Saturday, August 30, 2014

Joan Blondell—Big Baby Blues, Wise Cracks, and a Smile

She 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 years.
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
The 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.
The 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. 
The 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.
Blondell 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. 
Jolson 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.
Released as Sinners 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 underwear.
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.
If 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.
So 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 Thee on a Match with Ann Dvorak and pal Bette Davis.
The 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.
Blondell 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.

Musicals 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.
Warners 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.
Through 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.
When 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.
But 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 in 1943.

As Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Blondell 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.
Blondell 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.
In 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 Supporting Actress.
She 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.
After 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.
She 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 Banyon. 
Among 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.
Joan 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.
Those 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.

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