Michelle Morgan has followed her books on Marilyn Monroe and Madonna with a meticulously researched and insightfully written biography of Thelma Todd, a star of early Hollywood who appeared in films with the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton but who today is best remembered for the unsolved mystery of her death. Morgan graciously took time to answer my questions about The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd.
Which of Todd’s films do you think she was the proudest of?
I think it has to be ‘You Made Me Love You,’ which Thelma made in England with Stanley Lupino. She loved her time making the movie and often commented afterwards that it was a film she was very proud of. In fact, just days before she died, Thelma spoke to an English reporter and said she was desperate to return to England to make another movie. On her last night alive, she spoke to Lupino and the two made big plans to work together again.
Do you know if she preferred drama to comedy?
I am pretty sure she felt conflicted. In one sense she was hugely popular with comedy roles, but in another she desperately wanted to break into serious drama. Her role in ‘Corsair’ was supposed to be her big break but it was a disappointment in many ways, and critics made it clear that she was better suited to comedy. What really irritated Thelma was that she became stuck in short comedy movies for Hal Roach, and wanted very much to have larger roles. I don’t think she minded comedy half as much as she minded being pigeon-holed into these small parts.
Which is your favorite, and why?
I have two favorites. One is ‘Speak Easily’ with Buster Keaton and the other is ‘You Made Me Love You.’ ‘Speak Easily’ is hilarious and Thelma really shows off her comedy talents. Her part is substantial which is pretty rare for her, and there was a good chemistry with Keaton. I really enjoyed ‘You Made Me Love You’ for several reasons. Firstly it is a very funny film and secondly I love that it was made in England (where I live) and you get to see a lot of the English countryside in the movie. When I first watched the film, I could only do so online and the version I found was in a dozen parts in no particular order! It was really hard work to watch and discover what order the parts went in. However, it has just been released on DVD in the UK, and my husband bought it for me this Christmas. It was fantastic to watch it in one big chunk, instead of a dozen small ones!
What resources did you use in your research that had not previously been examined? Where did you find your most surprising information?
I was very lucky to have access to the Coroner’s Inquest, which is well over 100 pages long, and then literally thousands of pages of press reports, interviews, stories etc, from the 1920s and beyond. When I discovered Thelma had visited England, I was determined to find out a lot about the trip, so I started researching newspaper articles that were printed in the UK at the time. I found out that she had visited Scotland, and a lovely lady at the Glasgow library was able to send me some really substantial interviews that Thelma had done on her arrival. To my knowledge, these had never been used by a biographer before, and were of great interest in a general sense because she described her plans for the trip, her hopes and dreams etc. However, the most surprising information was when Thelma suddenly started talking about encounters she had had with gangsters in the USA. In fact she told reporters that one mobster had sent his men to see her safely on the boat to England. This was a brilliant find for me, because up until that point there had been no mention of Thelma ever talking about gangsters during her life. Of course underworld characters have been tied to her story for many years, so it was amazing and exciting to read Thelma’s view of them, over two years before her death. These interviews were gold to me, and I’m so grateful to the librarian who sent them to me.
Todd’s insistence that she was not “discovered” through a beauty contest and that she did not need to go beyond what the character was experiencing to call up tears show that she took acting seriously. Who do you think gave her the most significant guidance about acting?
Thelma went to the Paramount School, which was designed to train would-be screen actors and actresses. However, I don’t think she really got much acting experience out of it, and she also expressed that herself. Ironically, while she grew frustrated with her Roach comedy shorts, I do actually believe that it was Hal Roach who gave Thelma the most significant guidance. She made dozens and dozens of short movies and each one gave her a great deal of experience and confidence. Before she became a Roach player, Thelma was the first to admit how inexperienced she felt, but towards the end of her life you can really see her shine in those movies. Her confidence is everywhere apparent.
If you could interview Todd, what would you want to ask her?
That’s a great question! During the writing of the book, I’d have asked what the real story was behind her death. Now that the book is finished, I’d really like to ask if I did a good job with her story. If she approved of my work, then I’d be a very happy lady.
You lay out the possible scenarios to explain her death, from accident to suicide to murder. Which do you think is the most likely?
For me, I think the murder scenario is definitely the most likely. The idea of an accidental death is just not something I buy into. Why would Thelma walk 271 steps up a windy cliff-side, wearing an evening dress and high-heels in the middle of the night, to get to a garage because she was locked out of her apartment? The last time she was locked out she actually smashed the window to wake up her partner, Roland West. He said that no-one could keep Thelma out of a place she wanted to enter, so why was she kept out that night? Roland West’s window was incredibly close to the door she was supposedly locked out of. How could he not have heard her pounding on the door or window (especially since we know he had a dog in the room)? There are so many questions about that scenario. I explore it all in the book, but basically I find the entire accident story suspect at best. Others would disagree of course, but that is my own, personal opinion.
You seem to like writing biographies of beautiful blondes who have experienced great loss. What do we learn from their stories?
It has never been a conscious decision to write about blondes, but somehow I always seem to! My next book is about Carole Lombard who of course is another blonde with a tragic end. I think we all learn something different from their stories, and what I take away from it is probably in contrast to what others may take from it. For me, the most important thing as a biographer, is to show my subjects as human beings. Thelma was not just “the body in the garage;” Carole was not just “the one who died in a plane crash,” and Marilyn was not just “the blonde who might have committed suicide.” They were all made of flesh and bones like we all are. They had their good times and bad; their accomplishments and their regrets. If we all realize that these ladies were real-life people, not just images on the screen, then I know I have done my job.