What a warm and wonderful gal Thelma Todd was. Smart, classy, and enviably beautiful, she livened up numerous comedies featuring Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Louise Fazenda, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Joe E. Brown, and many other famous laughmakers. Watching her performances reminds us how much was lost with her untimely death in 1936. Who could forget her “college widow” being serenaded by each of the four Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers (1932), or her Mrs. Plumtree genuinely cracking up at Stan Laurel in Another Fine Mess (1930)?
The gal nicknamed the “Ice Cream Blonde” was said to be the life of the party, both on the set and at those ubiquitous celebrity shindigs. She was a confident woman who made her own decisions and allowed no one to push her around. Suitors who said they loved her “for her beauty” were shown the door. She refused to go along with any “casting couch” nonsense and tried to retain her dignity in the face of the drama-and-affairs side of Hollywood (although in the end she wouldn’t be left unscathed).
Michelle Morgan’s lengthily-titled The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd presents a careful account of the actress’s life, from her early years as a tomboyish child to her unusual entry into silent era Hollywood via the “Paramount School” to her busy career as a rowdy Depression era comedienne. Her research is detailed and well-balanced, endeavoring to present Todd as she really was in life. Considering that Todd’s excellent work is often ignored in favor of the gossip surrounding her tragic death, The Ice Cream Blonde is extremely welcome.
Not to say that Morgan downplays Todd’s death. On the contrary, she addresses it thoroughly, relying on the facts and using common sense (a valuable tool!) to analyze the available evidence. I was impressed to see that Todd’s well known death photos were tastefully excluded–now that’s the mark of a respectful work.
Morgan’s theories as to how Todd ended up passing away–a major selling point for this book–were certainly convincing to me, more so than other touted “revelations” about movie stars in recent publications. (No, Lucky Luciano wasn’t involved.) Like with so many other celebrity tragedies we will probably never know what happened with 100% certainty, but Morgan’s ideas are the most sound ones to date.
Thelma Todd’s been the subject of a couple prior biographies, ranging from the decent to the frankly tabloid-ish. I’m happy to report that The Ice Cream Blonde is part of a growing trend of solid, scholarly biographies that actually realize their subjects were real people. The era of unscrupulous authors spreading around ugly gossip and carelessly muddying the facts is finally–mercifully–beginning to die. It will probably never fade away completely, but thanks to the Internet anyone who tries to sell any Hollywood Babylon-inspired nonsense is going to have to face the Amazon reviews.
The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd was published by the Chicago Review Press and was just released on November 1st. I warmly recommend it. You can purchase a copy here.