ANOTHER BLONDE, ANOTHER FINE MESS
Why don’t we know more about Thelma Todd?
by Don Stradley
Thelma Todd was here and gone – an almost archetypical female image of the late twenties and early thirties, holding the screen with the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy – without a trace. Her name, of course, rings a gentle bell with me, probably because Kenneth Anger gave her baffling death a few paragraphs in his morbid Hollywood Babylon. It’s not poor Thelma’s fault that she blends in so easily with the other pretty blondes of the era, all of those good time girls who died mysteriously. As Michelle Morgan reports in The Ice Cream Blonde, Todd had enough sass and charm to light up a small building. Unfortunately, Todd did her thing many years before the baby boomers were around to immortalize her to James Dean-type proportions, so she doesn’t get the teary tributes on TCM from Carol Burnett or Amy Poehler. Still, by writing a book with care and love, Morgan makes us feel that by missing out on Thelma Todd, we’ve missed out on something big.
Morgan begins in December 1935 with Todd’s body being discovered in her 1932 Lincoln phaeton, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning at age 29. Suicide? Accidental death? Foul play? We’ll never know. Then we’re whisked back to Todd’s early days in Lawrence, Massachusetts where she’d been a beauty contest winner and an aspiring school teacher. A naturally vivacious young woman with saucer eyes and a face that promised mischief, Todd earned a spot at the newly formed Paramount School in New York, a place where “talented young people could be nurtured and grow into mainstream actors.” In a stunt that reeks of American Idol, the whole class was featured in a readymade hunk of studio fluff called Fascinating Youth, and then dispersed across the country to promote the thing. Todd was the obvious standout, but her story is not of a star struck kid who clawed her way onto Groucho’s lap. She was a hard worker, and serious about acting. One of her contemporaries described her as “the smartest dumb blond I ever knew.” Todd was good enough for comedy magnate Hal Roach to create a female version of Stan and Ollie by pairing Thelma first with Zasu Pitts, and then Patsy Kelly; his experiments didn’t quite match what he’d done with the boys, but he may have created the template for Laverne & Shirley.
The work came in buckets: Vamping Venus, Dollar Dizzy, Looser Than Loose, The Pip From Pittsburgh. Todd was usually billed second or third, and was typically saucy; she didn’t steal scenes so much as pick their pockets for fun. One reviewer called her “half vampire and half clown.” She made the transition from silent to talkies with hardly a ruffle, and by the time of her death she’d appeared in nearly 120 movies. The beginning of the end may have been when Todd fell for Roland West, a middling film director who was described by some as “sinister.” Years after their fling he asked her to help him run a chic sidewalk café in Santa Monica. She was getting too old to play the gum chewing babe who kept a pet seal in her hotel room, so the café seemed a good way to branch out. “I can’t quite get Hollywood,” Todd once said, pointing to her New England upbringing as the reason for her discomfort. “People here have no sense of values.”
Morgan has authored books on Marilyn Monroe and Madonna. Though she has a penchant for showbiz scandals, she avoids gaudiness and writes in a careful style that is eminently readable. While gangsters have always been part of the Todd mystery – she was briefly married to a wannabe mobster, and she allegedly faced down a bunch of Nevada mugs who’d wanted to enhance the café with a casino – Morgan actually digs up some new names and theories to ponder. Morgan’s specialty is raising red flags, especially around the odd behavior of West and his wife, Jewel Carmen, a shady pair who kept tripping over their stories in the days after Todd’s death. Morgan’s real achievement, though, is that she has kicked Todd back to life, and I’ll never again dismiss her as just another post-flapper tootsie whose gaiety hid a dark side. Fame was still a new concept in those days, so people in the movie industry were often waylaid by it. Some of Thelma’s peers killed themselves by jumping from the Hollywoodland sign; others ate rat poison, or died at the business end of a coke bottle at Fatty Arbuckle’s house. They shot themselves, they shot each other, they shot their lovers. Todd, with her intelligence and practicality, should’ve sidestepped all of that mess. In fact, she seems like a very modern woman, and would fit in with today’s female stars, especially with her various stalkers, weight struggles, and bad taste in men.