Monday, November 23, 2015


The death of fun-loving and beautiful Thelma Todd was one of Hollywood's most tragic deaths. 
Beautiful Thelma Todd
She was a smart, beautiful movie star. She was loved by her public and by many men. Yet, somehow, Thelma Todd never seemed to be able to grab and hold that brass ring. Something always seemed to be missing for Thelma. Sadly, she never had the time to find happiness and satisfying success. 

Fans of comedy know Thelma from her performances with the Marx Brothers, Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton (and a swell hair-pulling contest with Clara Bow in "Call Her Savage"), but if her name is generally known today, it is due to her death at age 29 and the mystery surrounding it.

Thelma was a fun-loving gal
Thelma's story has been sensationalized in print and film (anyone remember Loni Anderson's TV movie? No? Just as well), but nobody really knows what happened on the night of December 16, 1935 when Thelma died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her own car in her own garage. Author Michelle Morgan, in her new book "The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd" presents a sympathetic portrait of Thelma and a thoughtful and plausible account of events leading up to her death.

There never seemed to be a bad word said about Thelma. From her earliest years in Lawrence, Massachusetts right up to her final days in Hollywood she was universally adored by her friends and coworkers. She did, however, like so many women, have notoriously bad taste in men. Her husband, Pat DiCicco, was abusive and her married lover, director Roland West, was weak and unsupportive of her. She was so smart and so charming. If only Thelma had found a man worthy of her!

Though she was popular on screen and off, Thelma never managed to hit the real big time, instead appearing in successful Hal Roach shorts (first with Zasu Pitts and then Patsy Kelly). She was a bit Carole Lombard and a bit Jean Harlow, but she never got the A-list roles offered to those ladies. Her roles in the bigger films were generally in support of bigger stars. She was intelligent enough to know that time was not a friend to an actress in Hollywood and she needed to find another means of support and security for the future. Lover Roland West seemed to offer her just the ticket.

Thelma's cafe was a posh and popular destination
Somewhere around 1934, Thelma and Roland became partners in a very successful restaurant called Thelma Todd's Roadside Cafe. Thelma was the draw and, by Morgan's account, was very involved in the running of the restaurant and took great pride in its success. Author Morgan gives some fascinating background on the property, built in the Pacific Palisades community of Castellammare. Early residents of the beautiful (but susceptible to mud slides) area included the Thomas Ince studio. Residents in 1934 included West and Jewel Carmen. Roland West was married to former film star Jewel Carmen, but it appeared to be a marriage that was eternally on the rocks. Both Thelma and Roland lived a great deal of time above the restaurant. While there was an illusion of separate quarters, they were certainly co-habitating some of the time. Still, Thelma dated other men and Jewel Carmen didn't seem to mind West's relationship with her.

Roland West and Jewel Carmen
The last year of Thelma's life was filled with torment. First, she began getting threatening letters from some wacko called "The Ace," who turned out to be an extortionist who did a good job of scaring Thelma. More troubling was the pressure from gangsters who wanted to turn the restaurant into a profitable (for them) and illegal gambling establishment. Thelma was dead set against it.
One tormentor was caught, but another was not
This is where Morgan's book really starts to shed some new light on Thelma's story as her last days loomed. During her last night alive Thelma attended a party at the famed Cafe Trocadero Nightclub where she seemed to be in good spirits (although there was a nasty encounter with her ex-husband, who attended the night spot with actress Margaret Lindsay). Her driver left her off in the early hours of December 16th and that was the last that anyone admitted to seeing Thelma alive (except for loony Jewel Carmen, who claimed to have seen Thelma driving around town after she had actually died). Found by her maid the next morning in the driver's seat of her car still dressed in her evening clothes from the night before, her death was concluded to be either an accident or a suicide. No foul play was indicated. Buy why was Thelma there? Why didn't she just go into her apartment?

Thelma and frequent co-star Patsy Kelly.
I'm sure this never went on at Thelma's cafe! 
Over the years, the mob connection with Lucky Luciano has been popular but never proven. Morgan has another take on the gambling angle and it is a good one. But I don't want to spoil it! "The Ice Cream Blonde" is a good read for film fans and unsolved mystery fans alike. While we will never know for sure how Thelma ended up dead at age 29, clues abound and Michelle Morgan has compiled facts to present a very plausible and reasonable theory.

Thelma as she should be remembered: lovely and joyful and full of fun
A footnote on Thelma's cafe: Word has it that the beautiful building was set for demolition in January 2016, but that it may be saved. Let's hope so!

Many thanks for the book's publisher for a complimentary copy of "The Ice Cream Blonde:The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd." The book is available at all retailers, including Amazon.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

GIVEAWAY! Take a chance to win The Chaplin Archives!

'Tis the season to give your favorite film fan (who might just be yourself) a great holiday treasure.
From the publisher:

"Within a year of arriving in Hollywood in 1914, British-born Charlie Chaplin had become the slapstick king of America. By the end of his second year on the silver screen, Chaplin's fame had spread worldwide. He was the first international film star and rapidly one of the richest men in the world, with a million dollar contract, his own studio and his stock company of close collaborators. From Alaska to Zimbabwe, the bowler hat, cane, baggy trousers and outsized shoes of the Tramp became, and remains, an instantly recognizable silhouette.

With unrestricted access to the Chaplin archives, TASCHEN presents the ultimate book on the making of every one of his films. With 900 images, including stills, memos, storyboards and on-set photos, as well as interviews with Chaplin and his closest collaborators, it reveals the process behind the Chaplin genius, from the impromptu invention of early shots to the meticulous retakes and reworking of scenes and gags in his classic movies: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus(1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and the provocative Hitler parody The Great Dictator(1940). 

The book includes:

  • The Chaplin life history in words and pictures
  • 900 images including many previously unseen stills, on-set photos, memos, documents, storyboards, posters, and designs, plus scripts and images for unmade films
  • An oral history, told from the point of view of Chaplin himself, drawing upon his extensive writings, many of which have never been reprinted before.
  • Supplementary interviews with some of his closest collaborators.
  • Material from over 150 books of press clippings in Chaplin's archives, which range from his early days in music halls to his death
  • Chaplin's short films, from Making a Living (1914) to The Pilgrim (1923), as well as all of his feature-length movies, from The Kid (1921) to A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)
  • The first print run of 10,000 copies includes a precious 12 frame strip from City Lights (1931), cut from a 35 mm print in Chaplin’s archives."

Documents from the Chaplin Archives Property and Copyright of Roy Export Company Establishment, scanned by Cineteca di Bologna

Interested? Here's how to enter:

Simply send me an email at and write "Chaplin" in the message line. You will be entered in the drawing, which will take place on December 11th. Good Luck!!

Here's a cool little video on the making of this awesome book, just in case you need your whistle whetted even more.