While Thelma Todd‘s death often overshadows her work, Michelle Morgan has written the biography the actress deserves. Any book about Thelma must mention her death and the mystery that surrounds it, but Morgan spends the majority of The Ice Cream Blonde discussing the slapstick comedienne’s life and career.
Morgan researched her subject well. The book is filled with details whose sources are carefully listed in the notes and bibliography sections. She shows how a prim and proper New Englander originally intent on becoming a schoolteacher became “Hot Toddy” roughhousing with a veritable who’s who of silent and early talkie comedy. Her famous co-stars included the Marx Brothers, Charley Chase, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Joe E. Brown, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Laurel and Hardy.
Producer Hal Roach sought to make a female comedy short duo as popular as his Laurel and Hardy pairing. He first paired Thelma with ZaSu Pitts, and when Pitts left his studio, he replaced her with Patsy Kelly. While the shorts’ detractors call them derivative and uninspired, Thelma and her co-stars draw laughs in their roles, and the films’ plots, while sometimes bizarre like The Tin Man, put slapstick into female realms, seemingly to offer a woman’s take on this comedy form despite being written and directed by men.
Even though Thelma wanted a break-out role to lead to feature starring work, she was more concerned with expanding her talent and roles and securing her future than the fame associated with stardom. She was never too proud to not take a pratfall or to recognize and respect everyone working on-set. She knew the names of those working behind the scenes because she chatted with them about their families. As a consequence, she was beloved wherever she worked, at Roach’s or on loan.
Her generosity helped many a friend. When New York stage star Patsy Kelly wasn’t adapting to life on the West Coast or slapstick screen work, and her debts threatened to drown her, Thelma’s intervention prevented Patsy from returning east in defeat. When Patsy was fleeing California, Thelma became determined to save Patsy before the studio got word. Thelma hopped into her car and dragged Patsy off of her eastbound train. The two had an all-nighter, full of heart-to-hearts and advice. A lifelong friendship developed.
When her big break didn’t seem to be coming, Thelma’s practical side made her plan for her post-screen future by becoming a businesswoman. She partnered with former lover Roland West and his wife Jewel Carmen to open Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Initially Thelma was to provide her name and presence, while the Wests were to provide the financing and management, but Thelma became very hands on, learning to run most aspects of the business. She could be found hostessing and personally preparing food, and her presence attracted everyone from tourists to fellow film stars.
Her business put her on the trajectory to tragedy. Soon after becoming partners with West, the two became romantically involved again, and Thelma moved into the café’s apartment in a room next to his, only separated by a sliding door. The pair’s relationship was volatile, and at least once resulted in physical violence. Her alleged mobster ex-husband Pat DiCicco had been physically abusive as well. The smart starlet was not so smart in her choice of men. The eatery’s success and perhaps secret on-site gambling of Hollywood stars attracted mob interest. Meanwhile Thelma started receiving anonymous blackmail threats in the mail. Whatever your theory about Thelma’s subsequent death in the café’s garage, these incidents provided possible motives for murder.
In dissecting the available evidence surrounding Thelma’s death and the subsequent inquests, Morgan carefully conveys which testimonies and pieces of evidence she finds credible and why. She reviews the theories relating to accidental death, suicide, and murder, and she favors one, but she doesn’t belittle those coming in with others. For instance, she asks if Thelma truly walked to the garage herself why was no mention made of the state of her hosiery? Thelma was wearing high-heeled sandals, and such a long walk in or not in non-protective footwear would have resulted in dirtiness and runs.
Don’t think Morgan’s fact-focused approached leads to a dry style, quite the contrary. While her style is non-sensationalistic, it is engaging and allows the personalities she describes to be experienced through her words, especially in the book’s concluding and haunting quote from the actress. Maybe Thelma truly had the last word. Always the planner, she had posted Christmas cards and presents early. Friends and family received them a few days after her death. Still trying to make others happy. Her true legacy.
Disclosure: I was provided a review copy by the book’s publisher, Chicago Review Press.