Thelma Todd made 119 features and short subjects in her all-too-brief career, appearing with such film legends as Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, John Barrymore and Clara Bow, but she'll always be known primarily for the two movies she made with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers.
Born in 1906 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Todd worked as a school teacher for two years before attaining notice as a contestant in the Miss America pageant; shortly thereafter, she signed with Paramount Pictures and made her movie debut in 1926. Promoted as both "The Ice Cream Blonde" and "Hot Toddy," Todd excelled in comedies and wound up at the Hal Roach Studios where she made dozens of films including six shorts and features with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Many of her best films, though, were made while on loan to other studios, including her two pictures with the Marx Brothers. Both films were big financial successes and helped keep Paramount afloat during the depths of the Depression.
In addition to her film work, Todd also owned a highly successful nightclub in the Pacific Palisades called Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Café.
Ironically, one of Groucho's quips from Monkey Business—"You've been getting nothing but dirty breaks; we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you'll have to stay in the garage all night"—proved to be Todd's epitaph. On December 16, 1935, Todd was found dead in her garage of carbon monoxide poisoning. The coroner labeled her death an accident but others have speculated that it was either suicide—she had argued with her ex-husband that same evening—or the work of gangsters who had recently tried to muscle in on the Sidewalk Café hoping to turn it into a gambling den.
She was just twenty-nine.
On August 30, 2010, Turner Classic Movies will feature the work of Thelma Todd as part of its annual Summer Under The Stars promotional event. Mark your calendars.