Thelma Todd found her niche and greatest movie success as a madcap comedienne in a string of short films with ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly, several pictures with Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy, and her best known feature film appearances with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. But she was disappointed and unfulfilled by small roles and mediocre scripts, and yearned to be seen as more than a sassy screwball beauty. She wanted to make her mark as a dramatic actress and be remembered for something other than comedy. The latter part of that wish came true, due to her mysterious death at 29, which is examined in great detail in the new book by Michele Morgan, The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd. But as the title promises, this book also attempts to show us the life of this vivacious, sincere, congenial, intelligent and fascinating woman with a promising career.
From her beginnings in Massachusetts, Todd was “thoroughly New England.” She was admired for her beauty but always stayed modest, tried to deflect and balance undue attention on her looks by excelling in book and street smarts, and even cultivated a tomboyish rowdiness to prove she had more going for her than the superficial. She was a movie fan but didn’t aspire to acting, and trained to be a schoolteacher, until a beauty contest got her into the Paramount acting school. She was familiar with unfairness and tragedy, having watched her brother die in a gruesome accident when she was four and then losing her father before he got to see her make it to Hollywood. Those experiences made her tough, but she was positive-thinking too, an ebullient realist who always kept a healthy skepticism about Hollywood extremes and fakery and an awareness of how very brief acting careers, and life in general, could be.
Outspoken, determined and down-to-earth, Todd was in equal measure a “black sheep” when it came to conformity and a “golden dream” when it came to modelling, beauty contests and suitors’ attentions. Once in Hollywood, that dichotomy made her tough to pigeonhole, control or get on the casting couch. That independent spirit extended to her love life and public persona. She knew appearances were important, remade herself into a glam starlet and enjoyed taking part in celebrity appearances, whether she was endorsing products, promoting the Olympics or honing her skills with female acting group the Dominoes, but she also guarded her privacy and kept the press guessing about her dates, or the progress of her troubled marriage to and divorce from “bad boy” Pat DiCicco.
In its telling of events up until last year of Todd’s life, her portrait is assembled from her resume, fan magazine stories and letters, and some remembrances from friends and loved ones. This approach describes and documents an admirable character, busy career and interesting activities but for me keeps Todd at an impersonal distance. It was in the description of her last year that she became most human to me, when we’re told how she was beset by problems and threats, how she dealt with them, and what happened in the time leading up to her death.
She had entered into a venture with Roland West, a married director with whom she once had a disastrous affair but kept a connection. West and his wife had purchased a property and offered Todd the chance to front the attached seaside cafe. She accepted, welcoming the business challenge and recognizing this might be her ticket out of an acting career whose days were numbered. She excelled at being a celeb restauranteur but strange events plagued her immediately. The site was targeted by gangsters for gambling operations and they put pressure on Todd to play along, but she remained defiant. During that time she also received a string of threatening letters which were at first dismissed by authorities as a publicity stunt, but were eventually traced to a disturbed fan. This naturally social woman had to endure living in lockdown and was also the victim of an assault and burglary. Somehow she managed to keep her spirits up, never gave the impression of being suicidal, and even had the guts to meet her letter writer with a gun in her pocket (he turned out to be an impostor). After things finally seemed to be looking up, Todd was found dead in the garage near her cafe, and Morgan spends a fascinating chunk of the book examining every known clue and detail about Todd’s last weekend and her death scene, all the cryptic comments, inconsistent statements, and theories that might explain what happened to her. That part was so involving and revealing I wished nearly as much emphasis and analysis was given to what made her so beloved–Todd’s films and talent. But I appreciate that those coming to this book out of curiosity about the mystery of her death will, in 224 pages, also get a nice picture of a deep and smart actress who claimed she never “got” Hollywood but clearly had a good understanding of how it worked and what her place was in it.
Thanks to Chicago Review Press for a review copy of the book.