Sunday, October 6, 2013

Was Thelma Todd's Career In A Decline When She Died?

Something I just came across on the internet, and being a blogger, decided to reblog here.

Reposted from

Well now, since the powers that be at Nitrateville have now swept my whole banning under the rug and will pretend like it didn’t happen (though, who knows, we’ve archived the whole thread , and maybe we’ll put it up on line over here), we can get on to other more interesting things. Yet the neat thing is that, hey, we’re still looking in over there, and when someone says something really inane or factually fatuous, or questions fall on deaf or uninformed ears and brains unable to answer them….I’m over here….just a mouse click or two away Folks…and now I can really say it like it is, away from Gebert’s scissors and oppressions of free speech.

And you can come over and join in if you want, and be just as safe.

This may be a regular piece for awhile , Nitrateville corrections, though who knows, we were going to do that for that other minor silent comedy newsgroup as well, but there hasn’t been very much solid talk or info worth correcting out of that site for years.

So, I think this is a good time to continue that Thelma Todd Thread that Gebert canned and give Ed Larusso the education he so sorely needs.

And if you want to beef up on the original Nville thread first, here it is:

To begin with, to hear him scoff at the concept of her death coming “at the height of her career” and his idea that her career was in decline shows a general ignorance of the facts surrounding her career at the time, both before and after her death. Thelma had just completed a major role as the Queen of the Gypsies in THE BOHEMIAN GIRL with Laurel and Hardy in late November just before her death on December 16, 1935. It had previewed to good reviews, for both Thelma and Stan and Babe, but her death before its release forced Roach and Laurel to agree that the notoriety and news coverage surrounding her death would affect the picture’s reputation with the public and they quickly reshot and reworked the film, removing nearly all of Thelma’s scenes, changing the sub-plot of her romance with Antonio Moreno into Moreno’s romancing Mae Busch., who played Stan’s wife. This sizeable reworking was done after Christmas 1935 and in the first weeks of January, 1936 and the film was released in early-February, now featuring Thelma in only one song, sort of a farewell tribute, but a severely truncated part from the role it had been.

Larusso was also turning his nose down at the concept of Thelma still working in shorts at the time of her death to be an indicator of a downturn in her career, I mean, how could anyone possibly be considered major stars who remained in shorts by the 1930’s? Well, take the case of Laurel and Hardy, who were Hal Roach’s biggest stars of the 1930’s, who had been making starring features for Roach since 1931 that were hugely popular and successful for the Producer, yet they continued to make shorts into 1935. By Larusso’s idea, this would be a ridiculous thing for a Producer to do with his most valuable properties, why not just move them directly into features? They had proved their box-office potential with their first one, PARDON US, why not just keep minting those big feature bucks over those widdle unimportant short subject dollars?

Simple answer, both Hal Roach and MGM knew the Laurel and Hardy shorts, as well as all the Hal Roach product, was money in the bank and a guaranteed chunk of audience butts in Loews Theater Seats. Larusso condescendingly inferred that he couldn’t believe anyone went to the Movies just to see shorts, which again shows a lack of understanding for the way film programs were presented in those days (full program against double features, which I explained on the Nitrateville thread if Gebert hasn’t dumped it), the way people went to see movies in the pre-television days where a person might spend two or three nights a week at the pictures, and the actual popularity of the short-subject comedy stars.

See, it’s really like this, in those days, Exhibitors and Audiences alike knew that every new feature film was essentially a crapshoot, might be a classic, might be a stinker. But movie patrons, especially the regular-going patrons tended to only go to one or two theaters close to them in their neighborhood area, and a lot of what would make them decide which theater to choose regularly would have to do far more with what the full program was offering weekly apart from the feature film (in other words, the main attraction was not really always the main attraction). Exhibitors knew that to get regular repeat business from their patrons, there had to be a constant that would keep them coming back, and quite a few of them would come back if they knew there was always going to be a Hal Roach short, or a Mickey Mouse Cartoon, or the newsreel they liked, or they gave away prizes, or the latest Serial chapter that the kids kept coming back to the Saturday matinee to see (serials had always been one of the best hooks to keep returning audience patronage). Moviegoing was a completely different dynamic then as it is now or even fifty years ago, there was no television, and radio had made inroads, but still had not conquered a fighting film business where folk went to the pictures after dinner several times a week.

MGM and Loews knew the Roach shorts were extremely popular in their Theaters and bringing in a goodly chunk of their regular patronage, in fact, what they were never really particularly interested in were Roach’s features, they were not in the habit of distributing independent feature product, what they didn’t have in their rigid and costly studio system was the mechanism to grind out regular short subject product for the Loew’s chain affordably (and ironically, they were pretty much forced to install one late in the game when Roach quit producing shorts in 1935-36, that’s when MGM began making things like Robert Benchley, Pete Smith, and CRIME DOES NOT PAY shorts and put in place a genuine live-action shorts department, what they had done before was more sports-newsreel oriented or special color musical shorts, though even those Louis Lewyn All-Star Colortones were also essentially independent productions). So yes, a large quantity of the 1930’s moviegoing public indeed did go to the Theater to see their favorite short subject stars, and Thelma Todd was making shorts for the top short subject Producer at the time and her films were released by the biggest Movie Studio at the time and shown in the best theaters of the most successful Theater Chain of the time, So much for a career in decline.

Which brings us back to Thelma. To truly understand where her career was at the time of her death, you also have to look into what films she was set to go into production on at the time she died. Remember, Hal Roach was phasing out short comedies, rising production costs caused by many factors including the unionization of all the technical and production people had made it financially impossible to continue making short comedies on the level of quality Roach had been doing, he was forced to go into feature production or close. Roach was planning to move all of his Comedy Stars into feature films, from Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Our Gang, and say-----Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly!

When Thelma died, she was in the midst of shooting the last season of Todd and Kelly shorts that were being delivered to MGM, and there were three left unshot at the time of her death, and Roach used Pert Kelton to replace her in the first one and Lyda Roberti in the last two. On the boards was Thelma and Patsy’s first starring feature, which was released as KELLY THE SECOND, but Thelma’s death caused furious rewriting and reworking as well, combining both Thelma and Patsy’s characters into just Patsy, then beefing up another supporting role of their Drugstore Boss for Charley Chase, who was brought in to beef up the comic aspects and give Patsy someone to play off of. Patsy Kelly’s second starring feature post-Thelma had Lyda Roberti back again as her teammate, but it’s obvious that if Thelma had been alive she would have been the co-star. The tepid response to these two features and PICK A STAR as well said to Roach that Patsy Kelly was not star material without Thelma, and she was moved into supporting parts where she did just fine.

But hey, a major role in the biggest film with the biggest stars Roach had at the time, and the future moving into starring features the following year, sounds like light-years from a decline in poor Thelma’s career, and only her death put a stop to that upward arc. Fancy that.



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"Nitrateville" is named after the old nitrocellulose plastic they used for motion picture film in the old days. They have some good stuff there, but I only look at it every now and then, and this time I just happened to be on a search that took me there.

Thelma Todd's career wasn't seen as being in a decline at the time of her death. People pointed to her just having completed THE BOHEMIAN GIRL, even saying it was the greatest picture of her career. The replacement of Zasu Pitts with Patsy Kelly could be seen as something of a decline, but the series was still popular and even without Thelma Todd would continue for some time.


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