Oct 28, 2015

Book Review--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
Chicago Review Press
Michelle Morgan, 2015
Available November 1

It's always complicated to explore the lives of stars who die young. For all they had to offer the world, actresses like Sharon Tate, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard will always be shrouded by the fog of an unfortunate demise. The talented comedienne Thelma Todd is another of those unlucky promising talents who lived briefly, if brightly. In a new book by Michelle Morgan, the actress's mysterious death is analyzed in great detail, but her eventful life and busy career are also given proper attention.

Todd packed a lifetime of achievement into twenty-nine years, though she had yet to reach her full potential as an actress and businesswoman when she died. The Lawrence, Massachusetts native had a turbulent life from the start, witnessing the death of her seven-year-old brother in a creamery machine accident when she was only four, and suddenly losing her father to a heart attack on her twentieth birthday. The family upheaval would forge a strong bond between the actress and her mother Alice, who was always a strong presence in her life.

Alice and Thelma Todd

The friendly, beautiful Todd was always popular and full of energy. Though she studied to be a teacher, a beauty contest win led to an offer to study at the Paramount Studios school of acting. There she found quickly that she enjoyed comedy. She liked devising funny ways to fall down stairs.

Thelma Todd worked hard for Hollywood success, but there was a lot that came easy to her. She was confident and charismatic, people were drawn to her beauty and she rewarded them by showing genuine interest in everyone she met. Curiously though, despite clearly having a star persona, she was usually stuck playing supporting roles.

It is in comedy shorts that Todd became a star, doing her best work with ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly in a series of buddy pics where the actress played the straight woman. Other famous screen partnerships include a series of shorts with Laurel and Hardy and perhaps the films she is best remembered for today: a pair of films with the Marx Brothers. She was so good that even her fans wanted to know why she wasn't starring in feature length films. 

Perhaps this is partly because Thelma's views were ahead of her time. Morgan reveals a woman who was a feminist before the word was commonly known; an actress disgusted by the casting couch, determined to keep her freedom by freelancing and signing short term, flexible contracts and who called her own shots in business and in love.

That mixture of confidence and practicality is what led her to enter a partnership with her one time director and married former lover Roland West. She would serve as figurehead for his Sidewalk Café, later to be known as Thelma Todd's Inn, ensuring a future for herself in the restaurant business as protection against the eventual rejection she expected from Hollywood. That never happened in her lifetime though. For the rest of her years she would be active in film and entusiastically hands on at the Café.

Ironically, the very place where Thelma sought security probably led to her death. Though it has never been proven, and it is now too late to ever be sure, there is strong evidence that mobsters had been pressuring her and West to set up gambling operations on the premises. Todd was not one to back down.

In trying to tell an 80-year-old story, Morgan is faced with significant obstacles. There is no one still alive to provide a firsthand account of what happened to Todd or what it was like to know her. She draws heavily from Todd's fan magazine reviews, which of course must be viewed to some extent for the marketing tools they are.

Still, it seems there was a great deal of truth to what the actress said to the press, because new interviews with grandchildren of the people in her life tell essentially the same story. Despite the necessity of these subjects relying on second hand accounts, their memories are for the most part consistent in their portrayal of Todd as friendly, generous woman who had her troubles, but was enjoying life immensely. They also hint at menace in her life that she for the most part concealed from her loved ones, though she could never entirely hide her anxiety.

I liked that so much of the book focused on the way Todd was in life. She had such a healthy approach to living: cultivating friendships, joining a Hollywood women's group called The Dominoes and taking care of those who didn't have her good fortune. 

That bustling, happy aspect of her life makes it all the more disturbing that the actress seemed to be a magnet for menacing characters. There are also mysterious men she referred to when talking to friends whose identities have never been revealed. It is possible that had she not been protected by the bubble of her bustling social life, she may not have even lived as long as she did.

It would have been nice to have gotten deeper insight into Thelma as a performer. While her influence on others was clear, I never got a clear sense of what she was like as an actress. Why was she such a talented comedienne? Coming to the book having seen little of her work, I didn't end up with a much clearer picture of what she had to offer, though I was very curious to see more of her films.

With its thorough description and analysis of the events surrounding Todd's death, the final section of Ice Cream Blonde is the strongest. I thought there was a remarkable amount of detail, considering the age of the case, though unfortunately there was not enough to find a definitive answer. Morgan digs into the complexities of Thelma's last night, and the events that would follow, with a strong investigative eye. She comes to as firm a conclusion as she can, and I am convinced that her theory about what happened to the actress is a good one.

As depressing as the subject matter could be, I enjoyed the book. It had an easy flow, and I found it difficult to put down. At 224 pages, it has substance, but can be an easy weekend read.

Many thanks to Chicago Review Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

All photos courtesy of the publisher.

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