The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life
and Mysterious Death of Screwball
Comedienne Thelma Todd by Michelle Morgan
Chicago Review Press, 2015; 288 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Thelma Todd is one of the great what-could-have-been performers from Hollywood’s golden age. An elegant and beautiful blonde with wit and killer comic timing, she exudes the traits that made Carole Lombard such an acting powerhouse. Todd starred opposite comic heavyweights like Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers. She worked for Hal Roach Studios where among her credits included short films in which she played opposite Patsy Kelly and ZaSu Pitts. None of this includes her dramatic work which Todd barely explored before her mysterious death in 1935 at the age of 30.
In Michelle Morgan’s excellent new biography The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd, Morgan explores the starlet’s career in-depth by starting at the end, less than two weeks before Christmas just 80 years ago. Todd was found in her car which was parked inside her garage. No one could make sense of the death, which authorities declared to be accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, but others have suggested suicide or even murder at the hands of several suspects.
Morgan has more respect for Todd than to dwindle on conspiracy theories too much, instead touching upon the tawdry long enough to contrast the vibrant and generous personality that should be Todd’s legacy. Todd grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She excelled in school and had a winning personality that attracted people. By her teenage years she began successfully entering beauty pageants and had aspirations to become a teacher before Hollywood discovered her.
As portrayed by Morgan, the reader gets to know Todd as a loving daughter and generous performer, both to her fellow actors and her adoring fans. Where other authors and television programs have tried to twist a terrible narrative around the star’s life, Morgan sees Todd as a woman too talented, too smart, and too compassionate to fall prey to circumstances as horrific as suicide or murder. While those theories show up, including problems from a potential blackmailer/stalker, Morgan doesn’t indulge those ideas too much. While the author never puts forth her own theories, the book itself seems to subtly argue that an accidental death is most likely. Based on the woman we come to love during the course of the book, I’d think any reader would want to believe anything but the nefarious.