Friday, December 11, 2015

The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd

The Ice Cream Blonde
The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd
by Michelle Morgan
9781613730386 - 288 pages
Chicago Review Press
November 2015

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How will you be remembered after you die? If you’re like me you dread the idea of being remembered for how you died rather than how you lived. It’s sad to think that all those moments of happiness, the accomplishments and the relationships can be canceled out by a brutal end. Maybe this is why I’ve always had a soft spot for Thelma Todd. I think it’s a shame to remember her as that actress who was found dead in her garage. I like to think of her as the Massachusetts native who had a knack for comedy, a great work ethic, a realistic outlook on life and healthy skepticism of Hollywood. While readers of biographer Michelle Morgan’s The Ice Cream Blonde might be drawn to the mystery of Todd’s untimely demise, they’ll find that they will also enjoy a story about a real woman whose life was more than the sum of her unfortunate circumstances.

“She possessed a charm and grace that never failed to win them over.” - Michelle Morgan

From a very young age Thelma Todd seemed to be destined to become an entertainer. Born in Lawrence, MA in 1906, Todd was drawn to dancing, singing, modeling, public speaking and performing in general. After her brother William died at the age of 7 as a result of a freak accident, one Thelma witnessed, she became both son and daughter to her parents. She had a great relationship with her mother Alice Todd, who encouraged her talents (they remained close for the rest of Thelma’s life), and a complicated relationship with her father who wasn’t as enamored with the idea of his daughter being an entertainer. The tomboy blossomed into a stunning beauty who turned heads and drew admirers from both sexes. The gals wanted to look like her and the guys wanted to be with her.

Although she was very skeptical of Hollywood, the Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor scandals put her off even more, she was on the fast track to become an actress. Drugstore and department store jobs led to modeling job which led to a part in a small local film which led to her becoming Miss Lawrence and then Miss Massachusetts in 1925. Todd was studying to be a teacher at the Lowell Normal School (which eventually expanded to become University of Massachusetts Lowell) when a friend signed her up for the Paramount Pictures School. Yes! Famous Players-Lasky had a school on Long Island that’s sole purpose was to train young talent for a future in Hollywood. Once Todd started at the Paramount Pictures School she was immediately given small roles in big pictures including Fascinating Youth (1926) with Clara Bow. Hollywood was calling her name.

“It is only to the very few – the lucky ones – that Hollywood brings success and happiness.” – Thelma Todd

This was a very non-traditional way of getting into the business and when Todd and her mother Alice moved to Hollywood, Thelma got a lukewarm reception. She struggled with small dramatic roles until Hal Roach saw comedic potential in her. Todd found success in comedy with performances alongside comedy teams such as Laurel and Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey and the Marx Bros. At Hal Roach Studios she became part of her own comedy duo with a series of shorts co-starring Zasu Pitts who was eventually replaced with Patsy Kelly when Pitts left the studio. Todd wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to be known as a dramatic actress and sought opportunities at other studios, even filming in England and at one point briefly and disastrously changing her name to Alison Lloyd. But it wasn’t meant to be. Comedy was her strong suit.

Patsy Kelly and Thelma Todd in Maid in Hollywood (1934)

“[Hal Roach] had watched on of Thelma’s dramatic roles and advised to her to stop being serious and stick to doing comedy.” - Michelle Morgan

In Morgan’s book we learn quite a bit about Todd’s career as well as her romantic relationships, her brief marriage to Pat De Cicco and her friendships with Ida Lupino and Patsy Kelly. Then there was Roland West and his wife Jewell Carmen whose presence in Todd’s world would lead to all sorts of problems that possibly led to her untimely death.

“She was a smart girl. She had a fine brain inside that beautiful head of hers. She was clever in every way.” Patsy Kelly on Thelma Todd

Thelma Todd struggled with self esteem and often doubted her talents as an actress. Because Todd lacked the huge ego of other stars, she had a very realistic view of Hollywood and knew that longevity in the business wasn’t a given. She became the co-owner of the Sidewalk Cafe in Santa Monica and started dividing her time with the new restaurant and her acting career. Todd had a marvelous work ethic and this side business was intended to secure her future. It was around this time that everything started to go downhill. Her cafe attracted gangsters and gamblers, she received anonymous death threats from a figure who referred to himself as the Ace and was even physically attacked at her own establishment. The details get kind of murky but author Michelle Morgan does a great job parsing out all the information and piecing it together.

Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe

Thelma Todd was found dead on December 16th, 1936, slumped over in her car inside her garage. So what exactly happened to Thelma Todd that previous evening? You’ll have to read the book to find out. The author lays out three possible scenarios: murder, suicide and accidental death. Murder is the most likely of the three. It was a sad end to such a vibrant who had much more potential in her if she had been allowed to go on.

What I love about this book is how the author humanizes Thelma Todd. As a reader we really get to know Todd. It’s difficult not to be charmed by her generous spirit, her dedication to her work and her vivaciousness. Todd seemed like a down-to-earth person. She enjoyed the Hollywood nightlife and maybe she didn’t make the best decisions about romantic partners but she had a very realistic outlook on life. Having read so many biographies about actors and actresses whose insecurities lead to bizarre behaviors that were tolerated because of their fame (I’m reading a Frank Sinatra biography right now hence this observation), it was really refreshing to read about someone completely different from the Hollywood norm.

The Ice Cream Blonde by Michelle Morgan is a must read for fans of Thelma Todd and for anyone interested in a good story, albeit with a tragic ending, of a lesser known figure in film history. It reads in chronological order to Thelma Todd’s life except for the beginning which starts with a bit about the mystery surrounding Todd’s death. There is an insert of black-and-white photos of Thelma Todd and the book isn’t bogged down by footnotes, something I very much appreciated.

The book isn’t perfect. I felt the narration was a bit simplistic at times. This does make it a quicker read than other more dense biographies. I also didn’t care for all of the film review quotes found throughout the book. I would have rather read more behind-the-scenes information about each film (especially for Follow Thru!). However, I did enjoy how much detail there was about Todd’s life in Massachusetts and her love for Lawrence. I live near this town and at one point even traveled to the cemetery where Thelma and her mom were laid to rest. I’d love to go back and do some more exploring of Thelma Todd’s Lawrence with this book as my guide.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Ice Cream Blonde. It’s is a fine specimen of good storytelling, thorough research and thoughtful humanizing of an otherwise tragic figure.

Thank you to Chicago Review Press for sending me a copy of this book to review. They have been doing a great job publishing books of interest to classic film fans.

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