Friday, December 18, 2015

LIZ SMITH: What REALLY Happened to Hollywood's Delicious "Ice Cream Blonde?

Thelma Todd — "The Ice Cream Blonde."
 
by Liz Smith

What REALLY Happened to Hollywood's Delicious "Ice Cream Blonde?" ... Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" Garners Many, Many Ratings! ... Catch "Dames at Sea" Before it Sails Away.

"THINGS ARE so extreme here. I can't quite get Hollywood. People here have no sense of values. They don't know how to live. Everything is done for effect. There's no sincerity — no balance."

A blonde and beautiful movie star once said this. She was known for comic roles, but had the ability for deeper material. She died in her thirties, under still-disputed circumstances. Was it suicide, an accident or murder?
Thelma Todd in "Show Business" (1932).
Nope — we don't mean Marilyn. The above quote came from the beloved comedienne of silent and early talking movies, Thelma Todd. She was known affectionately to her fans as "The Ice Cream Blonde." Indeed, that is the title of a well-researched new book by Michelle Morgan.
Marilyn — Suicide, Accident, Murder? Ask Thelma Todd! MM became the Great Star Thelma didn't. But Thelma was Not the Great Hot Mess That was Marilyn!
Todd's death in December of 1935 was one of moviedom's great scandals and mysteries. She was found by her maid slumped over the wheel of her car, in the garage, the apparent victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. The actress was dressed in a beautiful evening gown, her hair, makeup and high-heeled shoes pristine. Only some blood around her mouth was evidence that Thelma Todd was gone.
A police photo of Thelma Todd's body.
Author Morgan does meticulous work, not only about all the strangeness surrounding Todd's death, but the actresses' slow, steady and mostly unsatisfying climb to — the middle. The Massachusetts born Thelma was an unusually stable, sensible and down-to-earth denizen of the crazy movie business. Typecast as an antic comedienne in a series of short films with Zasu Pitts and then Patsy Kelly, Todd was rarely given starring roles in class-A pictures. She was famous, but unfulfilled.
ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd in "On The Loose," 1931.
At the time of her death, she had reached the dangerous age of 30. But instead of panicking, Todd had invested in a restaurant/inn with her lover, Roland West — who was also one of her directors. And married. She played the role of Hollywood hostess, and saw that this might be her ticket out of the movie rat-race. Good-natured, generous and realistic, she still held out some hope for a great movie role — her best film was a British production, "You Made Me Love You," in which she was a real leading lady. She hoped to return to England at some point, where, clearly, her talents were better appreciated.
Roland West with Thelma Todd's mother, who stood by him.
But it was Thelma's business — the inn which was supposed to save her from hanging on desperately to movies — that appeared to be her undoing. Mobsters wanted to open up gambling at her place. Todd, who was never a woman to meekly back away from confrontation, resisted. Her lover, who had some shady connections, might not have been as brave (or foolish.) He also might have had a hand in Todd's demise. Or at least did nothing to stop it. (Thelma's ex-husband, Pat De Cicco, was no angel, either — he aspired to be many things, not the least a gangster, which was considered glamorous.)
AUTHOR Morgan examines each theory, put out at the time — an accident (not likely as Todd was very familiar with the workings of cars — she even repaired them!) Suicide? She was not given to depression, despite some well-publicized dramas, had been cheerful and partying with friends just 48 hours before her body was discovered, and it was unlikely she'd leave her mother in such a fashion, being quite close. Although Morgan states: "We can never know for sure exactly how Thelma Todd died," she seems to lean toward murder by mobsters, which everybody in Hollywood believed, although the official word was suicide.
I appreciated the non-sensational approach Ms. Morgan takes; her work is fact-driven, rather than luridly sensational. (Morgan has written several books on that most luridly presented of all stars, Marilyn Monroe, but there too, keeps a lid on wild theorizing.)
Modern film audiences hardly know Todd at all. She is probably best remembered for her role in the Marx Brothers movie, "Horse Feathers." (And they don't recognize her name — she's just the hapless blonde who must cope with the zany brothers.) Scandal-lovers are much more aware.
Thelma Todd and Groucho Marx in "Horse Feathers," 1932.
Click to order "The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd."
"Ice Cream Blonde" also offers a cogent, interesting look at the early days of the movies, which really weren't much different from our time, despite the occasional crudity of filmmaking technique back then.

Certainly not different in terms of publicity (it was rampant, cleverly used or destructive) or in the vagaries of a career and how talent can be tamped down once the industry decides you are one thing and one thing only. (Monroe despaired of this, but could not abandon the image that had lifted her up, given her an identity and career. Thelma was a far more grounded personality.)

Thelma Todd might have made an even greater success out of her business venture and retired like a smart, well-balanced Yankee girl from Massachusetts. Or she might have become an interesting "older" actress in the coming war years and then the post-war film-noir genre.

But Thelma was made an offer she could refuse. That, most likely, was her fatal error.
SPEAKING of beautiful, savvy blondes, "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors" the NBC-TV movie based on Parton's famous song, attracted 13 million viewers and was the most-watched movie on broadcast television in more than three years!

Like I always say — yes, there is all manner of gratuitous sex and profanity and gross stupidity on network and cable TV, but there still remains a lot of "family" programming and plenty of families who appreciate same. The cultural apocalypse is not nigh.
The cast of "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors."
P.S. However, maybe it's close. I caught something called "Two Broke Girls" — a sitcom — and was utterly appalled by it coarse stupidity. Unrelentingly ignorant and unimaginative. But what do I know? It's been on the air four years!

P.P.S. — "Coat of Many Colors" was so successful it will be repeated on Christmas Day, at 9 p.m.

I will never forget the great conversation I had with Dolly, back in 2005, in regard to her song, "Travlin' Thru." This was on the soundtrack of the movie "Transamerica" which dealt, poignantly and amusingly, with transgender issues. I have rarely been as uplifted as I was talking to this sensitive, remarkable woman.
Dolly with Alyvia Lind who plays young Dolly in "Coat of Many Colors."
HURRY UP! The delightful Broadway revival of "Dames at Sea" plays it final performance at the Helen Hayes Theater on January 3rd. This is such a charming, delightful, worry-erasing night in the theater. Well, look, one of the big songs in the show is "Tap Your Troubles Away" and "Dames" does its best to live up to that sentiment all the way through. Call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or the Helen Hayes box-office. A national tour of "Dames" launches next fall.
MY pal Leo Marinello urges me not to worry too much about all that is going on in the world of politics. To emphasize that, he sent me an ever "with-it" New Yorker magazine cover from June 1st, showing eight would-be GOP presidential aspirants.
Leo notes: "Don't despair, things change rapidly in politics and can change once again in the other direction. Notice who was NOT in the picture at all six months ago!"
 
Contact Liz Smith here.