Zasu Pitts

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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Black Friday Treat: The Bargain of the Century (1933)

Thelma Todd Still from The Bargain of the Century (1933) sharpenned

Feeling Black Friday fatigue? Here’s a delightful Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts comedy teaming, The Bargain of the Century (1933), that pokes fun at battling for bargains for you! The duo’s slapstick antics bring humor to scenes best experienced secondhand. In their quest for a good deal, the women give and get bruises in a rough shopping crowd. Each lady does so in her own inherently idiosyncratic style. Thelma’s character is a scrapper, not afraid to get into the mêlée, and ZaSu’s character eventually gets a grabbing with her formerly timid, fluttering hands. Their shopping excursion ends up costing them more than they saved when they accidentally get a policeman (James P. Burtis) fired, whom they have to house and feed until they find him a new job. Of course, that task turns out not to be so easy! Watch the videos below to see how it all plays out.

 

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Tune in Tonight or Set Your DVRs! Souls for Sale Re-Airs on TCM.

Image Courtesy of Silents Are Golden

Image Courtesy of Silents Are Golden

This month marks the eighth anniversary of the Turner Classic Movies broadcast premiere of Souls for Sale (1923), and the network obliges silent film buffs by re-airing the film tonight at 9 PM PT/Midnight ET. Viewers who have never seen Rupert Hughes‘s film before or those who love movies about making movies are in for a treat!

Souls for Sale was once thought a lost film. Copies began being found in archives or shared by collectors in the eighties and nineties. Most were in rough shape and not all were complete. A collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and MGM resulted in a restored version of the film. Marcus Sjöwall won The Young Film Composers Competition to provide its soundtrack.

Roger Ebert called it, “drama, melodrama, romance and satire all at once–wrapped up in a behind-the-scenes look at how a desperate young woman fell into the movie business by accident and became a star.” That young woman, Remember “Mem” Steddon, is played by Eleanor Boardman in her lead debut. She’s given plenty of material.

Mem flees her quickly wed and highly suspect husband Owen Scudder (Lew Cody) on their wedding night. She hops off their honeymoon train and ends up lost in a desert before being rescued by a Sheik on a camel (Frank Mayo). Mem’s not hallucinating! She’s stumbled upon a film set. Despite Mem not initially being interested in a film career due to the industry’s scandalous reputation, she ends up an actress and caught in a love polygon completed by Richard Dix and Mae Busch. If that’s not enough to tempt you to watch, would a climactic scene taking place under a big top during a lightning storm?

Besides delivering plenty of plot, the movie offers many cameos. Actors and actresses like Blanche Sweet, Patsy Ruth Miller, Zasu Pitts, Dale FullerRaymond Griffith, Anna Q. Nilsson, Jean Hersholt, and Chester Conklin appear. Directors Erich von StroheimCharlie ChaplinKing Vidor (later Eleanor’s spouse), Fred Niblo, and Marshall Neilan are caught in front of the camera. Stroheim fans get the gift of a scene shot on Greed‘s set. Even rarely filmed screenwriter and editor June Mathis appears.

Overall, a fun movie offering plenty of silent film Easter eggs!

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