Posted by Susan Doll on June 20, 2011
In the twilight of her career, sassy, brassy Joan Blondell reflected on her star image by noting, “I was the fizz on the soda.” Considering her talent for snappy patter, her ability to get the most out of one-liners, and her full, robust figure, the description is apt. Like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ginger Rogers, Blondell enjoyed a long career stretching over several decades, and yet she lacks the critical and popular recognition of her peers. Perhaps this slight is the result of playing the second female lead most often, alongside Rogers, Una Merkel, Barbara Stanwyck, or Ruby Keeler, who tended to get higher billing than she did. Only in hour-long programmers or B-films did Blondell get to play the lead. I have always enjoyed her wise-cracking characters, but it wasn’t until recently, while doing some research on Blondell, that I realized what a terrific movie star she really was.
Like many successful stars and entertainers from the Golden Age, Blondell had been a performer in vaudeville. There was something about the experience of being in this rough-and-tumble, fast-paced arena of live entertainment that shaped the talents and skills of many a movie star, including Ginger Rogers, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, and, of course, comic actors like W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, and Burns and Allen. It also inspired a work ethic that vaudeville veterans equated with professionalism. Blondell joined her family’s act when she was only three years old. Her father, Eddie Blondell, Jr., and her mother, Katie Cain, were comedians who could also perform a song-and-dance act. Joan learned the basics of variety entertainment, such as timing, techniques for putting over a song, and the physicality of telling jokes, which was called “the business.” The business referred to vocal inflections and body language, and even the most mediocre vaudevillians seemed to excel at the business.
For me, Blondell defines the Depression-era gal more than any other actress, including Harlow. According to Marjorie Rosen, author of Popcorn Venus, blondes ruled the big screen during the 1930s, but unlike the golden goddesses, frantic flappers, and virginal innocents of the 1920s, blondes of the Depression era were grounded in the realities of the times. The early sound era revealed many to have brassy, provocative, trashy, and even brittle voices, which often spewed the gritty slang of the day. These blondes played tough-talking, working-class girls, whose fears and concerns were readily understood by Depression-era audiences. Warner Bros. was home to many of these blondes, including Blondell. Ironically, given her hair color and her name, someone at Warners suggested she change her name to Inez Holmes! She refused.
Blondell played sassy, flirty working-class girls whose hard-edge demeanor and wise-cracking patter served as protection against the realities of the time. Her star image was more earthy than Ginger Rogers’, less sexualized than Harlow’s, and more topical than Mae West’s. Each film presented her in a Depression-era setting in which she was constantly threatened by unemployment and eviction. Her characters were down on their luck and one step away from the streets but determined to survive with their dignity and senses of humor intact. Depending on the genre, her characters flirted, conned, stole, connived, or turned to crime to keep from walking the streets, which was a real fear for working-class, single women during the Depression. Her characters represented the last rung on the ladder above prostitution, and the appeal of her star image was her determination not to succumb, generally by using her wits and sheer grit. “Chorus girls used to get pearls and diamonds,” her character says in Big City Blues (1932) in a line that could be relevant in any Blondell film. “Now all they expect is a corned beef sandwich and they yell if they don’t get it.”
Blondell’s best remembered films from this era are probably Three on a Match (1932), The Public Enemy (1931), and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), though she was not the female lead in any of them. Easy to overlook in The Public Enemy, she has a small role as Mamie, wife of Cagney’s partner, played by Edward Woods. Three on a Match was resurrected a few years ago when it was released as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood” series of pre-Code movies, because drugs, child abuse, and sex feature prominently in the plot. Blondell plays one of a trio of childhood friends who take different paths in adulthood. Her character starts out in jail but eventually straightens herself out by falling for her friend’s ex-husband. Directed at a brisk pace by Mervyn LeRoy, Three on a Match is worthy viewing for the lead characters—all female—played by three of Warner Bros.’s finest, Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis.
The female characters carry the story in Gold Diggers of 1933 as well, and Blondell stands out in a cast that includes Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, and Aline MacMahon. I used to show Gold Diggers of 1933 in seminars and classes to challenge the cliché that audiences went to the movies during the Depression to escape it. The plotline may follow the antics of putting on a Broadway show, but the movie is about the Depression. Securing parts in the new show is not a career move for the girls; it’s the means to keep them off the streets. Producer Barney Hopkins tells them his new show will be about the Depression to which Blondell’s character quips, “We know all about that.” The connection between money, women’s (mis)fortunes, and the Depression is telegraphed in the opening number in which a chorus line of blondes dressed in sheer costumes covered in over-sized coins sings and dances to “We’re in the Money.” Just before the number is finished, the sheriff and his men come in to confiscate the sets and costumes, effectively shutting the show down. Someone snatches the giant coin that covers Rogers’ crotch, and she drolly responds, “The Depression, deary.” Blondell’s finest scene is the closing number in which she performs “Remember My Forgotten Man.” Staged by Busby Berkeley, the production number concludes the film on an ambivalent note, instead of the happy ending in which the male and female characters are paired up. The number opens with Blondell as a streetwalker ruminating on her forgotten man, a term from the era denoting WWI veterans made homeless by the Depression who have been forgotten by the society and government they risked their lives to protect. Blondell, who was not much of a singer, recites the lyrics more than she sings them. According to Berkeley, that is precisely why he chose her—because she could act the song and put it over dramatically. An African American singer, Etta Moten, sings the chorus in a bluesy style, lending the production number its mood of despair and melancholy. The production number includes prostitutes, war widows wasting away, and homeless veterans harassed by the police—there is little here to suggest that viewers who saw this film “escaped” from anything.
Many of Blondell’s films were produced during the pre-Code era, when studios and producers were not bound to follow the guidelines of the Production Code—the censorship system of the Golden Age. Though most are not classics and some are one-hour programmers, they are interesting because they offer appealing female characters, risqué situations and dialogue, and an implied criticism of social institutions, which had let down the people of America during the crisis that was the Depression.
Blondell plays the title character in Blondie Johnson (1933), which is the story of a female gangster. In an economy of storytelling that today’s directors of inflated blockbusters should envy, the film tells the tale of Blondie as she evolves from a victim of the Depression to a dangerous force in the underworld in 67 minutes. Unlike most male gangsters, Blondie does not turn to crime out of greed or because she’s a sociopath, but because she is let down by the social institutions that are supposed to serve and protect the people. When a city magistrate refuses her pleas to help care for her ailing mother, an embittered Blondie declares, “This city’s going to pay me a living, a good living, and it’s going to get back from me just as little as I have to give.” Blondie Johnson represented Blondell’s first starring role, and she handles the rapid changes in her character with aplomb. Its twist on gender roles makes it an interesting contribution to the gangster genre.
In Night Nurse (1931), Blondell costars with Barbara Stanwyck in a story of private nurses who care for a family of neglected children. For nurses, Stanwyck and Blondell spend an inordinate amount of time in their underwear as they seem to be constantly dressing and undressing. Also, the risque dialogue is fun if a bit ridiculous as when the kids’ mother wildly screams, “I am a dipsomaniac and I love it.” Another entertaining, pre-Code melodrama, Convention City, follows the wild antics of a group of salespeople who attend a convention in Atlantic City. Blondell plays a chorus girl who gets entangled with a married conventioneer. The glib handling of adultery disturbed viewers and reviewers upon release, but apparently Blondell’s costumes disturbed Jack Warner during production. In a memo to producer Hal Wallis, Warner fumed, “We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out. I’m referring to her gown in Convention City.”
Just before the musical Dames was released in 1934, the Production Code Administration was given the power to enforce the Code by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. That resulted in changes to Dames, including the ditching of a production number designed by Busby Berkeley based on a cat and mouse story. The number was planned for Blondell, who at one point was to turn to the mouse and purr, “Come up and see my pussy sometime.” Yikes!
Blondell starred or costarred in 50 films during the decade of the 1930s; from 1931 through 1933 alone, she appeared in more than 20. Even while she was pregnant, she made five films, with the studio working her up to her seventh month. She adhered to a work ethic she had learned in vaudeville, plus she needed the paycheck to support her family, especially in the early years. She never complained, but she was also unappreciated and taken for granted. Blondell had come to Hollywood with James Cagney after starring together in a Broadway play called Penny Arcade. They appeared in secondary roles in the film version, Sinners’ Holiday, which landed both of them a five-year contract at Warners. After appearing in film after film, Cagney realized he was making the studio a great deal of money, but he was still earning the same salary as an unknown. After starring in Blonde Crazy with Blondell, he asked for a raise and was refused. He walked out and encouraged the hard-working actress to do the same. She feared losing her contract or being punished with a suspension; because her family was dependent on her, she stayed quiet. Cagney was suspended by the studio, but the Motion Picture Academy resolved the dispute, and he returned at $3000 per week (amount varies according to source), while Blondell continued to receive her contracted salary of $500 per week.
In 1939, Joan Blondell left Warner Bros. for Columbia after then-husband Dick Powell correctly deduced that neither of them was getting their due. Blondell made fewer films during the 1940s, preferring to work in radio or on the stage. She periodically returned to Hollywood in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s in supporting roles as a character actress. A veteran scene stealer, Blondell could enliven mediocre material with her line delivery and sassy personality. Her favorite role was as Aunt Cissy in the classic drama A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and she earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in The Blue Veil (1951), a nearly forgotten melodrama starring Jane Wyman. I prefer her as comic support in such films as Desk Set (1957) with Katharine Hepburn and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) where she holds her own opposite the novelty that was Jayne Mansfield. This week, TCM airs two films from this period of Blondell’s career: This Could Be the Night (1957) on Wednesday, June 22, in the morning, and Rock Hunter on Friday, June 24, during prime time in the evening. In the 1960s, she seemed to move with the times, appearing in an Elvis Presley film, Stay Away Joe (1968) and costarring in a popular television series, Here Comes the Brides (1968-1970), for which she was nominated for an Emmy.
Like Hepburn, Davis, Rogers, and others of her era, Blondell worked right up to the time of her death. Her last film, The Woman Inside, was released two years after she died on Christmas Day in 1979.
Behlmer, Rudy. Inside Warner Bros., New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
Bowers, Ronald L. “Joan Blondell: Epitomized the Tough Girl with a Warm Heart,” Films in Review, posted by Archives online, May 14, 2009.
Kennedy, Matthew. Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes. University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus. New York: Avon Books, 1973.
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