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.
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.
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.