was the brassy blonde who had been
there, done that and lived to tell about it.
A wise cracking working girl with the biggest blue eyes ever, an
electric smile, and a plump figure that turned heads and got attention. She could scheme and connive with good
humor. Underneath the veneer of urban cynicism,
though, you just knew she was capable of undying loyalty to lovers and friends alike. That was the persona Joan Blondell brought to Warner Bros. in 1930 and which sustained a career that spanned 40
Rose Joan Blondell was born on
August 30, 1906 in Brooklyn to a
pair of vaudevillians, Ed Blondell,
a comedian and Kathryn “Katie” Cain,
an Irish-American hoofer. Baby Joan was first thrust on stage a just
four months old as the daughter of Peggy
Astaire in The Greatest Love. She
would be given lines and bits of business in the family act by age four
family toured relentless and Joan did not know a real home until her teenage
years. By then in addition to becoming familiar
with hotel rooms in cities across the country, she and her family spent a year
in Hawaii and toured Australia for six years.
family finally settled in Dallas, Texas where
she managed to finish school. Under the
name Rosebud Blondell, she won the
1926 Miss Dallas Pageant and placed
fourth in the fifth outing of the Miss
America Pageant in Atlantic City,
New Jersey later that year.
next year, 1927, Blondell tried her hand at North Texas State College in Denton
where her mother was working as an actress.
Education didn’t take. Show Biz did. She worked as a model and a circus show girl
before heading for the Big Apple and
a bite of fame.
joined a stock company and worked regularly in small parts, including stints on
Broadway. Her big break came in 1930 when she was
paired with a charismatic young hoofer named James Cagney in the play Penny Arcade. It only ran four weeks but the show
and its young stars wowed Al Jolson,
Broadway’s biggest star and the man who had helped save Warner Bros. with his breakthrough
talkie, The Jazz Singer.
bought rights to the play and then turned around to sell it to Warners with the
proviso that Cagney and Blondell had to re-create their parts. Jack
Warner agreed but wanted to change her name to Inez Holmes. Blondell flatly
refused, endangering he big chance in the movies. Rather than risk losing the property and
perhaps Cagney as well, Warner relented.
But it would be far from the last time that Blondell clashed with the
notoriously dictatorial studio boss.
Holliday the movie was Cagney’s film debut. The second film Blondell had made for
Warners, Office Wife had already been released. In that one she had a supporting role as the
sister of the female lead and stole
the show handing out world weary advice while getting into or out of revealing
Sinners Holliday established the screen
personas of both Cagney and Blondell.
Cagney shot to immediate stardom.
Blondell was along for the ride. She
would co-star with the actor six times, more than any other actress in his
career. The films included Public
Enemy, Footlight Parade, and Blond Crazy. Cagney later said the only woman he ever
loved other than his wife was Joan Blondell.
Cagney shot to top stardom, Blondell never quite reached that level despite her
great popularity with audiences. Men
adored her and women felt like she could be their best friend. But the studio already had one blond bombshell, Jean Harlow. Another
up-and-comer young actress with a street-wise persona, Barbara Stanwyck played working class girls in edgy and darker
material. Blondell’s close friend Betty Davis was a fast rising star and would soon be dominating
serious and prestige parts. Ruby Keeler, Jolson’s wife, was the
musical star. And young Olivia de Havilland would soon sew up
all of innocent sweetheart parts. The
studio even had extra sassy comic blonds like Glenda Ferrell.
the studio wasted Blondell’s time in shorts and mostly relegated her to the
sassy best friend in over 50 films. She,
her sex appeal, body, and sass were perfect for the pre-Production Code naughtiness for which Warners was famous. She was cast a genre of fallen women pictures—Illicit
with Stanwyck in the lead, Big Business Girl with Loretta Young, Night Nurse again with
Stanwyck, The Greeks Had a Word for Them in a rare first billed lead, and
on a Match with Ann Dvorak and
pal Bette Davis.
studio also put her in their down-on-their-luck Depression stories like Union Station with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as an improbable
hobo and Central Park in which two
down-and-outers forced to live in the title park fall in lover, are separated,
and exploited in a scheme to rob a charity ball.
was making as many as six pictures a year plus shorts when she married cinematographer George Barnes in Phoenix, Arizona on January 4, 1933.
|The Forgotten Man number from Gold Diggers of 1933.|
were another staple of Warners in the early 30’s. The fact that Blondell was not a singer and
only a so-so dancer did not prevent the studio from casting her as a chorine and pal of the leads. Most famously she co-starred in Gold
Diggers of 1933 in which she performed—mostly in a semi-spoken
wail/moan Busby Berkley’s epic Forgotten
Man number. That one song may
have been Blondell’s finest dramatic performances. It was on the set of this movie that Blondell
met boyish singer Dick Powell who
would become her second husband.
would pair her with another wise cracking blonde, Glenda Ferrell, in six films
most notably Gold Diggers of 1937. The
characters were different in each film, and most were straight comedies. By the mid Thirties the Production Code
office had killed the fallen woman genre and limited the amount of time the well-endowed
Blondell could spend in lingerie or taking baths. And the public tired of musicals. Warners turned to gritty gangster flicks, high flown women’s dramas, prestige historical bio-pics, and swashbucklers. Davis had the women’s film sewed up, she
was unsuited for most costume dramas,
and de Havilland’s bosom heaved for Errol
Flynn. But Blondell was perfect for
gangster films. She re-teamed with
Cagney in He Was Her Man and with Edward
G. Robinson in Bullets or ballots.
the later thirties Warners used Blondell almost exclusively in comedies. Scripts got lamer, budgets cheaper, co-stars
second rung. She was in danger of
slipping into B movie unit films
like her erstwhile partner Glenda Ferrell had with the Torchy Blaine girl reporter series.
her contract with Warners expired in 1939, Blondell cheerfully left her long
time home to become a free-lance actress.
Husband Dick Powell left the studio about the same time. Parts were harder to come by and Blondell was
nearing 40. She teamed with her husband
in a preachy comedy I Want a Divorce in 1940.
now she was lucky to make one or two films a year. The high points during the War years were Topper Returns, Lady for a Night at
Republic Pictures with John Wayne, and Cry Havoc, a gritty war drama about Army nurses at Bataan for MGM
|As Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn |
would not appear on the big screen for nearly two years. And when she did, she was a revelation. As Aunt
Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn she was the scandalous relative of the
poor but respectable Nolan family
who collects men who may or may not be husbands. Blondell considered it her finest film work.
and Powell had divorced in 1944. In ’47 she
married for the third, last, and most disastrous time to charming but profligate
theatrical impresario Mike Todd.
She described her relationship with him as the great passionate love
of her life. But Todd was a spendthrift, heavy gambler and a cad by nature. It did not take long for him to spend his way
through Blondell’s money leaving her essentially broke. The couple divorced in 1950 with Blondell alleging
physical abuse including being dangled out of a hotel window by her ankle. A few years later Todd swept Elizabeth Taylor off of her feet then
died in a plane crash.
1951 Blondell reached the pinnacle of her post-war career in The
Blue Veil starring Jane Wyman as
a self-sacrificing nurse to young children.
Wyman was nominated for an Academy
Award for Best Actress and
Blondell was nominated for Best
appeared sporadically on the big screen after that, mostly in comedies most
notably The Opposite Sex, a musical re-make of Clair Booth Luce’s The Women with a cast headed by Dick Powell’s next wife,
June Allison and Will
Success Spoil Rock Hunter? starring Tony Randal in which she played a pal/companion to Jayne Mansfield.
that Blondell worked mainly on Television where she appeared as a guest star in programs like Playhouse 90, Lux Playhouse, Adventures in Paradise, The Untouchables, Dick
Powell Theater, Death Valley Days, The Virginian, Wagon Train, The Twilight
Zone, Burke’s Law, Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, The Lucy Show, My Three Sons, Slattery’s
People, The Man From Uncle, Family Affair, Guns of Will Sonnet, Petticoat
Junction, That Girl, The Name of the Game, McCloud, Love American Style, The
Rookies, Medical Center, New Dick Van Dyke Show, The Snoop Sisters, Police Story, and Fantasy Island.
also was in more than a dozen made for
TV movies and had reoccurring or
regular series roles in. The Real McCoys, Here Comes the Brides, and
Blondell’s later appearances on the big screen were a memorable turn in The Cincinnati
Kid in 1965 as an experienced dealer
in a high stakes poker game, Support Your Local Gunfighter in ‘71, Won
Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood in ’76, Grease in’78, and the re-make of The Champ. She was
featured in small parts in two more films released after her death.
Center Door Fancy was an autobiographical novel written by
Blondell that was published by Delacorte
Press in 1972.
Blondell was diagnosed with leukemia and
died in a Santa Monica hospital on
Christmas Day 1979 at the age of 73. She
was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
of us who love this stuff, delight in stumbling on her old Warner Bros. films
on, no matter how slight the plot, on Turner
Classic Movies and basking in that sensational smile.