American entertainment in the middle of the twentieth century was shaped by the contributions of master showman Mike Todd (1907-1958), a Broadway producer turned Hollywood movie mogul. Todd pioneered 70-millimeter film, the wide-screen movie spectacular, and the use of major stars in cameo roles.
Todd became widely known for producing the Oscar-winning star vehicle Around the World in 80 Days. He made possible many other films for which he got no formal credit. He popularized Cinemascope and Cinerama, trade names for wide-screen film processes, and he invented the "Todd-AO" system of synchronizing multiple sound tracks on 70-millimeter film. Married to Elizabeth Taylor, he was at the height of his fame when he died tragically.
Show Business Impresario
Like many other American show business personalities of the early twentieth century, Mike Todd changed his name to disguise his ethnic heritage. He was born Avron Hirsch Goldenbogen (by some accounts, Golbogen) in Minneapolis in 1908. His father was a rabbi who had emigrated from Poland with his wife. The family moved to Chicago in 1918.
From an early age, Todd was a hard worker, compiling an incredible amount of business experience while still a teenager. By the time he was 18, he was president of a construction business that had revenues of more than $2 million a year. He continued with a variety of business ventures and had a considerable fortune by the time he was in his mid-20s.
Todd was always interested in show business. For a time he worked in Hollywood, soundproofing stages for the early talkies. He was a carnival barker at one point. He also tried his hand as a joke writer for the comedy duo Olsen and Johnson. In Chicago, he opened a nightclub.
In 1936, Todd began producing Broadway plays. He quickly became a top theater impresario, churning out hit after hit. In nine years, Todd produced 16 Broadway shows, including Cole Porter musicals and comedies. Most were wildly successful, and in all they took in more than 18 million dollars at the box office. Many of the big stars of the era appeared in them. Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, headlined The Streets of Paris. Mae West starred in Catherine the Great. Other Todd hits included The Hot Mikado, Something for the Boys, and Up in Central Park.
Widening the Screen
Todd's ability to raise money for entertainment projects was well established, and in 1945 he decided to branch out into movies. He formed Michael Todd Productions and soon became a respected and feared Hollywood mogul, a shrewd wheeler-dealer whose backing could jump-start or kill a project. Yet until the mid-1950s his name never appeared on any film credits. Because of this it is difficult to say how many movies he had a hand in financing.
In appearance and style, Todd resembled a Hollywood version of Napoleon—small but commanding and sometimes tyrannical. "Squat, muscular, intensely dynamic, Mike Todd was the very pattern of the modern major moviemaker—voluble, cunning, full of huckster shrewdness, slippery as a silverfish, and yet undeniably magnetic," wrote S.J. Perelman in the New Yorker in 1972. Biographer Alexander Walker described him as "a restless, stocky man with deep-set eyes and a chin that seemed permanently thrust forward, as if its owner were asking himself, 'Is the world ready to face me?"'
The advent of television as a commercial medium sent shock waves through Hollywood in the early 1950s. Todd was one of the first in the movie business to recognize that films needed to be more panoramic to compete. In 1951, Todd partnered with radio commentator Lowell Thomas to form Thomas-Todd Productions to explore the suitability of various wide-screen techniques. Within weeks, Todd zeroed in on the work of French inventor Henri Chretien. In the 1920s, Chretien had adapted the conflex lenses, first used in World War I submarine periscopes, to provide an 180-degree movie image. Todd convinced Twentieth Century Fox president Spyros Skouras to buy manufacturing rights to Chretien's process, which the Frenchman called Cinemascope.
In 1952, Todd joined with Skouras and other partners to form the Cinerama Corporation. The company contracted optics manufacturer Bausch and Lomb to produce a better lens to minimize distortion in Chretien's film process. Todd also decided that a wider film stock was needed to produce Cinerama. He invented a 70-millimeter film in which 65 millimeters were used to hold the elongated Cinerama picture and the remaining five millimeters were reserved for five synchronized sound tracks. Picture and sound could be integrated and projected from a single 70-millimeter projector. With a characteristic lack of humility, Todd named his invention "Todd-AO," with "AO" standing for "all-in-one" synchronized sound and image projection.
Todd enlisted Thomas as narrator and produced a semi-documentary film called This is Cinerama to introduce audiences to the new technique. With his son, Michael Todd Jr., Todd supervised the European sequences in the film. The first widely released Cinemascope movie using Todd-AO 70-millimeter film was The Robe in 1953. A Biblical epic about the followers of Jesus, the film garnered an Academy Award for Chretien. Todd was not credited for any contribution to the film.
In years to come, other studios would follow with wide-screen innovations, but Todd's was the first, most elegant and most successful method. Among industry insiders, Todd-AO was recognized as one of the saviors of the movie business. And special effects extravaganzas for decades continued to use the 70-millimeter film Todd invented.
Conquered the World
The restless Todd quickly moved on to exploit the processes he had invented. In 1953, he sold his shares in Cinerama and formed the Magna Corporation with movie executive Joseph Schenk. The company's first project was an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Oklahoma. It was a box-office smash. Interestingly, it combined all of Todd's major life pursuits: Broadway plays, movies, and the new wide-screen techniques. But once again, Todd's name was missing from the credits.
Despite the lack of formal recognition, Todd's role in 1950s Hollywood was well known. He was an impresario with a clear vision of how to thrill the masses and a solid business plan for getting those thrills to pay off. His next project was his biggest extravaganza ever: an adaptation of the Jules Verne novel Around the World in 80 Days. Based on the travels of a Victorian gentleman and his wife in a hotair balloon, it was an adventure story that could fully utilize Todd's wide-screen palette and also exploit his many connections in Hollywood. A total of 44 appearances by Hollywood stars contributed to the box-office appeal of the spectacular undertaking. Todd coined the term "cameo" to describe these brief star turns, and the cameo has been popular ever since.
For the first time, Todd's name appeared on a film. He was the producer of Around the World in 80 Days, and the movie was widely regarded as his baby, a sort of self-homage to his incredible showmanship. "The film is less an exercise in traditional skills than a tribute to its producer's energy," notes Halliwell's Film Guide. Perelman was enlisted as the screenwriter for the film, and he wrote about Todd and the project in tongue-in-cheek fashion: "This sinister dwarf who consumed nine weeks of my life has no peer in his chosen profession, which—stated very simply— is to humiliate and cheapen his fellow man, fracture one's self-esteem, convert everybody around him into lackeys, hypocrites and toadies, and thoroughly debase every relationship, no matter how casual. His enormity grows on you like some obscene fungus."
The film crew traveled around the world to shoot vista after vista. Todd frantically dispatched crews to India and Europe, spent money on huge crowd scenes, and manipulated finances and publicity. Perelman coughed up scene after scene written for the growing number of cameos, and Todd paid him on a piecework basis in cash.
Audiences got their thrills and the film won the Academy Award for best picture, but not every critic swooned. In fact, many dismissed the film as something of a giant con job, a bit of cinematic hokum and star-power overkill. "Todd wasn't above putting a few things over on the audience," noted People many years later. "He was salesman as much as showman, and in this flaccid film his is the only real energy."
Liz and Mike
"Mike is the most exciting man in the world," actress Elizabeth Taylor swooned in 1957, explaining why she was marrying Todd. For Todd, it was his third and last marriage; for Taylor, the third of seven. She converted to Judaism in order to wed him.
A year earlier, Todd had tried to get MGM studios to loan him Taylor for a cameo in Around the World in 80 Days, offering her a limousine as pay. The studio declined. In June 1956, Taylor announced her separation from actor Michael Wilding. The next day, Todd took her to an office, sat her down, and reportedly told her: "Don't start looking around for someone to latch on to. You are going to marry only one guy, see, and his name is me." Taylor explained later: "He didn't ask me. He told me. He was irresistible."
A high-profile, cat-and-mouse courtship ensued. He gave her three expensive rings. He treated her irreverently, but also made a public show of lavishing expensive gifts and favors on her. Though Taylor was the far bigger star, she became a part of his public act. Their wedding in February 1957 was a slapdash public spectacle that followed Taylor's "quickie divorce" from Wilding in Acapulco, Mexico. During their honeymoon, Todd hired a ballet troupe to perform privately for them. They then set off to attend openings of Todd's film, which were scheduled around the world on a staggered basis. Todd's congenital restlessness set the terms for their hectic marriage. "I might as well be married to a roulette wheel," Taylor said.
The couple soon had a daughter, Liza. "I have the picture of the year, the bride of the year, and now the baby of the year," Todd exulted. "What more could a man want?" He was laying plans to cast his wife in a spectacular new version of Don Quixote. But she owed MGM two more pictures on her contract. Todd, acting as his wife's new agent, negotiated a deal in which MGM agreed to release her temporarily between those films.
Todd and Taylor made plans to adopt a second child, but those plans were never fulfilled. On the evening of March 21, 1958, Mike Todd left California to fly to a dinner in New York. At the dinner, Todd was to be honored as "Showman of the Year." He wanted Taylor to come along, but she was working on an MGM film and had come down with a fever. The two-engine plane was Todd's own Lockheed Lodestar, nicknamed "The Lucky Liz." Over the Zuni Mountains of New Mexico, the Lucky Liz encountered a bad storm. At 2 a.m., the pilot radioed a control tower for permission to climb from 11,000 feet to 13,000 feet to get ice off the wings. That was the last radio communication received from the plane. Its wreckage was found scattered over half a mile across a high valley in the Zuni Mountains. It was a tragic end to the life of one of the era's greatest showmen.
Halliwell, Leslie, Halliwell's Film Guide, HarperCollins, 1991.
Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper, 1998.
Smith, John M. and Tim Cawkwell, The World Encyclopedia of Film, Galahad Books, 1972.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, Knopf, 1994.
Cosmopolitan, January 1991.
New Yorker, March 21, 1994.
People Weekly, January 30, 1984.