August 30, 1906– Joan Blondell:
“In the 20s, you were a face. And that was enough. In the 30s, you also had to be a voice. And your voice had to match your face, if you can imagine that.”
Booze, bootleggers, and broads, you’ve just got to love Blondell in those pre-code films. She was one of the most versatile stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, appearing in 90 movies, and then she was also a dependable guest or regular on dozens of television series. She never reached the very top of the Hollywood firmament like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Katharine Hepburn, yet Blondell had a career in films that lasted for more than 50 years. She is one of those actors who was able to move gracefully from leading roles to supporting player, from showgirl to character actor. Film fans in the 1930s identified with her blue-collar image and her moxie.
Blondell was born into a vaudeville family in New York City. Growing up, her family’s act traveled from town to town, living in cheap hotels and sleeping in train stations.
Her look and demeanor made her perfect to play shop girls, clerks and gangster molls. Her working-class characters were so spot on that Blondell could never really convincingly play an upper-crust lady. She was at her best as the gum-smacking doll ready with a wisecrack for 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. Even when she portrays cynical gold-diggers, a Blondell character always comes across as loyal and decent when decency is least expected.
With her big round eyes, chubby cheeks, trademark beauty mark and generous smile, Blondell came across as approachable and thoroughly American. She was just the opposite of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, exotic creatures with symmetrical faces, so perfect, with their perfect angular cheekbones, seemingly unworldly. Yet, Blondell was pretty enough to have been in much demand endorsing popular beauty products of the era.
Unlike Barbara Stanwyck, Blondell stated that she never had to fight hard for better roles or a higher salary. Other actors waged bitter battles with the studio chiefs over contracts, money and better scripts. James Cagney went on strike. Bette Davis went to Europe. Olivia De Havilland changed the Hollywood system forever when she fought and ultimately won a lawsuit against her contract at Warner Brothers that included the notorious suspension clause.
Blondell simply liked being a working actor, glad for that weekly salary, owning a house and an automobile, and the other things denied her as a child. But, she worked hard for her money, often making as many as eight films in a year. Blondell:
“I never got away from that small salary, never did. I didn’t fight enough. You know, they’d bring in other studio stars for Warner pictures and 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 and skipped it all, from the rushes to the premiers. Every day was filled with work and my only relief was to get home.”
“We made films so fast and furiously: go in and do it and the next day start a new one. I just did it. During the Depression I was making more than six pictures year. I made six pictures carrying my son and eight when I was expecting my daughter. They’d get me behind desks and behind barrels and throw tables in front of me to hide my growing tummy. I never had more than two weeks off before starting a picture. I mean, just let me have the poor child and 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 and 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, and they had the set designer come and make it look like the bedroom Pat and I had done a scene in, and they got a crew of 60, sound and everything, and changed the end of the story so that I was sick in bed and that I’d marry Pat or something.”
Blondell’s casual remarks about her children are ironic. Her third husband, Mike Todd, 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 and make sure that the baby went to bed on time.
Her first husband was cinematographer George Barnes. He was adamant about not having kids. Barnes was abusive and 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 celebrated studio hair stylist. Powell left Blondell for another blond star, America’s sweetheart, June Allyson.
The marriage to Todd, her third, was an emotional and financial disaster. Todd smacked her around and once held her outside a hotel window by her ankles. He lost millions of her dollars gambling and they went through a controversial bankruptcy. This time Blondell left him. Todd moved on to Evelyn Keyes and then tossed the Keyes aside for Elizabeth Taylor. Keyes was married to King Vidor, John Huston and bandleader Artie Shaw, but not all at once. Taylor married a few times after Todd. Got that straight? It makes me sort of dizzy.
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 and big break in films. In the novel, Blondell portrays Powell as an insufferable narcissist, hopelessly cheap, a dreadful racist and anti-Semite; a real dick. Todd comes across as a total tool and horndog.
Blondell received an Academy Award nomination for her dramatic turn in The Blue Veil (1951). I think Blondell was especially good in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945), Nightmare Alley (1947), and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). She could do it all: Noir, Drama, Comedy, Musicals. 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. Ah, Hollywood.
I saw her just last month giving a terrifically funny and sly performance in Norman Jewison‘s The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and as a cynical, aging playwright in John Cassavetes‘ terrific tribute to the theatre, Opening Night (1977).
I am especially fond of her work in the demented Pre-Code mystery, Night Nurse (1931), opposite Stanwyck, directed by William Wellman.
If any of you kids are old enough, my generation best remembers Blondell for playing Lottie, a bawdy Seattle saloon owner, in the television comedy-western Here Come The Brides (1968-71) with the bluest skies you’ve ever seen, 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 Los Angeles (well, Glendale actually), Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
Blondell is proof that the best kept secret about from the Golden Age of Hollywood is just how hard people worked.