Posted by David Kalat on August 20, 2011
Take a look at this poster and tell me what you think this movie is about:
Sorry, I know this is a family forum, but we’re talking about Joan Blondell, so the bar has to be set differently. I mean, seriously, this is the lady in question:
She was only in movies in the first place because she’d won a beauty contest and Jack Warner had figured she’d be good at playing gold-diggers. And while I’m sure my fellow Morlocks Blogathoners have already mentioned this, I can’t resist–Jack Warner made a play to change her name to Inez Holmes! Doesn’t that just seem backward to you? If you looked like this and your name was Inez Holmes, wouldn’t you do what you could to rename yourself Joan Blondell?
When the plan was first made for this Joan Blondell-themed blogathon, my first instinct was to just run that image in high-res and call it a day. The image above was subsequently banned by the Production Code, whose Puritanical members probably would have been happy to ban Joan herself if they could have gotten away with it.
But this prurient focus on her physicality does her an injustice. There’s more to her than just her body–and in fact that is the very issue at stake in Blondie Johnson.
If the film’s poster art misleads you into thinking this is a film about prostitution, you wouldn’t be alone. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on the movie:
Set during the Great Depression, Blondie Johnson quits her job after a co-worker sexually harasses her. She next is evicted with her sick mother, but cannot get relief. After her mother dies, Blondie is determined to become rich. She soon gets involved in the criminal circuit and is forced to become a prostitute in order to survive. She falls in love with a gangster, who teaches her his trade.
Now what strikes me about this synopsis is that whoever wrote it clearly saw the movie, or at at least some of it, to go into such detail about the opening scenes. Yes, the poor wench is on the outs because she quit her job to flee a lecherous boss, and the hard-hearted social services agencies allow her mamma to die:
Blondie takes a lesson from this: look out for Number One, trust no one, and the authorities deserve to be undermined. She heads off to the Big City to attend to this plan of action, but she does not, I repeat not, sell her body. I don’t know where Anonymous Wikipedia Author got his/her idea about that, because Blondie’s sexless approach to life is in fact one of the movie’s central points. If she’d been willing to trade sex for material comforts she wouldn’t have been in this situation to start with and could have kept her original job.
Instead, Blondie’s mission is exclusively to take from others. She does not become a prostitute, she becomes a con-artist:
That’s Chester Morris, one of my favorite 1930s tough guys, as her mark. She made an unwise choice in scamming him–he’s a well-connected gangster, and once her knows he’s been had, he’s none too pleased. To which Blondie’s savvy, forward-thinking response is: why don’t we go into business together?
In the ensuing partnership, Blondie is the brains behind the outfit. She’s got all the moxie, the quick-thinking answers, all the bravado and determination. By comparison to her steely resolve, Chester’s character Danny is a chump. But he’s a man, and therefore makes a more credible public face in a male-dominated industry like organized crime.
Before long though, Blondie has surrounded herself with her own loyal gangsters who don’t care a whit that she’s a girl, as long as she’s the smartest operator in town. The only person who can’t get over her being a woman is Danny–and while he doesn’t hold it against her, he can’t quite figure out why she won’t go to bed with him:
Theirs is one of the most torrid yet chaste romances in screen history. Television series like Moonlighting and The X-Files would set up situations where male and female work colleagues would develop achingly intense sexual chemistry while remaining “just friends” but those examples would eventually succumb and allow the characters to ruin the tension and get it on. Blondie Johnson lets these two characters get deep into each other’s heads, deep under each other’s skin, but nowhere near each other’s beds.
But here’s the thing: Moonlighting and The X-Files let their couples fall in love because the tension had to go somewhere. Something must ultimately come of all that attraction. And just because Blondie Johnson doesn’t go there doesn’t mean there isn’t some other kind of payoff–it just happens to be an intensely violent and tragic payoff, instead of a romantic one. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you so I won’t play a revealing clip here, but let’s just say that being a crime lord means you’re constantly surrounded by well-armed people, and that good dramas know that you can’t have a whole bunch of guns in a movie and not have them get fired at some point.
By the way, 1930s cinema seemed to have a fascination with female crime lords. The makers of Dr. Mabuse tinkered with a female Mabuse (but never got one to the screen). The Threepenny Opera concludes with the minting of a lady Godfather (is that a Godmother?).
One of the reasons I love movies so dearly (aside of course from just being entertained by them) is the window offered into other cultures and other times. Early 1930s films, being relatively free of censorial interference, reveal a far more liberal attitude towards sex and sex roles than you might expect.
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