Patsy Kelly

The Road to TCMFF 2017: My Wish List

Since only a portion of the TCM Classic Film Festival offerings has been revealed, I’m going to fantasize about what else the festival programmers could schedule. In making my ideal list, I’ll pretend rights or physical print restrictions don’t exist, and I’ll stick to this year’s theme of MAKE ‘EM LAUGH: COMEDY IN THE MOVIES. I’m sure some of the programs and films I’d like to see at the festival will surprise you!

SPEEDY showing Harold Llloyd and Ann Christy at Coney Island

Harold Lloyd and Ann Christy in SPEEDY (1928)

Long-term readers and Twitter followers know I’m a silent film buff, and I know the perfect gateway to introduce others to the medium is comedy. I have multiple suggestions in this category. Harold Lloyd will be shown, but due to his granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd‘s activism in preserving and promoting his work, his work screening at the fest is usually likely. I’m a fan, so I don’t object. I’d like more silents at the festival!

Alice Howell in Cinderella Cinders

Alice Howell in CINDERELLA CINDERS (1920)

I’d love TCM to put together a program of silent film comediennes’ shorts. That way the audience could get exposure to or reacquaint themselves with multiple women stars from that era. There have been recent restorations, including some recently screened on the network, that could help fill the bill. Gloria Swanson, Louise Fazenda, Mabel Normand, Bebe Daniels, Flora Finch, Carole Lombard, Alice Howell, Marie Dressler, and Elsa Lanchester are all comediennes with existing silent shorts. If looking for a longer bill, shorts could be paired with Constance Talmadge‘s hour-long, recently found and restored comedy GOOD REFERENCES (1920).

Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers in GET YOUR MAN

Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers in GET YOUR MAN (1927)

Clara Bow‘s GET YOUR MAN (1927) provides the perfect excuse for a spotlight on the jazziest silent film comedienne. More exposure for Bow, especially with an introduction by her biographer David Stenn, will spotlight why America’s former favorite redhead deserves to be remembered as a talented comedienne whose onscreen naturalism belied self-aware technique. Discussion of how an incomplete film was reconstructed by the Library of Congress using “still photographs and inter-titles from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to fill in the narrative gaps” would be a mini-course in film preservation. If the program needs filling out because GET YOUR MAN is fifty-seven minutes long, short materials like the fragment of RED HAIR (1928) can be screened.

ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd Laughing in Bed

ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd

I’m divided whether I want a program of comedy duo shorts or one featuring duos whatever the length of their films. Shorts duos I’d be delighted to watch at TCMFF included Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, Todd and Patsy Kelly, Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle, and Laurel and Hardy. If the fest highlights comedic duos’ best moments even from longer fare, I’d want to see added Marie Dressler and Polly Moran, Abbott and Costello, and Wheeler and Woolsey. I’m sure including Bob Hope and Bing Crosby along with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would make even more fans happy!

Moonstruck Moon over Bridge Shot

MOONSTRUCK (1987)

With Norman Jewison already in attendance for the fiftieth anniversary of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), I hope another one of his films celebrating its thirtieth anniversary gets snuck onto the schedule–MOONSTRUCK (1987). It’s laugh out loud funny in an idiosyncratic way, and it celebrates life and the mistakes that make it interesting with no cynicism. It, also, captures an old New York City that’s been disappearing via gentrification, displacement, and the passing of the older generations.

Now that you’ve read my picks, what films or programs would you like to see at TCMFF?

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Book Review: The Ice Cream Blonde

The Ice Cream Blonde Book Cover Michelle Morgan Chicago Review Press Large

While Thelma Todd‘s death often overshadows her work, Michelle Morgan has written the biography the actress deserves. Any book about Thelma must mention her death and the mystery that surrounds it, but Morgan spends the majority of The Ice Cream Blonde discussing the slapstick comedienne’s life and career.

Thelma Todd and Charley Chase

Morgan researched her subject well. The book is filled with details whose sources are carefully listed in the notes and bibliography sections. She shows how a prim and proper New Englander originally intent on becoming a schoolteacher became “Hot Toddy” roughhousing with a veritable who’s who of silent and early talkie comedy. Her famous co-stars included the Marx BrothersCharley ChaseBuster Keaton, Harry LangdonJoe E. BrownWheeler and Woolsey, and Laurel and Hardy.

Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd in Asleep in the Feet (1933)

Producer Hal Roach sought to make a female comedy short duo as popular as his Laurel and Hardy pairing. He first paired Thelma with ZaSu Pitts, and when Pitts left his studio, he replaced her with Patsy Kelly. While the shorts’ detractors call them derivative and uninspired, Thelma and her co-stars draw laughs in their roles, and the films’ plots, while sometimes bizarre like The Tin Man, put slapstick into female realms, seemingly to offer a woman’s take on this comedy form despite being written and directed by men.

Buster Keaton and Thelma Todd in Speak Easily (1932)

Even though Thelma wanted a break-out role to lead to feature starring work, she was more concerned with expanding her talent and roles and securing her future than the fame associated with stardom. She was never too proud to not take a pratfall or to recognize and respect everyone working on-set. She knew the names of those working behind the scenes because she chatted with them about their families. As a consequence, she was beloved wherever she worked, at Roach’s or on loan.

Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly

Her generosity helped many a friend. When New York stage star Patsy Kelly wasn’t adapting to life on the West Coast or slapstick screen work, and her debts threatened to drown her, Thelma’s intervention prevented Patsy from returning east in defeat. When Patsy was fleeing California, Thelma became determined to save Patsy before the studio got word. Thelma hopped into her car and dragged Patsy off of her eastbound train. The two had an all-nighter, full of heart-to-hearts and advice. A lifelong friendship developed.

Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café

When her big break didn’t seem to be coming, Thelma’s practical side made her plan for her post-screen future by becoming a businesswoman. She partnered with former lover Roland West and his wife Jewel Carmen to open Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Initially Thelma was to provide her name and presence, while the Wests were to provide the financing and management, but Thelma became very hands on, learning to run most aspects of the business. She could be found hostessing and personally preparing food, and her presence attracted everyone from tourists to fellow film stars.

Roland West

Her business put her on the trajectory to tragedy. Soon after becoming partners with West, the two became romantically involved again, and Thelma moved into the café’s apartment in a room next to his, only separated by a sliding door. The pair’s relationship was volatile, and at least once resulted in physical violence. Her alleged mobster ex-husband Pat DiCicco had been physically abusive as well. The smart starlet was not so smart in her choice of men. The eatery’s success and perhaps secret on-site gambling of Hollywood stars attracted mob interest. Meanwhile Thelma started receiving anonymous blackmail threats in the mail. Whatever your theory about Thelma’s subsequent death in the café’s garage, these incidents provided possible motives for murder.

Newspaper Diagram of Thelma Todd's Death Scene

In dissecting the available evidence surrounding Thelma’s death and the subsequent inquests, Morgan carefully conveys which testimonies and pieces of evidence she finds credible and why. She reviews the theories relating to accidental death, suicide, and murder, and she favors one, but she doesn’t belittle those coming in with others. For instance, she asks if Thelma truly walked to the garage herself why was no mention made of the state of her hosiery? Thelma was wearing high-heeled sandals, and such a long walk in or not in non-protective footwear would have resulted in dirtiness and runs.

Thelma Todd's Shoes Worn at Death in 1935Don’t think Morgan’s fact-focused approached leads to a dry style, quite the contrary. While her style is non-sensationalistic, it is engaging and allows the personalities she describes to be experienced through her words, especially in the book’s concluding and haunting quote from the actress. Maybe Thelma truly had the last word. Always the planner, she had posted Christmas cards and presents early. Friends and family received them a few days after her death. Still trying to make others happy. Her true legacy.

Merry Christmas from Thelma Todd

Disclosure: I was provided a review copy by the book’s publisher, Chicago Review Press.

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For the Love of Film Blogathon: The Tin Man (1935)

The Tin Man Lobby Card

Photo sourced from Benny Drinnon’s movie blog.

I’ve been planning a post on The Tin Man for a while, and the For Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon has provided the perfect push to write about this odd comedy short. Every year the blogathon has a theme, and this year’s theme is science fiction.

The Tin Man fits the theme like Frankenstein would. Both movies contain a mad scientist and a being he’s created in his laboratory, and both have elements from the horror genre. Instead of a castle, our film’s heroines find themselves in an dark, creepy house full of frights. There’s no weird sidekick to the scientist, but an escaped criminal fills the spot of added danger. What makes this short so memorable is the failure and abuse of technology is portrayed as the lesser horror than modern dating.

The Tin Man Title Card

It’s a nice touch that the credits tie into the robot man theme by looking like panels of tin with bolts. When the last panel slides away, we see that Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly are driving through the fog. They’re dressed up for a party or a date, but they can’t find the house. It turns out Patsy wrote down its address in the dark, so she never noticed the fountain pen she used was out of ink. Patsy only has a blank piece of paper. A radio bulletin warning motorists and pedestrians about an escaped convict keeps them driving until they’re lured to stop at a house by its lights.

The Tin Man Girls Enter House

The duo don’t know it, but they’re about to enter a house designed to be a trap! When they ring the doorbell, the house’s doors open by themselves as the chimes ring. The women cautiously enter what looks like an uninhabited home. There are sheets of cloth over its furniture. When the camera cuts to a ceramic face on the wall, movie conventions make us guess someone will be staring through the eye holes. He is!

The Tin Man Mad Scientist Intro

We’ve found our mad scientist. Another cut shows his spying location. He’s in his lab, where he’s laughing in a crazed manner. Actor Clarence Wilson is clearly having fun playing his part. Do not expect subtly in performance or costuming. He’s an older, hunched over, balding, little man. His crown of remaining hair makes two points going upward like horns. He’s surrounded by generic mad scientist lab equipment.

We quickly find out why he’s so delighted to have Patsy and Thelma in his home: “At last! At last, the Gods have been good to me. Not only one, but two, two females have walked into my clutches. (Laughs maniacally.) I’ll make them and all their sex pay for ignoring, slighting, and insulting me! Revenge is sweet!” The rest of the film revolves around his acts of revenge and how they spiral out of control.

The Tin Man's Control Panel

He’s invented a surrogate to take his place in interacting with women. On the wall, we spy the first part of it. We see an image of a man. It looks like an idealized version of the scientist. It’s taller, stands straighter, and has limbs that are thicker and look stronger. Like its creator, the man on the wall has a mustache. Surrounding him are lights, wires, knobs, and levers. He is the robot’s control panel.

Before the scientist flips a lever to bring his creation to life, he has another evildoer monologue: “Ah, my robot! My machine man. As your first step you shall lay siege to this beautiful female’s heart. A caveman assault. What sweet revenge will be mine if you succeed in winning this fool’s love. I have seen women fall for worse, and now let them suffer!” The nebbish does not want to become a superman through his creation; he wants to become a super lothario.

The Tin Man Meets Patsy and Thelma

I don’t want to spoil too many of the gags that make up the robot seduction scenes, but I have to talk about how he looks and acts. The mad scientist’s idea of a desirable man is tall, suited with an ascot around his neck, with a full head of hair, big, straight teeth in more of a perpetual grimace than a smile, and a booming, deep voice. He’s flat-headed like Frankenstein’s monster and moves in a jerky way reminiscent of that creature.

The Tin Man's Mad Scientist Speaks

The robot doesn’t have any artificial intelligence. Our crazed scientist makes him move, act, and speak using those previously mentioned wires, knobs, and levers along with a microphone. The robot’s audio equipment takes whatever the scientist says in his high-pitched voice and transforms it into a much deeper, more traditionally masculine voice.

The Tin Man Drinks

We get to see how cracked the scientist’s idea of seduction is. While he makes the robot act friendlier and politer to Thelma, obviously the beautiful one referred to earlier, the man pays more attention to Patsy. He makes his robot target her and pull stupid pranks on her again and again. The scientist never learned the dating rules that if you’re interested in a woman, you pay attention to her and not her friends, and you don’t alienate that woman by being mean to her friends.

The Tin Man Picking on Patsy

It’s not delving too deeply into a slapstick short to say this man’s harassment of Patsy reveals his own self-loathing. He picks the less conventionally attractive, less trim, klutzier, and more socially awkward of the friends to humiliate. Perhaps she could have been someone who would have sympathized with his dating troubles. Superficially and personality-wise, Patsy is out of his league, and that may be what irritates him the most.

The Tin Man Patsy Confronts the Scientist

By the time Patsy finds the man behind the wall, she’s ready to tell off the self-proclaimed “Poppa” to the robot. She wants him to “listen to Momma” and get her revenge on him to “just see how you like it.” When the battle of the sexes heats up, that’s when things in the house get even crazier. Patsy’s attempt to control the robot releases him to act out on his own. You’ll want to see what he does.  Here’s a hint. The mad scientist will scream, “Run, run for you lives! My robot is out of control.”

Pasty and Thelma Try to Stop the Tin Man

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider donating to the blogathon’s charity of choice, The National Film Preservation Foundation! You can use the button below to help the foundation raise funds to restore, score, and stream silent film Cupid in Quarantine (1918). The movie is a quirky, romantic comedy “that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak.” If you’d like to donate, but can’t, please help spread the word about the blogathon. Everyone is welcome to check out its host blogs–Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark–where you can find links to other bloggers’ entries and get fundraising updates.

For the Love of Film Preservation Blogathon 2015 Donate Button

 

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