Remembering Thelma Todd: Her Impact on Early Hollywood Cinema

Remembering Thelma Todd: Her Impact on Early Hollywood Cinema

Sandra Pandora | 
Pandora Writer | 
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Thelma Todd was an actress who achieved fame during the 1920s and 1930s. She appeared in over 120 films and worked with some of the biggest stars of the era, including Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. Despite her success, Todd's life was not without its difficulties. She struggled with alcoholism and had a tumultuous relationship with her business partner and lover, Roland West.

Thelma Todd

Born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Thelma Todd was initially destined for a different path in life. She excelled as a student and began her career as a grade school teacher. However, her life took an unexpected turn when she ventured into part-time modeling, eventually winning the prestigious title of Miss Massachusetts in 1925. During her reign, a Hollywood talent scout spotted her, leading to her enrollment in Paramount Pictures' acting school in New York City. This marked the beginning of her journey into the world of silent cinema.

Entering the film industry during the silent film era, Todd started with supporting roles in movies like "Fascinating Youth" (1926) and "The Noose" (1928). She collaborated with Hal Roach Studios, partnering with comedy greats such as Harry Langdon and Laurel and Hardy. Todd also starred alongside ZaSu Pitts and later Patsy Kelly in a series of two-reel comedies, Roach's attempt to create a female slapstick duo akin to Laurel and Hardy.

Thelma Todd

The transition to talkies expanded Todd's opportunities, allowing her comedic talents to shine. Her romantic involvement with director Roland West led to her role as Alison Lloyd in the crime thriller "Corsair" (1931), stepping outside the comedy genre. However, Todd's comedic genius was best showcased in classics like "Monkey Business" (1931) and "Horse Feathers" (1932), where she shared the screen with the Marx Brothers. She continued her comedic streak with Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in "Speak Easily" (1932) and starred opposite Cary Grant in his film debut in the romantic comedy "This is the Night" (1932).

In the following years, Todd dabbled in various comedies, including "You Made Me Love You" (1933), "The Devil's Brother" (1933) with Laurel and Hardy, and "Sitting Pretty" (1933), alongside a venture into drama with William Wyler's "Counsellor at Law" (1933).

Thelma Todd

In 1934, Thelma Todd expanded her horizons by opening a successful restaurant, Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café, in the Pacific Palisades. Simultaneously, she continued her acting career with films like "Palooka" (1934), "Hips, Hips, Hooray!" (1934), and "Two for Tonight" (1935), co-starring with Bing Crosby and Joan Bennett.

Tragically, on December 16, 1935, after completing her final film, "The Bohemian Girl" (1936), Todd was found lifeless inside her car, parked in a garage near her restaurant. The initial belief was that she accidentally succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly while trying to keep warm in the car. However, the discovery of blood in her car and on her mouth raised suspicions of foul play. Reports also suggested a contentious relationship with her ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, who had deep connections to the Hollywood underworld, specifically mobster Lucky Luciano.

Thelma Todd

Adding to the intrigue, Todd's divorce from DiCicco was marked by allegations of physical abuse and an extortion attempt. Although a grand jury ruled her death a suicide, citing depression and financial troubles as contributing factors, the circumstances surrounding Todd's demise remained a subject of controversy and gossip.

Meanwhile, the creators of "The Bohemian Girl" decided to reshoot her scenes with another actress and reduced her onscreen presence to a single musical number. At the time of her tragic passing, Thelma Todd was just 29 years old, leaving behind a legacy that continues to intrigue and captivate Hollywood enthusiasts.


Did you know?

Todd attended Lowell Normal School and studied to become a teacher before pursuing acting full-time.

Thelma Todd

While she is often associated with dramatic roles, Todd had a strong talent for comedy. She starred in several successful comedy films alongside stars like Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers.

Todd was recognized as one of the best-dressed women in motion pictures.

Thelma Todd was an entrepreneur as well. She co-owned a popular restaurant called "Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café" in Pacific Palisades, which became a hot spot for celebrities during the 1930s. Her involvement in the restaurant business was unusual for a Hollywood actress of her time. The Sidewalk Café was to be Todd’s retirement fund. She understood Hollywood careers did not last and wanted to have another source of income to secure her future. 

She tirelessly dedicated herself to promoting the café, participating in interviews with the media. The establishment's culinary hallmark centered around an array of seafood, with crab, lobster, shrimp, and oysters taking center stage on the menu.

Adding to the café's allure, they had a selection of specialty drinks such as the Todd Gin Sour and the Thelma Todd Rickey. This culinary venture struck a chord with Hollywood's crowd, drawing them in droves to savor its delectable fare. 

Thelma Todd

The 1920s neighborhood commercial building in Pacific Palisades, where Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe was located, is a rare survivor from its era. Its construction dates back to 1927 when it was originally established as a shopping hub catering to the residents of the nearby housing development. The building is located at 17575 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272.

Todd herself resided in an ocean-view apartment located on one of the upper floors, infusing the place with a touch of Hollywood allure. The beachside café has etched itself into Hollywood lore, forever linked to the enigmatic and unsolved mystery surrounding the actress's untimely demise at this very location.

She was posthumously inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991, and her contributions to film continue to be celebrated by fans and historians alike.

A Hollywood Mystery

Thelma Todd's untimely death in 1935 remains a subject of speculation and mystery. She was found dead in her car inside a garage near her Pacific Palisades home, and while it was officially ruled a suicide, there have been persistent rumors of foul play. The circumstances surrounding her death remain a topic of debate and fascination.

Thelma Todd

On the fateful night before her death, witnesses reported a heated argument between Todd and West. Although West was never charged with murder, lingering doubts about his involvement ruined his career, and he never directed another film.

Another shadowy figure connected to Todd's demise was the notorious gangster Charles "Lucky" Luciano. Todd had refused to cooperate with Luciano's plans to establish an illegal gambling casino in the café she co-owned with West. Following her refusal, she began receiving anonymous death threats, leading some to speculate that Luciano may have ordered a hit on her. However, no concrete evidence was found to substantiate this theory.

Todd's acting career, although promising, was short-lived due to her tragic death at the age of 29. According to police reconstruction, she returned to her roadside cafe a little after 3 a.m. on Sunday but couldn't enter her apartment above it due to a missing key. Some say West, who lived there as well, locked her out. Unable to get into the apartment, she climbed the steps up the hillside and went to the garage at Castillo Del Mar. West owned a home up the hillside called Castillo Del Mar, with his wife, actress Jewel Carmen. West was separated from his wife at the time of Todd's death.

West reported being awakened by his dog barking around the same time, though he didn't investigate further. Investigators speculated that Todd might have tried to wake West but was deterred by the barking dog and the late hour.

Thelma Todd

Around 6 a.m., a watchman patrolled near West's residence and Todd's cafe. The officers believed that Todd entered the garage, started the car's engine to keep warm, and intended to wait until the watchman made his rounds to let her into her apartment.

The fact that Todd's car's ignition was on when her body was discovered suggested that the engine had run long enough to fill the garage with carbon monoxide gas, which would have been cut off due to oxygen depletion.

The police considered the possibility that Todd fell asleep with the engine running while waiting for the watchman to pass. She had been driven to her cafe by a private limousine service driver who arrived with her after 2 a.m. and was subsequently questioned by the police.

Despite an investigation, her death remains unsolved to this day. Todd's legacy as a talented actress lives on, but her untimely death has left behind a lingering sense of intrigue and confusion.

Thelma Todd was laid to rest at Bellevue Cemetery in Lawrence, Massachusetts, her hometown.

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