I don't recall for certain, but I think it might have been Danny from Pre-Code.com, one of the co-hosts of this very blogathon, who tweeted a link one day last year to a Facebook group of Joan Blondell fans. I had seen her in enough films by that point to know who she was, and I liked her, so I joined, just for the heck of it. At the time, I had mistakenly thought that she was a career second fiddle and not a leading lady, but as I have since learned, as a result of following this group, this wasn't always the case.
The first thing you notice about her are those eyes. They might not have been as memorable as those of Bette Davis, perhaps, but they do seem to pop out of her face when you look at a picture of her. She was also pretty curvy. While she was no Melissa McCarthy by any means, compared to her peers in the 30s, she looked a little less like a 20s flapper/30s showgirl type, at least in some of her promotional pictures.
Blondell spent the 30s at Warner Brothers, and her pre-Code films were among some of the best of the period: The Public Enemy, Night Nurse, Blonde Crazy, Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, among many others. She specialized at being the wisecracking, fun-loving, gold-digging dame, and while she was popular, she never quite hit the superstar heights of contemporaries Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford or Jean Harlow.
This being the Old Hollywood studio system, Blondell spent a number of her 30s films with the same actors over and over again, but three in particular stand out. The first is Jimmy Cagney, with whom she starred on Broadway in a play called Penny Arcade. It only lasted three weeks, but among those who saw it included Al Jolson. He bought the rights and sold them to WB with the caveat that Cagney and Blondell star in the film version. They did. The 1930 film, retitled Sinners' Holiday, was a hit, and the rest is history.
They made six movies all told, including The Public Enemy. I saw them in another pre-Code film, Footlight Parade, not too long ago. Liked it. This film was from 1933, and you could tell that by this time they were well in sync with each other, and given how fast a talker Cagney was, that's no small accomplishment.
The second star associated with Blondell is Glenda Farrell. They made nine films together, the first three of which were pre-code: Havana Widows, I've Got Your Number and Kansas City Princess. In Widows and Princess, they're both gold diggers. From the clips I saw of each on YouTube, they seem like lightweight, formulaic material, though the fast talking isn't limited to movies with Cagney.
The third star often paired with Blondell was the man who would be the second of her three husbands and the father of her second child, singer turned actor and director Dick Powell. They were in ten movies together, including one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, the bizarre-yet-spectacular Gold Diggers of 1933, where Blondell secured her place in movie and pop culture history with this song:
Okay, so Joanie wasn't much of a singer.
Blondell left WB in 1939 and continued to have modest success on the big and small screens: her one and only Oscar nomination for the 1951 film The Blue Veil; two Golden Globe and two Emmy nominations much later in her career; a Tony nomination for her role in a Broadway play called The Rope Dancers; and she even wrote a novel. Her younger sister Gloria also had a career in film and TV, albeit a much smaller one.
Cinephiles probably remember her best, however, for her years at WB in the 30s, especially her pre-Code films. In a lot of ways, she embodied that brief yet freewheeling period of American film history. It may not have been politically correct at times, but the naughtiness, the violence and the just-plain-weirdness were unlike anything audiences of the time were accustomed to, and they still speak to audiences today.
Next: James Dean
Films with Joan Blondell:
Gold Diggers of 1933
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Other Pre-Code Movies:
The Smiling Lieutenant
Dinner at Eight
The Thin Man
The Story of Temple Drake
Trouble in Paradise
Design for Living
Ladies They Talk About
All Quiet on the Western Front
Previously in this series:
Edward G. Robinson