Book Review: THE ICE CREAM BLONDE – THE WHIRLWIND LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF SCREWBALL COMEDIENNE THELMA TODD

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Thelma Todd was a name that I had heard in passing but not one that I was terribly familiar with.  The actress appeared in 120 movies between 1926-1935 and is probably best remembered for her roles in The Marx Brother’s MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS.  She also appeared alongside Laurel and Hardy in several films, as well as in a series of Hal Roach comedies with ZaSu Pitts and later, Patsy Kelly.

While Thelma Todd had a fairly prolific film career she is mainly remembered for her sudden and mysterious death.  On December 16, 1935 she was found dead in her car by her maid.  The car was parked in the garage owned by Jewel Carmen, the wife of Thelma Todd’s ex/possibly current lover and current business partner Roland West.  Todd and West both owned a cafe in the Pacific Palisades called Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe.  Todd was last seen leaving a party at the Trocadero and her driver recounted dropping her off outside of her apartments.  Todd insisted that her driver not walk her inside and the shadowy image of her back retreating was the last sight anyone had of her alive.  The cause of death with determined to by carbon monoxide poisoning.  After and inquest the cause of death was listed as “accidental with possible suicide tendencies”. However in the years since many people, friends, family, fans, and even the police who investigated the crime have voiced their own doubts about the accuracy of this conclusion.

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THE ICE CREAM BLONDE by Michelle Morgan is the newest biography which attempts to not only shed light on a mostly forgotten actress but also to decipher the theories surrounding her mysterious death.  The first section of the book focuses on Todd’s beginnings and her film career.  While this portion is well done it does seem to move quickly through her films and credits.  With 120 films to her name I understand that not every movie can be talked about in great detail but I would have liked to have had some more detailed information about some of them.  I would have been interested to hear about the filming process and Thelma Todd’s experiences on the set of her films, rather than simply focusing on audience and critical reaction.

The second section of the books deals with Thelma Todd’s death and the subsequent investigation.  Michelle Morgan does a very good job detailing the events leading up to Todd’s death and the investigation that followed. One chapter also deals with the three possible theories of how Todd died.  She also gives very compelling evidence for one theory that seems to be the most logical series of events.  As the Thelma Todd mystery will likely never be officially re-opened or examined, especially as the main players in the story are now dead, Michelle Morgan cannot declare one theory correct over the others and I appreciate that she does not try to push her theory forward as the true version of events.  She presents the evidence and allows readers to come to their own conclusions.

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THE ICE CREAM BLONDE is a very well written and readable biography.  I found that it stuck with me, even after I had put it down, and I often couldn’t wait to go back and read more.  With stars whose lives or deaths have overshadowed their talents and film credits it is hard to find biographies that take a more scholarly stance when examining their lives. Happily, Michelle Morgan takes a very intelligent and knowledgable stance when talking about her subject and one gets the sense that she has a respect and affection for Thelma Todd.  Her biography is timely as well as needed, as Thelma Todd’s cafe was under threat of being torn down but current owners are planning to bring the building back to its former glory. More than anything though I would hope that THE ICE CREAM BLONDE would do for other classic film fans what it has done for me, which is to introduce me to a talented comedic actress who has gone too long without the recognition she deserves.  I came away from this book wanting to know more about Thelma Todd which I believe was Michelle Morgan’s intention.


Thank you to Chicago Review Press for providing me with a copy of THE ICE CREAM BLONDE in exchange for a fair and honest review.

‘Tis Herself by Maureen O’Hara: A BOOK REVIEW

I recently watched Raquel of Out of the Past’s classic film book haul video and thanks to her I came up with several titles that I wanted to read.  The first book I decided to pick up was Maureen O’Hara’s autobiography entitled ‘TIS HERSELF.  I knew I was in for a ride when I read on the first pages the lines, “You are about to read the tale of the toughest Irish lass who ever took on Hollywood and became a major leading lady of the silver screen.  In a career that has lasted for over sixty years, I have acted, punched, swashbuckled, and shot my way through an absurdly masculine profession during the most extraordinary of times.  As a woman, I’m proud to say that I stood toe-to-toe with the best of them and made my mark on my own terms…”

Maureen O’Hara shares with us the story of her entrance into Hollywood, her first roles with Charles Laughton, finding her way through the studio system, making enemies among the powers that be, and her turbulent relationship with John Ford.  This book does not go into great detail about more historical aspects of O’Hara’s life.  Often many of the films she made are mentioned in passing, sometimes warranting nothing more than a sentence or two, especially if O’Hara was less than thrilled with the production.  She is not hesitant to share her sometimes unflattering opinion of other actors and directors, such as John Farrow, Rex Harrison, and Howard Hughes. She is also very giving with her compliments of people she loved and respected such as John Wayne, Olivia de Havilland, Natalie Wood, and Alfred Hitchcock.  If you are looking for a very in-depth autobiography then you will find this somewhat lacking.  Maureen O’Hara even addresses this at the very end, lamenting that she hasn’t told half of the stories she wanted to.  I think it is because there are four men who feature prominently in this book and she wanted to use this platform to share her stories about them.

The first is, not surprisingly, John Wayne.  Maureen O’Hara uses her book to share her wonderful and meaningful friendship with the man she called “The Duke”.  She also sets straight many rumors and stories about their supposed romantic relationship.  In short it never happened.  Second, is her third husband Charlie Blair, the man who gave her true love and died under tragic and mysterious circumstances.  Third is Will Price, her second husband, an abusive alcoholic.  Her relationship with Price takes up a good section of the book, as she struggles to survive him and tries to save their marriage even as he is trying to destroy it.  Finally, there is John Ford.  Maureen O’Hara had a complex and turbulent relationship with director John Ford and in this book she shares more details than were perhaps known before.  The picture she paints is not all together flattering, John Ford appearing to be a troubled, angry, unhappy, at times kind but often manipulative artist.  His behavior toward her, especially before, during, and after the filming of THE QUIET MAN is shocking and at times disturbing.

I think that Maureen O’Hara was using this chance to share the stories about things that had happened in her life that she had never been able to before.  To finally share the abuse she suffered at the hands of Will Price, studio heads who refused to allow her to be more than window dressing in her films, and John Ford.  To share her questions and theories about the truth behind her husband’s death.  And to finally set the record straight about some rumors that she had been hearing for years.  Because of this she could not write a complete and thorough autobiography, rather choosing to focus on having her say instead of writing her life story.

I have read several reviews that spoke disparagingly about Maureen O’Hara and her ego.  They said that she is arrogant and full of herself.  In fact Maureen O’Hara starts her book by saying “…An Irishwoman is strong and feisty.  She has guts and stands up for what she believes in.  She believes she is the best at whatever she does and proceeds through life with that knowledge.  She can face any hazard that life throws her way and stay with it until she wins.  She is loyal to her kinsman and accepting of others.  She’s not above a sock in the jaw if you have it coming.  She is only on her knees before God.  Yes, I am most definitely an Irishwoman.”  I have to say that after reading this book I disagree with the sentiment that she is arrogant.  I think she is a strong, self possessed, and confident woman.  She was a great actress and a beautiful one.  She fought for what she believed in no matter who she had to face, be it actors, directors, the United States Government, or her own family and friends.  So why shouldn’t she say that?  Why is it arrogant of her to say “I was beautiful” or “I was the greatest lady swashbuckler”?  Would we prefer false modesty?  Why is it more acceptable for a man to say these things than a woman?  Why is a man powerful and confident if he thinks highly of himself, but a woman is full of herself?  Maureen O’Hara tells it as she sees it and I love her for it!

I enjoyed this book and felt like I got a chance to hear the stories Maureen O’Hara felt it was important to share.  This is most likely not the most objective look back on a life you can find, autobiographies always run that risk, but I don’t feel like it is untruthful.  And I think that it is amazing that it took all these years for a strong woman like Maureen O’Hara to feel comfortable to share these stories with the rest of the world, to share her experiences with abuse and powerlessness.  Reading this book not only gave me a deeper appreciation for Maureen O’Hara and her amazing life and career, but it also made me proud to be an Irishwoman (well, 50%) myself!  Definitely a recommended read for other classic film fans!

2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge: EVERY FRENCHMAN HAS ONE

This post is part of the 2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge hosted by Raquel of Out Of The Past. Find out more about this event here and stayed tuned all summer for more reviews!

For my sixth book in the 2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge I wanted to read something a little special.  This book would fall into that category.  First of all, I love Olivia de Havilland.  I have a special feeling for her because she was the first class film actress I can remember watching and enjoying, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD anyone, and she also was the first classic film star I ever got an autograph from.  She actually sent me a lovely note along with an autographed photo of her and Errol Flynn during the shooting of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, which I have framed and hung on my wall.  I decided to splurge on a pre-birthday present to myself, as copies of this book start around $45 on Amazon, and get a book written by Olivia de Havilland herself.  And I have to say that the result is fabulous.

Actually, the word I would use to describe this book would be delightful.  After the end of her first marriage, Olivia de Havilland traveled to France for the Cannes Film Festival and it was here that she met her soon to be second husband.  After her divorce was finalized and her second marriage legalized, Olivia de Havilland crossed the ocean and settled into life in France.  And that is what this book is about!

A collection of anecdotes and stories about her life and adjustment to life with the French people and the city of Paris this book is not for those seeking a autobiography.  However, if you enjoy the stories of Robert Benchley or the humor of The Night The Bed Fell by James Thurber, you will enjoy this book.  Guys, Olivia de Havilland is funny!  And witty!  And this book shows all of that.  I read the first 115 pages in one night and finished the book the next day.  The writing is quick and clever, and full of amusing tales of her time in France.  She writes about her trials in French fashion, finding and hiring a French maid, and remodeling her new home.

I really enjoyed this book and I would certainly recommend it to any classic film fan!  Thank you to Ms. de Havilland for this wonderful book!


Here is another great post about this book written by Lara of Backlots.  Also, big thanks to Raquel for hosting this challenge!

2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge: THOSE FABULOUS MOVIE YEARS; THE 30s

This post is part of the 2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge hosted by Raquel of Out Of The Past. Find out more about this event here and stayed tuned all summer for more reviews!

Many classic film fans when asked what the best year for movies was would answer 1939.  So many great movies came out that year, in fact so many great films came out in the 1930s as a whole.  How can one film fan remember them all?  And what of the fabulous stars of the 1930s? Well never fear, have I got a book for you!

Found at a library book sale with a very ripped dust jacket I present to you THOSE FABULOUS MOVIE YEARS: THE 30s.  This book is a collection of films made in the 1930s as well as the actors and actresses who starred in them.  Published in 1975 and written by Paul Trent each entry in this book gives a brief overview of the films and the stars.  The entries written for the actors and actresses limit themselves to discussing their careers in the 1930s only.  The films are given very brief overviews with some details about their productions and box office success.  It is interesting to read some of the opinions about such great films as THE WIZARD OF OZ (…”It was an irresistable magnet for sentimentalists and romantics willing to believe and one that thrust Garland into superstardom…”), GUNGA DIN (…”is a period piece, appropriate only for a day when chauvinism was an acceptable word and audience’s believe in the White Man’s Burden.  Its themes, sensibilities, and social mores date the film.”, and DINNER AT EIGHT (“When the film ends, the viewer feel he’s been to one heck of a party.”).

Those looking for a more in depth review of films made in the 1930s will most likely be disappointed.  But this book does give quick information, almost like an encyclopedia, and could be useful for quickly trying to look up who was in that movie that you forgot you liked.  One thing this book does have going for it are the pictures.  Every page is covered in black and white, and some color, photographs of the stars and movies that we love.  It is an odd sensation to read the entries of people like Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joel McCrea with no final date listed after their birth.  We read the book knowing that they are gone, but in seeing this blank space where the date of death usually goes we get to have a moment of believing that they haven’t left us yet.

2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge: GOOD STUFF; A REMINISCENCE OF MY FATHER, CARY GRANT

This post is part of the 2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge hosted by Raquel of Out Of The Past. Find out more about this event here and stayed tuned all summer for more reviews!

A few weeks ago my husband presented me with a bag of birthday presents.  He had taken the time to go out and search for some classic film related books for me, a not so easy task as anyone who collects books or classic film related items will attest.  In amongst the other gifts was this book, GOOD STUFF.  I was intrigued as I knew that Cary Grant became a father late in life but had never read anything much about that child.

That child is Jennifer Grant, daughter of Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon.  Although her parents divorced when she was very young, she still managed to spend a great deal of time with her father especially when her mother was away on a film set.  Cary Grant retired from the film industry when Jennifer was born in order to spend more time with her and be there to raise her.  At the time this book was written Cary Grant had been dead for about twenty years.  It is apparent in reading Jennifer’s reminiscences that this devastating event still is as clear and affecting as if it happened yesterday.  In fact she makes mention at the beginning of the book that her therapist suggests that she write about her father, ostensibly to help her work through her grief.

What follows then are short chapters, almost vignettes, in the life of Cary and Jennifer Grant.  Remembering the happy times with her father, the “good stuff”, Jennifer allows us a brief glimpse into a part of Cary Grant that many have never seen or even considered.  We get to see him as a husband and more importantly, as a father.  He delighted in his daughter and saved everything she touched practically.  He was also constantly videoing or recording their lives and Jennifer quotes these recordings often in her book.  Yes, in some places the praise of her father and his love for her might seem a little heavy handed but then why shouldn’t it be?  This is not a book written by a scholarly biographer but rather a love note written from a daughter to her father.

GOOD STUFF is not a typical biography, nor is it an unbiased and scholarly look at the life of one of the greatest actors of all time.  But then I don’t think that it is meant to be.  The sense I got from this book was that it was cathartic for her to write it.  In an effort to work through the grief of losing her father, Jennifer Grant wrote this book.  She wrote it in an attempt to say one last good-bye and I love you to her father.  So, if you are looking to find a book about Cary Grant’s entire life or one that is completely factual and neutral in its portrayal of the former Archie Leach then I would urge you to look elsewhere.  Jennifer never knew that part of her father’s life and he was reluctant to speak of it, preferring to leave it in the past, so she cannot speak to it in her book.  But if you are looking for a personal, private, almost stream of consciousness look at Cary Grant the man and father then this is the book for you.  In remembering her father, a man who was her biggest fan and greatest support, Jennifer Grant talks only about the “good stuff” and how can we blame her for that?

2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge: GARBO

This post is part of the 2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge hosted by Raquel of Out Of The Past. Find out more about this event here and stayed tuned all summer for more reviews!

A few weeks ago a local library was having their annual sale and my Mom and I decided to brave the crowds, and the heat, to go seek out hidden gems.  Library sales tend to be crazy, usually full of booksellers with their handheld devices trying to find books to sell online.  I have a deep and abiding love for books and this makes me sad, but that is a story for another time.  The booksellers were there in force but luckily none of them wanted the older and more unique books that I was looking for, thus allowing me to find such fabulous items as the book I just read.

GARBO by Norman Zierold is a slim volume of only 150 pages which seems somewhat fitting in the telling of the life story of the famously reclusive star.  But if you are hoping for a complete biography that tells the story of Greta Garbo’s life from cradle to, as the book was published in the late 1960s, her current life in New York City you will be disappointed.  While the book does tell some stories about Garbo’s life and childhood, her early career, and her big break into Hollywood the main point of this book is to talk about and dispel the Garbo mystique.

Zierold relates the story of Greta Garbo through the creation and maintaining of her famously eccentric and reclusive aura.  He makes a good case for the exaggeration of her truly private nature by the Hollywood publicity machine, as well as by Garbo herself.  Zierold makes the case that by saying nothing and allowing the public to print and think whatever they liked about her, Greta Garbo actually helped create and bolster her own famous image in her fairly short career.  He also shares stories of the lengths that fans, aka Garbomaniacs, would go to to meet the star which actually make it seem quite reasonable that Garbo would want to avoid the public as much as possible.

The book also spends some time dealing with Garbo’s many romantic entanglements, most famously Johnny Gilbert, as well as her close circle of friends.  Zierold has the benefit of time, writing during a period where the stars of the Golden Age were still plentiful and easily recognizable to the general public and it is nice to read the names of long forgotten stars, or at least ones that are forgotten by non-classic film fans.

All in all this was a quick and enjoyable read and since I had never read any biography about Greta Garbo, all the stories were new to me.  While I don’t feel like I know very much about Garbo’s life in total, I do feel that I know a little more about the Garbo mystique and the woman who helped to create it simply by wanting some time to herself.

2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: WILD BILL WELLMAN; HOLLYWOOD REBEL

This post is part of the 2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge hosted by Raquel of Out Of The Past. Find out more about this event here and stayed tuned all summer for more reviews!

I need you to stop what you are doing right now and go out and buy a copy of WILD BILL WELLMAN.  Seriously, I’ll wait.

Written by William Wellman Jr., WILD BILL WELLMAN tells the life story of great American film director William Wellman.  While many classic film fans are most likely familiar with some aspects of Wellman’s life, his films, and his temper, this book opens up a whole new world of fascinating stories and facts.  Beginning with Wellman’s childhood and his time in the French flying squad during WWI, moving ahead and covering his career in Hollywood and his eventual departure from the movie making business, this is a definite must own for any classic film fan.

I loved every moment of this amazing man’s life and at the end felt that I knew him not only as a director, but as a person.  Wellman lived a life that was worthy of his movies, and one that he attempted to make into a film before the studio heads had their way, and his son has brought that life to us in a compulsively readable biography.  Lest you fear that Wellman will paint his father in a flattering light or a less than accurate one, all of “Wild Bill’s” failings, struggles, and outbursts are recounted.  Wellman is aware of what kind of man his father was and he does not hide the less than glorious parts from us, but at the same time we can feel the pride and love with which he recounts the successes and happy moments of his father’s life.

The book is filled with black and white pictures, scattered throughout the chapters, showing candid moments in the Wellman home and on the sets of his many films which only add to the stories recounted in its pages.  Speaking of films, Wellman made a total of eight-two during his career and they are all at least mentioned in this book.  To those who are sensitive to spoilers (which I am not) to these classic films, some of the movies are written about in more detail than others and often the entire story and plot will de revealed when describing Wellman’s filming process.  If anything I found these sections only heightened my desire to see the films that were being described, having now gained a deeper insight into their creation.

William Wellman Jr. has written a truly wonderful book and one that is a fitting an honorable tribute to his father.  William Wellman was a remarkable man, director, husband, and father, and I feel that in reading this book I was able to have him walk beside me for a short time.  I highly recommend this book to not only classic film fans but to anyone who enjoys a good story about an amazing person.

2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge: A TOUCH OF STARDUST

This post is part of the 2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge hosted by Raquel of Out Of The Past.  Find out more about this event here and stayed tuned all summer for more reviews!

What better way to start this summer reading challenge than with a book that could be the perfect beach read for classic movie fans?

A TOUCH OF STARDUST by Kate Alcott is just that.  It tells the tale of Julie Crawford, recent transplant from Fort Wayne, Indiana and latest arrival to Hollywood, and the filming of one of the most sprawling stories ever told, that of Gone With The Wind.  Julie has no sooner gotten her first assignment on the set of Gone With The Wind when she becomes the latest victim of David O. Selznick and his emotional firings.  Before she is fully dismissed from the lot however, she runs into two people who will not only save her job but change her life forever.  One is the handsome, intelligent, and challenging assistant director Andy Weisnstein.  The other is none other than the beautiful, clever, and free-spirited Carole Lombard.  Julie soon finds herself falling in love with Andy and coming face to face with not only anti-Semitic attitudes and prejudices, but also the ever approaching shadows of World War II and Hitler’s Nazi regime.  She also crosses paths with Frances Marion, witnesses the chaos on set due to the increasingly taxing demands of David O. Selznick, and becomes Carole Lombard’s personal assistant and friend.

Kate Alcott married into Old Hollywood, namely the Mankiewicz family, and she has used her family connections to help give this novel a unique “backroom look” into the goings on during the filming of Gone With The Wind.  A TOUCH OF STARDUST is a treat for classic film fans who will recognize many names and places mentioned, such as Abe Goldman, Frances Marion, Culver City, and George Cukor, as well as the aforementioned Carole Lombard and David O. Selznick.  Alcott has clearly done her research and included many historical facts and trivia bits about the filming of Gone With The Wind and the relationship between Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.  To me, the best parts of the novel were the ones where Julie is experiencing the madness of the making of this epic film, the world of the directors, writers, and producers, and her interactions with Frances Marion and Abe Goldman.  In these moments we get to see not only the fascinating and absorbing world of classic Hollywood in action, but also we are able to see the character of Julie growing and evolving into the self-assured, bold, and intelligent woman that we are hoping she is and that Carole Lombard seems to believe she is.

The descriptions of the relationship between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard feel quite real and very believable.  More than just caricatures of themselves, both Carole and Clark are written as real people who we would love to get the chance to know.  There is a bittersweetness to this however, for those classic film fans who know what the end of the relationship would hold for them.  But in these pages Carole Lombard and Clark Gable come alive again, perhaps a little more so than their “co-stars” such as Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, and Hattie McDaniel, which is to be expected as this story is mostly about Carole Lombard and her affect on Julie.

The relationship with Julie and Andy is also a large part of the novel, and for the most part it is well done.  I will say that the anti-Semitic attitudes of Hollywood and the general public is really only dealt with in two sections of the book, while the rest of the time it is mostly mentioned in Julie’s mind as she alternately worries about what her family would say if they knew and whether or not she is doing enough to show that she is not ashamed to be involved with a Jewish man.  The encroaching influences of the Nazi party and World War II are far more prevalent on the story and are well done.  There is a constant hum in the background of the increasing peril in Europe and even as the United States government maintains its neutrality, the inevitable sense that something will have to be done and soon is ever present.

I will say that for the most part I found the character of Julie sympathetic and welcomed her as my proxy into this world.  Her relationship with Andy is also an enjoyable part of the story but there were some issues for me.  For one, I found the beginning part of their relationship to be somewhat frustrating.  Julie, perhaps intentionally, comes off a bit like a teenager getting offended by something Andy says or does every five minutes and then giving him the silent treatment for several days all while constantly thinking about whether or not he is going to come back and make the first move to reconcile.  Thankfully this behavior does stop after a while, but it is then swapped out with the constant struggle of Andy keeping Julie at arm’s length and not being completely open with her because of hurts from the past and wanting to make sure that he doesn’t cause her to break due to his perception of her fragile state.  So Julie then is always wondering why Andy won’t let her in and Andy is then telling Julie that she doesn’t understand life and love because she is too young.  I get that they love each other, but so much of the novel is spent with Andy withholding emotionally from Julie that when the ending comes it lacks a bit of emotional punch because I didn’t feel as invested in Andy as Julie did.

A TOUCH OF STARDUST was at its best for me when it was describing old Hollywood, Gone With The Wind, and Carole Lombard.  I was even inspired to buy a biography about Frances Marion just by reading about her here and wanting to learn more.  And maybe this is the best thing about this novel.  A TOUCH OF STARDUST is a fun and enjoyable read for anyone, but especially for a classic film fan who can really get and understand all the references and inside jokes.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that this would be a great book to get someone who likes to read but doesn’t like to watch classic films.  This could be a “gateway drug” to the uninitiated or at the very least, a great excuse to show them a Carole Lombard film.