Author Michelle Morgan’s proved her mettle writing about tragic blondes before; I reviewed her highly intriguing biography of Marilyn Monroe a few years back. When Morgan announced her plans to write a book on Thelma Todd I waited with bated breath. Probably, and unfortunately, more remembered for her death than her career, Thelma Todd’s a Hollywood tragedy that has yet to warrant the mass examination of other tragic demises like the Black Dahlia or even Carole Landis (but this didn’t save Todd from receiving the biopic treatment!). Part true crime procedural with all the intrigue of something Vincent Bugliosi would write and biography, separates fact from fiction, dissecting a whirlwind life and career brought down by circumstances unresolved to this day.
Described as a woman who brought “fun and laughter wherever she went,” Thelma Todd wasn’t looking for stardom. Originally dreaming of being a lawyer or engineer, Todd dabbled in beauty pageants not unlike another famous blonde star (Veronica Lake). But Todd never wanted people to assume she rested on her looks. In reading through Todd’s early career at Paramount it’s interesting to view her in light of outspoken celebrities of today like Jennifer Lawrence. Fat-shamed while studying at the Paramount School – her weight became a life-long struggle – Todd wasn’t afraid to speak out about the lecherous men she met in the industry who treated her poorly. She’d eventually be threatened with blacklisting for refusing to deal with the dreaded “casting couch.”
Morgan opens up Todd’s life, showing more than just the starlet transformed (or squashed) by fame. Unlike Marilyn Monroe, Todd understood fame’s fleeting nature, opening up a restaurant called The Sidewalk Cafe as an alternative revenue stream when the bright lights of Hollywood receded. As an actress Todd was a deft comedienne, paired up with both Zasu Pitts and Patsy Kelly for a series of successful Hal Roach shorts. But Todd wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, and though she got the chance a time or two she never was truly tested before her untimely death. Her few shorts and films show her as a capable actress but what Morgan is more interested in is showing Todd’s personality, and it’s evident she was a kind, giving person always willing to help someone.
Of course, most will read this for its discussion of Todd’s death. You can’t start your book with Alice Todd, Thelma’s mother, declaring “my daughter was murdered” and not explore the subject. The final chapters are devoted to the coroner’s inquest, a rather slapdash affair in my opinion, and subsequent ruling of Todd’s death as a suicide. However, as Morgan explores in breaking down the various theories, numerous officers and the jury foreman at the inquest believed Todd was murdered. Morgan herself gives her theory on Todd’s death and it’s one I’d agree with. The fact that Todd’s death wasn’t properly examined by the police department, who didn’t investigate some theories at all, at the time is ridiculous and only leaves the case stinking further.
Too often biographies show tragedy within the subject’s own personality – how they were doomed from the jump – and it’s rare reading a biography where you genuinely sympathize for the cruel twists of fate in a person’s life, particularly when that person’s a celebrity. Michelle Morgan weaves another insightful examination of a much maligned figure, highlighting the darkness but never ignoring the light surrounding Thelma Todd.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.