White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd (1991)

From the moment Thelma Todd’s body was found slumped in the front seat of her car, there has been some conjecture over how the much-loved but now-all-but-forgotten screen comedienne died. Was it suicide, an accident or something more sinister? Going by the films’s title, it’s obvious which side of the argument this biopic comes down on. Fortunately it makes its case with an entertaining mix of film-noir and drawing-room whodunit.

Following an investigation into her death by a fictional DA’s assistant, the film uses his interrogation of Todd’s acquaintances to depict the actress’ life. Among those questioned are her lover and his wife, an abusive ex-husband, an archetypal stage-mother and a mobster’s chauffeur. In keeping with the spirit of the piece each role is floridly performed, with suspects often feigning illness to amusingly cut their interviews short.

In the title role, Loni Anderson almost redeems herself for her earlier performance as Jayne Mansfield. Charmingly swapping wisecracks with a diverse cast of characters that includes Hal Roach and Lucky Luciano, Anderson reminds us all of her own fine abilities as a screen comedienne. Scott Paulin also impresses as the dogged investigator, providing the film’s narration that only gets clunky towards the film’s conclusion.

Fifteen years later Lois Smith, who portrays Thelma Todd’s mother, would appear in a biopic that also depicted the fictional investigation of an actor who died in mysterious circumstances, playing George Reeves’ mother in Hollywoodland (2006).

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The comedy series, which Hal Roach pitches to Thelma Todd as a female version of Laurel and Hardy, originally paired the actress with Zasu Pitts. Patsy Kelly only joined Thelma after Zasu left the series.

Biopic features a couple of making-of scenes, but exactly which of Thelma Todd’s numerous films are being recreated is unclear.

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