Three-day local festival to honor star’s 100th birthday
By Jeff Rapsis firstname.lastname@example.org
In her day, she worked with the biggies—the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton, to name a few. In the early 1930s, the perky blonde ranked as one of Hollywoods’ brightest young stars, appearing regularly in the biggest release of several studios.
But Thelma Todd was a real person, too. And in the years following her untimely death in 1936 (at age 29), that real person has been all but obscured by the need for Hollywood gossip columnists to take any hint of scandal and run with it.
That’s one reason why Manchester resident Dave Stevenson is fascinated by the life and career of the vivacious actress, who hails from his own hometown of Lawrence, Mass.
“One thing I always stress when I talk to people is that everything out there on her is virtually all falsehood,” Stevenson said. “Virtually everything written about her is incorrect.”
To help set the record straight, Stevenson is working on a painstakingly researched biography of the star that’s still quite a ways from completion. In the meantime, to keep Thelma’s work in front of the public, for the past 10 years he’s organized annual film festivals on a relatively small scale, all loosely tied together with a Thelma Todd theme.
But with Thelma Todd’s 100th birthday approaching this summer, Stevenson decided to stage a special event. And so (drum roll, please), next month Manchester will play host to a full-fledged three-day festival of vintage movie screenings.
Some films will feature Todd, of course; others will be rare prints of obscure films of interest to scholars and collectors. The festival is organized to take place mostly in Manchester’s downtown area, with screenings at UNH Manchester and accommodations for out-of-town guests at the Radisson. The word is already out in the vintage film community; it’s expected to attract devotees from far and wide to the Queen City for screenings and discussions.
Among other events, the festival will include a bus tour of Todd-related sites in Lawrence, Mass. Silent films will be shown with live piano accompaniment, and noted film historians will discuss their latest work in between screenings.
But the festival is open to the public, and Stevenson hopes the program will attract a local audience as well. To that end, the three-day event culminates with a full-fledged movie night at the Palace Theatre, where an authentic 1933 night at the movies will be recreated not in a classroom, but in the atmosphere of a genuine movie palace.
That means a feature film, of course, but also short subjects, a newsreel, a cartoon, and other attractions—all presented just as they would have been shown to a Depression-era audience in need of an evening’s escape.
The festival’s program is still being finalized; much of it depends on the availability of rare 16mm prints and the willingness of collectors to come to Manchester and allow them to be screened.
But Stevenson hopes the Palace movie night will include Fra Diavolo, a 1933 feature-length comedy starring Laurel and Hardy in peak form and, yes, Thelma Todd as the comically-less-than-trustworthy love interest.
The program will also include Going Bye Bye, a classic Laurel & Hardy short featuring character actor Walter Long as a dangerous criminal. Long, who appeared frequently as a menacing heavy in the comedy duo’s films, was born in Milford, N.H.
Stevenson, a lifelong vintage film buff, was always aware of Todd, who appeared frequently in many classic comedies from the early 1930s.
But when he began researching her life story by talking to family members still in the Lawrence, Mass. area, Stevenson was surprised how much of the “real” Thelma Todd had been buried under press agent hyperbole and scandal-fueled gossip.
Her death was a key factor. In truth an unfortunate accident (carbon monoxide poisoning due to her falling asleep in a car),the death was whipped up into a juicy scandal involving the mob to protect others involved.
Thelma’s reputation was sullied in the process, but she was in no position to complain—and so began misunderstandings about her that persist today, Stevenson says
Even her birthday is a matter of contention. Most sources (including the Internet Movie Database) say it’s 1905, but Stevenson has the church records that show conclusively that it’s July 29, 1906.
“We’re even getting flak from some people already about the 100th birthday celebration, because the IMDB says it’s 1905,” he says.
Stevenson says Todd family members plan to attend the festival, coming from around New England and perhaps as far away as Ireland or New Zealand.
For Stevenson, one of the pleasant side effects of researching Todd’s life and career has been getting to know many members of her extended family. Some knew her personally, but others aren’t familiar with her career, which has put him in the unusual position of introducing her films to them.
“They’re all tremendously proud of what their relative accomplished,” Stevenson says. “Wouldn’t you be?
”The 2006 Thelma Todd Celebration will run from Thursday, July 27 to Sunday, July 29 in various venues in Manchester. All-day film screenings will be held at UNH-Manchester on Thursday & Friday, July 27 & 28. A “1933 Movie Night” will take place at Manchester’s Palace Theatre on Saturday, July 29. The festival will include exhibits of historic memorabilia and appearances by Todd family members and other special guests. Admission will be charged for events; for more information, visit www.looserthanloose.com or call 624-6094.
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