August 30, 1906– Joan Blondell was one of the most versatile & enduring stars of The Golden Age Of Hollywood. She never reached the very top of the firmament like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Katherine Hepburn, but Blondell had a career for more than 50 years. She worked in at least 90 films & as a guest or regular on dozens of TV shows. She is one of those actors who were able to move gracefully from leading roles to supporting player, from showgirl to character actor.
Filmgoers in the 1930s identified with her blue-collar image. Blondell was born in a vaudeville family in NYC. Growing up, her family act traveled from city to city practically living in cheap hotels or sleeping in train stations.
Her look & demeanor made her perfect for shop girls, clerks & molls. Her working class characters were so spot on that Blondell could never really convincingly play a society lady. She was at her best as the gum smacking doll ready with a wisecrack on any occasion. For me, she still conjures up the ideal of a hard luck dame who has no time for self-pity, the tough talking best friend everybody needs.
Blondell was sexy without being vulgar. When she portrays cynical gold-diggers, the Blondell character always comes across as loyal & decent when decency is least expected.
With her big round eyes, chubby cheeks, trademark beauty mark, & generous smile, Blondell came across as approachable & thoroughly American. She was just the opposite of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, exotic creatures with symmetrical faces, so perfect, with their sharp cheekbones, seemingly unworldly. But, she was pretty enough to be in much demand to endorse popular beauty products.
Unlike Barbara Stanwyck, Blondell stated that she never fought hard for better roles or a higher salary. Other actors waged bitter battles with the studio chiefs over contracts, money & better scripts. James Cagney went on strike. Bette Davis went to Europe. Olivia De Havilland changed the Hollywood system forever when she fought & ultimately won a lawsuit against her contract at Warner Bros. that included the notorious suspension clause.
Blondell simply liked working as an actor, glad for that weekly salary, owning a house & an automobile; the things denied her as a child. But, she worked hard for her money, often making more than 6 films a year.
“I never got away from that little salary, never did. I didn’t fight enough. You know, they’d bring in other studio stars for Warner pictures & I’d say: ‘Oh, you know I could have done that. Doggonit, why didn’t they give it to me?’ But I just didn’t put up a fight career wise. I didn’t even see the stuff I was in at the time. I just went home & skipped it all, from the rushes to the premiers. Every day was filled with work & my only relief was to get home.”
“We made films so fast & furiously: go in & do it & the next day start a new one. I just did it. During the Depression I was making more than 6 pictures year. I made 6 pictures carrying my son & 8 with my daughter. They’d get me behind desks & behind barrels & throw tables in front of me to hide my growing tummy. I never had more than 2 weeks off before starting a picture. I mean, just let me have the poor child & get back to work. The only other kind of vacation I had was in the middle of a picture with Pat O’Brien called Back In Circulation (1937) when my appendix broke. They took me to the hospital. Well, I was very near the end of that picture & about to start another, so they wanted me out of the hospital & the doctor said: ‘She can’t get out of this hospital.’ So they made a deal with the doctor to take me by stretcher to my house, & they had the set designer come & make it look like the bedroom Pat & I had done a scene in, & they got a crew of 60, sound & everything, & changed the end of the story so that I was sick in bed & that I’d marry Pat or something.”
Blondell’s casual remarks about her children are ironic. Her third husband, Mike Todd Jr. described her as the most maternal woman he had ever known. He claimed that even when she was working in a film, she’d come home, cook, clean & make sure that the baby went to bed on time.
Her first husband was cinematographer George Barnes, who was adamant about not having any offspring. He was abusive & insisted she have several abortions. After she had a son, he divorced her. That son, Norman S. Powell, became an accomplished producer, director, studio executive. He was officially adopted by her second husband, actor, singer, director Dick Powell. They had a daughter, Ellen Powell, who became a noted studio hair stylist. Powell left Blondell for fellow blond star June Allyson.
The marriage to Todd, her third, was an emotional & financial disaster. Todd smacked her around & once held her outside a hotel window by her ankles. He lost millions of dollars gambling & they went through a controversial bankruptcy. This time Blondell left him. Todd moved on to Evelyn Keyes & then tossed Keyes aside for Elizabeth Taylor. Got that straight?
Blondell gives a slightly fictionalized telling of her life in her well-written novel, Center Door Fancy (1972). It gives an account of her lonely, vaudeville childhood & big break in films. In the novel, Blondell portrays Powell as an insufferable narcissist, hopelessly cheap, & a dreadful racist & anti-Semite. Todd comes across as a total tool & horndog.
She received an Academy Award nomination The Blue Veil (1951). I think Blondell was especially good in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945), Nightmare Alley (1947), & Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). In The Opposite Sex (1956),an unnecessary musical remake of the classic The Women (1939), Blondell is paired with her ex-husband Powell’s wife, June Allyson.
I saw her just last week in a terrifically funny & sly performance in Norman Jewison‘s The Cincinnati Kid (1965), & as a cynical, aging playwright in John Cassavetes’ wonderful Opening Night (1977).
I am especially fond of her work in the demented mystery Pre-Code film Night Nurse (1931) opposite Stanwyck & directed by William Wellman.
If any of you kids are old enough, an entire generation knows Blondell for playing Lottie, a bawdy Seattle saloon owner, in the TV comedy western Here Come The Brides (1968-71) or for her witty bit in the musical Grease (1978).
Blondell’s final credits rolled on Christmas Day 1979, taken by that damn cancer at 73 years old. She is buried at one of my favorite spots in LA, Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
Blondell is proof that the best kept secret about The Golden Age Of Hollywood is how hard people worked.