Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of The Ice Cream Blonde by Chicago Review Press. I only accept books that are relevant to classic film or television, and only in exchange for an honest review; rest assured that the $0.00 price tag has not had an impact on my opinion of the book. For a great interview with the author and a chance to win a copy of the book, visit The Lady Eve’s Reel Life.
Thelma Todd’s story ended may have ended tragically, but she was more than just a Hollywood tragedy. This is the impression that I walked away with after reading Michelle Morgan’s new book, The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd (Chicago Review Press; release date November 1, 2015).
Thelma was never two-dimensional. She was both an actress and a businesswoman. She was captivating, with a lively spirit. She had a sense of determination to be truly good at what she did. Morgan follows the trajectory of Thelma’s life from childhood to her time spent as a teacher, her break-out on the big screen, and to her heart-breakingly premature death at the age of 29.
I was somewhat surprised, though not at all disappointed, to find that most of The Ice Cream Blonde‘s page length is filled by a fairly traditional star biography. Avoiding tabloid-style gossip about her mysterious death, Morgan instead offers a clear, thoroughly-researched portrait of Thelma Todd as a person and as an actress. Morgan spends much of the book discussing Todd’s time in Hollywood, detailing anecdotes from the production of particular films and discussing the impact that each release had on Todd’s career.
Woven into this discussion of Thelma’s career are details of her personal life — her friendships, her romances, her hobbies. Since the book is organized chronologically, the reader gets a pretty clear picture of Todd’s life in Hollywood, despite the fact that the book clocks in at under 300 pages.
To the delight of the reader, Todd’s life was an exciting one, and Morgan brings it to life very well on the page, making the book one to be devoured in just a couple of sittings. I’ve seen a few of Todd’s films but didn’t know much about her prior to reading this book (other than the fact that we share a birthday!), so I also appreciated the opportunity to learn more about how she became such a prominent player in the world of slapstick screen comedy.
Beyond Todd’s life in particular, The Ice Cream Blonde speaks to Hollywood fan culture in the 1930s, which naturally brings to mind comparison to today’s culture of celebrity. This was another fascinating aspect of the book for me. As regular readers of TMP will know, I’ve been collecting old fan magazines for several years and have a great interest in what “fandom” looked like in the early to mid-2oth century. Several mentions are made of Thelma conversing with fans through the mail, writing honest letters to them about her life and sometimes offering them gifts. One story shared in the book has the leader of a Billie Dove fan club coming to Hollywood and making friends with several stars, including Thelma, who shared a meal with the girl and introduced her to Laurel and Hardy.
On the flip side, there is talk of actors adopting mastiffs to protect their families, and making sure their children’s bedroom windows were higher than the reach of any ladder to avoid kidnappings. Thelma herself received threatening letters from an anonymous man, which frightened her so that she put a complete halt to her social life and had bars installed on her windows. These were extreme measures to take, usually only employed when a real danger was perceived. Nowadays, that danger is presumed to be constant. Fans can win set visits or perhaps get a mention from their favorite actor on social media, but I’d guess there as many 24-hour bodyguards employed in California as there are screen stars — perhaps more! There’s an interesting contrast throughout the book of genuine interest in and care for the film fanatics of the day, versus the paranoia that could strike when being in the public eye brought danger to the lives of stars.
The details of Todd’s off-screen life, including that incident with the anonymous letters, build into the mystery of her death, where there are just as many suspects as there are questions left in her wake. Morgan celebrates Todd’s life and legacy but also investigates her death, calling on FBI files, interviews, photographs, and documents to explore whether Todd’s demise was truly accidental. The final seven chapters of the book explore Thelma’s last day and the aftermath of December 16, 1935, when her body was found.
If the biographical section of the book is good enough to be finished in two sittings, this later portion of The Ice Cream Blonde is gripping enough to be finished in a matter of just an hour or two. Chapter 22, “The Theories,” is particularly difficult to put down as Morgan gives a thorough explanation of the plausibility of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, suicide, and murder as the potential causes of Thelma’s death.
As the book nears its close, Morgan goes on to explain her own theory of the events of December 15 and 16, and to share what happened to the major players in the case after it was officially closed. She doesn’t state any of her own theory as fact (something that gossip-wary classic film buffs will appreciate), instead writing that she hopes it will merely lead to further discussion of this sad Hollywood mystery, and a renewed interest in the life and career of a very talented comedienne who left this world too soon. For me, The Ice Cream Blonde accomplished just that: an increased knowledge of Thelma Todd as a person and an actress, and an increased interest in her films.