Sometimes the saddest Hollywood stories are the most compelling, and when there is an element of mystery they become even more interesting. A good example is the story of Thelma Todd in Michelle Morgan’s new book “The Ice Cream Blonde”
Thelma Todd was one of the most talented and attractive actresses of pre-code talkies. She made many films, including comedies and dramas, beginning in the silent era. However, the work for which she is most noted is her comedy appearances with the likes of Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. Sadly, she is best known for her mysterious 1935 death, and even now, in the 21st century, there is speculation as to whether it was murder, suicide or an accident.
Michelle Morgan obviously did extensive research to give us this biography. We learn a great deal about Thelma’s early life, her initial interest in acting, and eventual work on stage and in movies. We also are given enough information to understand aspects of her effervescent personality that would couple with her beauty and result in connections with figures that might advance her career and success, but also are dangerous.
Morgan does not give us a series of dull facts couched within a retelling of events with little frame of reference. She is never relegated to relying on her own conclusions. Morgan’s research is thorough enough to offer solid, accurate details not only about various aspects of Thelma’s life, but also the extent of her talent. Thelma Todd was on par with the likes of Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, two more early deaths who had an innate sense of comedy. Thelma Todd worked masterfully with comedian Charley Chase on the Hal Roach lot, appearing in several of his popular two reelers. Chase wanted the two of them to team up on screen, but producer Roach decided to team Thelma with Zasu Pitts in an attempt to create a female comedy team like the male team of Laurel and Hardy who were the stars of the lot. Morgan successfully attempts to understand Thelma Todd’s process as a comedian and actress, her dynamic with Pitts on screen as well as their off-screen friendship. When Pitts left and was replaced by Patsy Kelly, a new dynamic continued to be successful. The last of the Todd-Kelly films was released after Todd’s death.
Thelma Todd was found dead in her car of carbon monoxide poisoning. The official report said suicide, but her friends couldn’t understand why, as she had been upbeat, happy with her career, and interested in new ventures that were about to happen. Morgan explores the various possibilities, pointing out gangsters who had intruded into her private life, her tumultuous marriage to Pat DiCicco, her relationship with directed Roland West, and the notion that some of her close friends who knew the truth were threatened to the point where they refused to discuss her death even 50 years later.
“The Ice Cream Blonde” is revealing, insightful, compelling, interesting, and entertaining. Morgan provides a well-drawn portrait of her subject, allowing us to get to know her as a person, and appreciate her talents as a performer. It is a most highly recommended biography about a fascinating, tragic figure of late silent and early talkie cinema.