Posted by medusamorlock on August 24, 2011
As we’ve seen this past week on our Blondell Blog-a-thon, Miss Joan Blondell was a survivor. Through her long movie career she always managed to come out on top, and her image as a plucky dame was one that audiences cherished and wouldn’t forget. As her motion picture career began to slow down and she entered middle age — never a wonderful time for an actress, then as now — she was fortunate to still have some great career choices available to her. Joan returned to the stage to much acclaim in the 1950s, and also began to appear on television during the same time, picking up roles on many of the prestigious dramatic (and often live) anthologies of the TV’s early years. In the first half of the decade she delighted audiences with roles on Schlitz Playhouse (as Calamity Jane), Suspense, Lux Video Theatre (with her A Tree Grows in Brooklyn co-star James Dunn), Fireside Theatre, Shower of Stars, G.E. True Theater, Shower of Stars, Playwrights ’56, Studio One, Playhouse 90, and The United States Steel Hour. The worst part about this fertile period in Joan’s career is that it’s pretty much impossible today to actually watch any of her performances in these very early TV series. Our loss, for sure.
Joan’s movie career had a late bloom in 1956 – 1957, with in quick succession The Opposite Sex, Lizzie, Desk Set, This Could Be The Night, and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (be sure to read Suzi’s great article on the film) hitting the big screen, but she quickly and successfully moved in again to concentrate on TV work. Joan Blondell was a sought-after guest name for both dramatic and lighter TV fare, and any Baby Boomer worth his or her Mickey Mouse ears will salivate at the list of 1960s-era series that benefitted from a Blondell guest role. Viewers watching the tropical island excitement of Adventures in Paradise saw her as a woman held hostage on an island about to be used for a nuclear bomb test, and soon after she played crime boss Ma Barker on The Witness. No doubt Blondell’s status as a genuine 1930s movie star gave her roles in period pieces a special note of authenticity, and of course her old movies were now showing up on TV station movie showcases all over the country, bringing forward a new generation of fans. They soon discovered that her spunky film personality hadn’t lost a thing over the years, as they watched the older Blondell make with the same sass and sparkle that had made her a star thirty years before. One of her very effective guest roles was in an episode of the gangster drama The Untouchables where she played an eccentric widow who was working a few schemes of her own. (A highly recommended segment of the series, and you can watch the whole thing right here.)
Producers clamored to get Joan Blondell on their shows, and she begin racking up an impressive list of credits: The Dick Powell Theatre (read Suzi’s post for more info on this emotion-ridden experience; Powell was her ex-husband), Death Valley Days (an early example of what would become a Joan Blondell staple — roles in TV Westerns), The Virginian (another Western, you can begin watching it here), Wagon Train (another, and as an Old West Ma Barker-type), and a three-episode arc as amusingly ambitious Aunt Win on the fondly remembered agricultural comedy The Real McCoys, starring Walter Brennan and Richard Crenna. Joan played a skeptical wife on the solid Twilight Zone episode “What’s in the Box?” (about an unusual TV set, with William Demarest as her husband; available now on Netflix streaming), as well as guesting in an episode of the circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth (based on the movie), a pair of guest roles on the classy Gene Barry detective series Burke’s Law, and a turn on Dr. Kildare as a wealthy widow who set her sights on Raymond Massey’s Dr. Gillespie. Joan went Western again as a saloon girl-turned-miner’s wealthy widow named Aunt Lil on an episode of Bonanza, as she meddled in the romance of her niece (played by Kathie Browne) with Adam, the coolest Cartwright brother. (“The Pressure Game” is available for viewing here.) She also was seen in an episode of the summer replacement series Vacation Playhouse in an unsold pilot called “Hooray for Hollywood”. and a segment of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
After her big screen role in 1965′s The Cincinnati Kid, Joan had the interesting experience of essentially “trying out” to replace long-time Lucille Ball co-star Vivian Vance on The Lucy Show. Vance had left the show at the end of the series’ third year, and with a change of venue — Lucille Carmichael moves to Hollywood – the show producers were on the lookout for a new cohort for the rambunctious redhead. Joan came onboard as Joan Brenner, a former movie actress who was Lucy’s neighbor and entry point into zany Hollywood adventures. The only problem was…Joan ended up intensely disliking Lucille Ball, who didn’t feel they had any comic charisma together after one episode but put Joan into another to keep trying. At the finish of filming their second episode together, Lucy had enough and mimed a toilet flush after Joan’s final scene. Joan told Lucy to F-off, and that was the end of that. (Both episodes are available for viewing on YouTube, “Lucy and Joan” and “Lucy the Stunt Man”, and I don’t think you’ll find that Blondell is particularly lacking in them at all.)
Other TV execs didn’t think Joan was lacking in either comedy or dramatic chops, and she continued to be a sought-after guest star in such series as My Three Sons, the political drama Slattery’s People (starring Richard Crenna), both The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (as a old gangster’s nutty wife) and its spin-off The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., Family Affair, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Petticoat Junction (as an old beau of Edgar Buchanan’s Uncle Joe, start watching it here), That Girl (opposite Robert Alda), and The Outsider starring Darren McGavin. It was now the tail end of the 1960s, and Joan Blondell joined the regular cast of the new ABC hour-long comedy/romance/adventure series Here Come the Brides, a rollicking take-off on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, only this time it was three brothers and a whole bunch of love-starved lumbermen in the wilds of Seattle. Joan once again brought genuine heart and humor to her role as Lottie Crabtree, the down-to-earth saloonkeeper who kept an eye on both the lusty fellows and the contingent of marriageable young ladies brought in from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to settle down with them.
Here Come the Brides caught on as a vehicle for teenybopper heartthrob Bobby Sherman (who had a big hit record of the show’s title tune “Seattle”), as well as offering up the virile Robert Brown, the soulful David Soul (pre-Starsky and Hutch), the dashing villain played by Mark Lenard (famous as Spock’s father Sarek in several Star Trek vehicles), and the randy but lovable sea captain played by Henry Beckman. Lottie and Capt. Clancy were drinking buddies and perhaps a bit more, and Joan Blondell’s performance was impressive and popular enough to garner her Emmy nominations for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series both in 1969 and 1970. (Her competition in 1969 was Barbara Bain from Mission: Impossible and Peggy Lipton from Mod Squad; Bain won. In 1970 she competed against Susan Hampshire in The Forsyte Saga and Lipton again; Hampshire won that year. I must comment only on how amazing that the pickings were that slim; Bondell’s nominations may have had as much to do with her popularity in the business and her continued professionalism as anything else, as the Lottie role was pretty lightweight, as Blondell herself had admitted.) This cute show with the attractive cast and enough historical panache to keep things interesting unfortunately only lasted two seasons, but has retained a loyal fan following and is out on DVD now (at least the first season), looking quite beautiful and gathering new devotees. (Fans will want to pick up a copy of Jonathan Etter’s book Gangway, Lord! (The) Here Come the Brides Book, from Bear Manor Media.)
After her 51 episode run on Here Come the Brides, Joan Blondell kept up her profile through continuing TV guest appearances on well-regarded shows like The Name of the Game and Dennis Weaver’s popular detective series McCloud, and she also was among the revolving plethora of guest stars who showed up on ABC’s romantic comedy anthology Love, American Style — she did two segments of the series. Around this time the nation was awash in appreciation for Depression-era nostalgia, warranting a February 1971 LIFE magazine cover featuring Joan as well as Rita Hayworth, Betty Hutton, Myrna Loy, Paulette Goddard and Ruby Keeler, whose “No, No Nanette” Broadway revival had become an unexpected hit. Nobody had forgotten about Joan Blondell, that was for sure. In 1972 Blondell came onboard the ultimately short-lived but clever detective series Banyon, set in 1930s’ Los Angeles, starring the intense Robert Forster in the title role. Blondell had the regular role of Peggy (with Joan recast from the pilot’s Hermione Gingold), owner of a secretarial school who was a pal of Banyon and also supplied him with secretarial help – all beautiful girls, naturally. Only 15 episodes of the show were produced, unfortunately.
Even as arthritis put her in considerable pain at times, Joan Blondell continued to make regular guest appearances, again mixing comedy and dramatic roles, with a string of guest shots, such as on the well-regarded cop show The Rookies (as a woman whose nuisance calls to the police are finally justified when she’s attacked, and do visit The Rookies fansite for great additional materials!), a comedy performance on The New Dick Van Dyke Show (Joan’s son was an exec on the series), a turn on the Mildred Natwick-Helen Hayes’ mystery romp The Snoop Sisters, an episode of Joseph Wambaugh’s hard-hitting Police Story, a segment of the Eddie Albert-Robert Wagner light crime drama Switch, and playing the part of a serial killer’s doting mama on Starsky and Hutch. Joan had also made several TV movies throughout the years, including 1967′s remake of the James Stewart Western Winchester ’73, this time starring Tom Tryon and John Saxon, 1975′s unusually atmospheric horror film The Dead Don’t Die starring George Hamilton and Ray Milland, 1975′s Winner Take All, about a women (Shirley Jones) with a serious gambling addiction, 1976′s Death at Love House, about the search for a mysterious movie star (also featuring old-time stars Dorothy Lamour and Sylvia Sidney, and you can watch the whole thing here!), and 1978′s Battered, about different generations of women and the violence they suffered at the hands of their spouses, also starring Karen Grassle, LeVar Burton, Mike Farrell, and Howard Duff (as Blondell’s alcoholic husband). Her last four TV appearances were on The Love Boat (on a Halloween episode), $weepstakes (a short-lived series featuring tales about people who won big fortunes), the stalwart Fantasy Island, and finally in 1979 as Mrs. Brumble in the syndicated Operation Prime Time production of John Jakes’ The Rebels, the second book in his Revolutionary War saga.
Joan Blondell died on Christmas Day, December 25, 1979, after a lifetime of success on the movie screen, on stage, and on television. Any chance to catch one of her roles, no matter if it’s a big part or not, is an opportunity to watch a real pro in action. I’ll end this tribute to Joan’s incredible array of TV portrayals with a selection of photos and frame grabs from her appearances (mouse over for the descriptions), each one special and part of Joan Blondell’s wonderful legacy. Enjoy!
(Joan Blondell fans will also enjoy Matthew Kennedy’s great biography of Joan — Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes, which has been cited already during this week but another shout-out is well-deserved.)
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