Celebrity biopics are nothing new in the entertainment world but from the 1960s-1990s and again in the 2000s there was a spate of made-for-television and cheap theatrical celebrity biopics. Many of them were based on lurid books and/or attempted to tell “the real story.” I’m trying to gather as many of these films as I can to review and tell you which ones are good, bad, and fun as hell to make fun of. Today’s first entry (which I haven’t found a title for…taking suggestions) is the 1991 made-for-television film White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd about the murder of actress Thelma Todd. My mother swore I was in for a good time as it stars 1990s joke de jour Loni Anderson (my first and not last Anderson film in this series). With that being said, White Hot is good in terms of production values but boy is the acting and story awful but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The film follows the investigation into the murder of Ice Cream Blonde, film star Thelma Todd (Loni Anderson). While cops are quick to label her death a suicide Detective Louis Marsden (Scott Paulin) believes otherwise. As he interviews the people involved in Thelma’s life, they weave a tale of corruption, sex, and Mob ties that could have gotten Thelma killed.
To give a little back story on our star in question. I don’t know much about Thelma Todd outside her death. I’ve never seen her films but from doing some research she had a successful career as a comedienne in a few Marx brothers comedies but was never able to break into serious acting. A brief stint doing dramatic roles under the name Alison Lloyd was a dismal failure. On December 16th, 1935 Todd was found slumped in the front seat of her car inside the garage of actress Jewel Carmen, the wife of one of Todd’s ex-lovers. There’s conflicting reports about her prior activities, who she spoke to, and whether or not she was intoxicated but the cops quickly labeled her death a suicide. Her body was quickly cremated so a later autopsy was out of the question. Numerous theories swirl about her death ranging including murder by mobster Lucky Luciano (the line this film takes) for refusing to allow gambling in her restaurant, or by her ex-husband who also had Mob ties.
White Hot is a hilarious movie, unintentionally. It’s not quite that high on the ridiculous meter like a Lifetime movie but it’s painfully aware that it’s a made for television films in 1991. The plot is set up like an Agatha Christie movie with all the suspects conveniently being in the same room together, lined up and introduced. From there the flashbacks are all introduced with an overpowering jazzy soundtrack and a smoky filter so distracting I continuously questioned whether the set was on fire. The sets are all opulent until they’re put to use. Case in point a scene where Thelma bangs on a door and you visibly see it bend under her fists.
The plot has a lot of players and things to say but it seems to waste a lot of time within the first 45 minutes jumping from a storyteller to a scene of Loni Anderson is a boobtastic dress. The plot doesn’t kick into the film proper until about an hour into the film leaving 34 minutes to roll out the story. Obviously White Hot is a showcase for Anderson’s style of acting (if you can call it a style) but in the opening moments it appears as if the director is content to just have a particular character, Roland (Lawrence Pressman) tell the story. Seriously, Roland tells a story with the camera on him for a good ten minutes before the flashback arrives. Did someone forget to place it in? I watched this with my mother (who adores films like this) and she told me that the film is made “soap opera style.” I can make fun of soaps still, I know the tropes, but I’ve never actually sat down and watched a soap opera so I guess White Hot counts. There’s a lot, and I mean A LOT, of moments where a character stands behind another talking as the person in front looks to the left or right. I had to laugh because you keep asking “who is everyone talking to. No one is looking at each other!”
The acting is all smarmy and over-the-top, mainly from the character who are meant to be “villains” or users of Thelma Todd’s talent and name. The first one we’re introduced to is director Roland West played by Lawrence Pressman. Roland is the creepy lover of Thelma, in this version he’s spurned but in real life they were together. Pressman’s delivery is like a failed actor trying to quote Shakespeare which I think might be the back story of the character but the stalker vibe never goes away. Adding to the creepiness is character actor Robert Davi as Lucky Luciano. Personally, any movie (and I do mean any movie) is instantly elevated to TOTALLY SUPER AWESOME purely because of Davi’s presence. I mean think about movies like The Goonies and Showgirls, are they not cooler because he’s there? Well if you don’t agree then you have no business on my blog thank you! Anyway, Davi takes to playing a gangster like a duck to bread crumbs (that’s right…right?). He’s got bizarre charm, he’s creepy as hell, and he plays a great gangster. The weak link award has to go to Scott Paulin as Detective Marsden. His narration is so bizarre that at times I assumed he was reading from a book with the stilted pauses and lack of any emotion. One line in his narration actually discusses Thelma’s mother debating on whether to give him tea or coffee, “she chose tea.” Okay, that’s nice. WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE PLOT? They don’t even really need a detective character, they could have had any random cop interviewing suspects as the narrative device or hell, just tell a straight-forward biopic.
We can’t ignore our star, the infamous Loni Anderson as Thelma. Again, I haven’t seen any of Anderson’s work in film or television and I didn’t think she was that bad. I expected a train wreck of a performance but she’s sweet and funny. It’s not an Emmy-award worthy performance but she never faltered over lines or felt like she didn’t know what she was doing. The moments when Todd is trying to be taken seriously as an actress and realizes she’s failing, Todd doesn’t go to pieces. There’s an ability to turn a negative into a positive with Anderson at the helm and in comparison to all the other actors around her, Anderson truly is the high point of White Hot. The film does give a bullet point list of things in Thelma’s life including having no one to trust (her mother gives her pills, men use her) but the film doesn’t give any context for why Thelma is the way she is. Characters mention how her personality was shaped by a “strict” childhood and that’s all that’s said. What do they mean by strict? What elements of her personality were shaped specifically? We don’t know because apparently there was no money in the budget for a childhood sequence. We also get standard scenes of her abusive husband and her dabbling in alcoholism, you know the usual for this type of film.
What’s funny is how the film desperately wants you to believe Anderson is playing Todd at all. Something to think about: Thelma Todd died at the age of 29. Loni Anderson in 1991 was 45! Rule one when watching this movie: You will need to swallow the fact that Anderson is mid-40s, as are all her friends playing next to her, playing a 29-year-old. And sadly some of the actors playing her friends look younger than Anderson. Sure it heightens that camp quality but seriously, there wasn’t anyone younger? What’s even funnier is when the film flashes back to Thelma as an ingenue first coming to Hollywood (nice we get this scene with no context and ignore her strict childhood). Apparently the director and production crew of White Hot felt lightening Anderson’s makeup, dressing her in less revealing clothes, and putting a short wig on her would make her look younger…like 21-years younger. Sadly it’s laughably bad and Anderson looks exactly the same. I’m not necessarily berating Anderson’s acting, purely the attempts this film makes in order for the audience to believe their star is so young and vibrant.
The main problem with White Hot is that if you didn’t know this was about Thelma Todd (or if it didn’t have Thelma Todd in the title) you’d think Anderson was playing Marilyn Monroe or Jean Harlow or any other type of blonde. The story is so trite that it could apply to almost any famous starlet of the time who died young. In several sequences Anderson’s hair and dress evokes images of Harlow or Marilyn. Interestingly, Todd would play Jayne Mansfield in a made-for-television film that I’ll be reviewing at some point. As bad movies go you could really do a lot worse than White Hot. While White Hot gives you little story (you’d be better off reading the countless “Celebrity Mystery” books out there that include Todd’s death) it’s campy and fun to watch with friends. I didn’t hate Loni Anderson and thought she was the best of the group. It’s a quick watch and is far more entertaining than a Lifetime film.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.