In 1927,
Thelma had her first starring role in a Western called Nevada, which also
starred Gary Cooper and
William Powell, both major stars at the time. She also
made two other films that year: The Shield of Honor, and The Gay Defender - the
latter was a critical and popular success, co-starring Richard Dix as an accused
As we know, 1927 was a pivotal year as Warner worked around the clock to
innovate the talking picture. This didn’t happen overnight of course, and the
films Thelma made over the next couple of years were silent. During this time,
Thelma appeared in a staggering twenty films, flexing her range doing comedies,
dramas and even horror films that required the expressive acting style refined
to perfection during the silent years. Some of these titles include: Vamping
Venus, The Haunted House (both 1928), Trial Marriage, House of Horror, Unaccustomed As
We Are, and Her Private Life (all 1929).
With the sound era rushing in, Thelma became more and more in demand. Whereas
before her looks and screen presence made her popular, studio heads had a new
criteria: their stars had to have voices that were palatable to audiences at
large. Many didn’t - if any of you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain, it is a
hilarious send-off of the calamities induced by the transition to the sound era.
Thelma had a voice of gold - in 1930, she made 14 films, including Dollar Dizzy
and Follow Thru, two of her most popular. Follow Thru, a musical, also featured
Buddy Rogers, for whose affections Thelma and Nancy Carroll had to fight.
Musicals were deemed the natural kind of film to make now that sound was a
possibility, and Thelma was a roaring hit. She again made 14 films in 1931,
among them Let’s Do Things, The Old Bull, On the Loose and the early version of
The Maltese Falcon. She also made Monkey Business, and this is probably the film
that people know her best by today. Monkey Business is one of the phenomenal
Marx Brothers films to do amazingly well at the box office, though critics were
more divided in their response.
Marx Brothers seem to have loved Thelma; in 1932 she starred with them in Norman
McLeod’s Horse Feathers. Thelma also has the distinction of being in the This is
the Night, in which none other than Cary Grant had his first starring role. She
coasted through 1934, making 16 films including Soup and Fish, I’ll be Suing
You, Three Chumps Ahead and Lightning Strikes Twice.
Though she acted in various genres throughout her career, it was comedy that
Thelma was drawn to in 1935, with such films as Twin Triplets and The Misses
Stooge. Then she did what is common hat to movie and music stars today: she
capitalized on her fame by opening a restaurant. Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café was
a restaurant served as a place movie industry people could see and be seen. It
wasn’t long before it developed somewhat of a bad reputation, with rumors
circulating that Thelma was hanging out with dubious sorts.
The mystery intensified as much as it possibly could when, on December 16, 1935,
Thelma was found dead in her car at her Los Angeles home. Officially, it was
stated that her death was a suicide (carbon monoxide poisoning). She was only 30
at her time of death, and she quickly became a legend the way James Dean and
Grace Kelly would a couple of decades later. It is widely believed that she may
have been murdered, a rumor corroborated by the fact that no one ever Thelma
depressed - she seemed to enjoy life tremendously.
The real tragedy here is that unlike so many other stars, who had to back out of
the limelight before their time because of the advent of sound, Thelma was still
at the top of her game. Three films she made in 1935 were released the following
year, and she would have likely remained popular for years. She made a total of
115 films - an accomplishment for the best of them - within a decade. What a
decade of cinema it was.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in
The Movie Profiles &
Tammy invites you to write her at
email@example.com with any questions or comments on her column.
Other Thelma Todd Pages:
Jackson's Thelma Todd Page -- A Fine Comic Actress Who Died