Showing posts with label Thelma Todd. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thelma Todd. Show all posts

Monday, January 11, 2016

Interview with Thelma Todd biographer Michelle Morgan

Michelle Morgan

I had the honor to interview Michelle Morgan, author of The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd , which I reviewed on this blog last month. It's a fantastic biography that humanizes an otherwise tragic figure. If you haven't read it already I hope this interview will entice you to do so. Thank you to Michelle Morgan for taking the time to answer my questions!

Why write about Thelma Todd?

Morgan - I discovered Thelma while I was working on a biography about Marilyn Monroe. Her ex-husband’s name came up in a letter and I was intrigued about who he was. A quick search on the Internet led me to Thelma and her mysterious death. After that I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I realized that just like Marilyn, Thelma was a very under-estimated person and over the years more and more lies and rumors have been attributed to her. I wanted to show who Thelma really was. She wasn’t just “the body in the garage.” She was a real-life person and it was very important to me to treat her that way.

The Ice Cream Blonde

What kind of research did you do for this book?

Morgan - I did absolutely everything I could in order to find out information. I bought the huge Coroner’s report; I read literally thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and interviews; I spoke to anyone I could think of who might own something related to Thelma’s life; I accessed the FBI records; I watched movies; collected documents and photos… Literally everything I could do, I did. In fact even during the editing process, I was still researching in order to answer the editor’s questions. The research for this book was never ending but it was very much worth it and I enjoyed every minute of the process.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered when you were researching Thelma Todd? 

Morgan - Just how very approachable, warm and funny she was. Up until the time I started researching her life, I had heard so many stories about her having a drinking problem; being a gangster’s moll; and just generally having quite a questionable personality. Going back to interviews, stories and memories from the time showed that this was absolutely not true. Thelma was hard-working, very friendly with fans and friends, intelligent, a good negotiator, strong, independent and a genuinely warm person. I was so pleased to find such a lovely woman underneath all the rumors, and I became a huge fan. I will forever hold a good thought for her and will continue to collect about her.

Why do you think Thelma had such a strong connection to her home town Lawrence, Massachusetts? 

Morgan - I’m sure it had a lot to do with Lawrence being her hometown. She had a fairly secure childhood there, her family lived there for the whole of her life, and she had many memories there too. I think the Lawrence people helped to keep her going when she felt unsure about her abilities as an actress. Knowing they were spurring her on, made a big difference in her attitude. In fact Thelma said as much to a crowd of fans, during one of her trips back there.

I’m planning on a trip to Lawrence to explore different locations that were important to Thelma Todd. Is there anything I should look for?

Morgan - With the passage of time, some of Thelma’s locations are now long gone. However, you can visit her resting place at Bellevue Cemetery (her ashes are there). The cemetery is also where family members are buried, including her brother, who died tragically at a very young age. Another good location is 22 Bowdoin Street, where many of the Todd family lived over the years. The funeral for her brother and father both left from there and Thelma stayed at the house on many occasions. In fact after her daughter’s death, Thelma’s mother moved back to Lawrence and into 22 Bowdoin Street. The street as a whole still looks remarkably like it did in Thelma’s day, so would be a great place to go if you want a real sense of Thelma’s early years.

Could you tell us a bit about the Paramount School, where Thelma Todd studied acting before heading to Hollywood? 

Morgan - The idea behind the Paramount School was to give students the tools and techniques they needed for acting in front of a camera. A lot of actors were heading to Hollywood with a thorough stage training, but their performances were exaggerated because of the way they’d worked in theatre. This did not go down well with studio heads, so they were actively seeking people who actually knew how to act in movies. The Paramount School gave students an opportunity to learn the trade and make a film at the same time. It was also hoped that a few stars would be discovered along the way, and this is what happened with Thelma and her classmate Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers. However, while the school may have been a way to fill her time, Thelma was somewhat frustrated by it and always felt that she could have learned a lot more as an extra girl in the movies. The school was also looked down upon by some in Hollywood, who wondered why they should welcome these kids who they felt had no experience other than in a classroom.

Thelma Todd found more success in comedy shorts than in dramatic features. Why do you think that is?

Morgan - I think it was purely because she was extremely good at comedy. Her facial expressions, her body language, her eyes (especially her eyes!) were made for comedy. She was an extraordinary comedienne and audiences really warmed to her in funny roles.

Thelma and her mother were really close. Tell us a bit about their relationship over the years and what happened with Alice after Thelma died. 

Morgan - Yes they were very close, but at the same time Alice had known a lot of loss and heartbreak (she lost both her husband and son very tragically), so she could be a little overpowering in her love for Thelma. The two lived together for many years which I’m sure the actress felt fairly restricted, particularly when it came to her love life. However, she moved out when marrying Pat De Cicco, and while the relationship may have failed, it did give her the opportunity of gaining a little independence from her mother, once and for all. Instead of moving back in with her, she instead went to live first with a friend and then in her own house. However, while they may have lived apart, the two remained very close and actually went shopping together on the very last day Thelma was seen alive. They spent the entire day together and the actress’s driver dropped Alice home after taking Thelma to her final party. After Thelma’s death, Alice moved back to Lawrence and divided her time between the family home on Bowdoin Street and a lakeside cottage. She outlived her daughter by many years and died in December 1969.

What do you hope readers will get from reading The Ice Cream Blonde?

Morgan - I hope that they will see that Thelma was a real-life person, not just an image on the screen or a body in a garage. She worked hard, had many friends who loved her, and had sadness and happiness just as we all do. If people can get past the rumors and see that she was a human being, that is the most important thing to me. I also hope that the book starts a renewed interest in her career, which in turn will lead to some of her films being released on DVD.

What advice do you have for someone who might want to write a biography about a classic film star?

Morgan - Writing biography is extremely hard work, not only with the actual writing, but the constant researching, sources, photographs etc. You really need to think outside the box and explore every avenue to try and find new and exciting information. It is challenging but also very rewarding. I would say that if you are interested in writing biography, do some initial research first; just casually to see what you can find out. If you find yourself becoming more and more excited with the process, then absolutely go for it. If you find the research rather boring or your heart’s not really in it, then perhaps biography isn’t for you.

Thank you to Michelle Morgan and Chicago Review Press!

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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