Joan Blondell, Shining Star Forced to be a Satellite

“I don’t know what the secret to longevity as an actress is… maybe it’s the audience seeing itself in you.” … Joan Blondell

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Joanie should know. Joan Blondell, born Rose Joan Blondell on August 30, 1906, in NYC, lived her entire life performing on stage and screen. She died of leukemia on December 25, 1979 in Santa Monica, CA. It is bittersweet to honor this remarkable woman so close to what will be the 37th anniversary of her death this Christmas day.

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Joan was born to entertain audiences. She cut her teeth working with her comic parents on the vaudeville stages from age three to seventeen, while educated at the Professional Children’s School. She was a seasoned pro by the time she transitioned to the Ziegfeld Follies and then onto the Broadway stage.

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It was a Broadway production that paired her with James Cagney, which lead to five more celebrated film features, starting with John G. Adolfi’s SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (1931) where they reprised their stage roles. The other Blondell/Cagney paired films that followed are:  William Wellman’s OTHER MEN’S WOMEN (1931), William Wellman’s THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), Howard Hawks’ THE CROWD ROARS (1932), Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), and HE WAS HER MAN (1934). The chemistry sizzle on the screen was visible between these two talents, making for memorable performances that launched both of their careers into an explosion of roles in the Pre-Code era. While they supposedly kept their romance limited to the screen, Cagney said she was the only woman other than his wife he ever loved.

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But to give you some perspective on just how much Blondell worked starting with the early talkies of the Pre-Codes and throughout the duration of the 1930s, she was in over fifty films during that decade alone. Most of this ridiculously busy schedule could be attributed to her contract with Warner Brothers. They kept her working fast and furious in roles at a time when being employed was a very good thing. And she enjoyed her WB family of co-star friends and filming crews immensely. The problem was, while she found herself in-demand and in work, she was not only typecast but stuck below the top tier of the marquee.

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While others demanded more and knew how to cause ripples within the political studio system in a persuasive way (like her good friend Bette Davis), Blondell thought of her job as a job. Joan punched the clock and went home when the job was done. She worked extremely hard, acted consistently professional, but didn’t desire to play the ambitious game.

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Working free of the studio playbook in the 1940s and 1950s, the work was less frequent and the pace less brutal; yet offered some meatier roles, such as Gail Richards in TOPPER RETURNS (1941), Aunt Sissy in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945), Zeena Krumbein in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), and Annie Rawlins in THE BLUE VEIL (1951) for which she was nominated for An Oscar, Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Even still, she struggled to garner critical acclaim in a way that moved her name up to the leading lady, mega star status.

The 1950s ushered in the television age and Joan Blondell was determined to be a player. The frequency of roles kept her busier but yet again, she found herself working harder, not smarter in struggling to move her name to the top position in billing.

The 1960s and 1970s brought memorable roles such as Jenny in SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER (1971), Lady Fingers in THE CINCINNATI KID (1965), Sarah Goode in OPENING NIGHT (1977) and Dolly in THE CHAMP (1979). Her TV work continued with roles such as Lottie Hatfield in “Here Come the Brides.” Fans unaware of her saucy and leggy days as a Pre-Code platinum blonde may know her more for her later work such as Vi in GREASE (1978) or caught her in reruns from retro TV networks such her bit parts in 50’s TV westerns, Starsky and Hutch (1976), The Love Boat (1978), Fantasy Island (1979) and so much more.

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She worked right up until the end, even while battling the Leukemia that ultimately took her life in 1979, with her last role being Aunt Coll in THE WOMAN INSIDE (1981), released posthumously. With 160 acting credits to her name, and after publishing her popular 1972 autobiographical novel “Center Door Fancy,” Joan never quit.

Married three times, divorced three times, her first husband famed cinematographer George S. Barnes (m. 1933-1936) was a decision reflecting her “naive sophisticate”(as James Cagney called her) ways of a younger Joanie, fresh in her film career. Emotionally dysfunctional, this relationship was fated for disaster. Barnes was still married to his third wife as their romance grew and he assured her the marriage was on paper only and would be ended swiftly. During this time of officially divorcing his third wife and marrying Joan (he went on to marry for a total seven times), she became pregnant and he arranged for the termination. Their son and only child from the marriage, TV producer/director Norman Scott Barnes was born in 1934 but later changed his last name to Powell in 1938 when Barnes relinquished all parental rights and he was adopted by Joan’s second husband.

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Her second marriage to actor Dick Powell (m. 1936-1944) was more stable but tepid in romance. In addition to adopting Norman, they had a child together, Ellen Powell, who is known for her makeup department work in film and tv, such as her Emmy nominated work in hair styling.

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Joan and Dick made ten musicals together. But after they both had grown weary of the incessant typecasting of formulaic musicals each began over a decade prior, just as they attempted to move their careers in more dramatic roles, their marriage also became stagnant. Right up until the time Dick left Joan for actress June Allyson. In this same pivotal year Dick Powell left one marriage for another, he left his sugary musicals and boyish charm behind with MURDER MY SWEET (1944), launching a dramatically different type in his cinematic world with film noir and never looked back.

Her last husband (m. 1947-1950), producer Michael Todd was said to be physically abusive and a financial mess, thanks to heavy gambling and repeatedly poor investments. She found this relationship to be her most passionate. Great for the bedroom initially but later his behavior revealed itself into abuse. His chaotic ways also wiped out her savings. So she continued to work for the next three decades-because financially she had to.

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She wasn’t always lucky in love or ambition, but certainly made up for it in talent, enduring work ethic and generosity of spirit. Time after time, this unforgettable performer played second-fiddle, the rapid-fire, sharp-tongued best friend, the second lead, the snarky office gal, the lingerie-clad roomie, the sharp opportunist, the frowzy, lovable saloon owner, the gangster’s girlfriend, the wise aunt, and the down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is scene-stealer. She was all these nuances of woman and more. She mastered tv and film, Pre-Codes, dramas, and comedies. But she never truly reached the well-deserved splendor of consistent top billing.

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While I admire the entire breadth of Joan Blondell’s work, I am always biased towards her early days of Pre-Codes. You couldn’t find a better pair of sexy gams in those Busby Berkley musicals and she delivered such hilariously sassy lines with the perfect punch. Take a look at her delicious delivery of “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, YOU’VE got a job!” as she proceeds to kick the woman out the door, right in the tuchus, in Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933) or her haunting “My Forgotten Man” in Mervyn LeRoy’s THE GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. There are too many to list here (because the woman was a damn work-horse during those years!) But no matter how small the role, Joan Blondell made it her own and she made it memorable. So yes, Joanie, you did know the secret to longevity as actress, and perhaps your greatest role in life was that of survivor- a role this audience member and countless other fans can relate.

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*This was my contribution to the What A Character! Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, and yours truly. Please review all three days for a recap of fantastic character actor tributes… THANK YOU & ENJOY!! 🙂

day one: kellee

day two: aurora

day three: paula

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Classic Movie History Project: Women In Film 1932-1934

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What made the Pre-Code era so scandalous, was the content and characterizations in those films made between 1930-1934 in a time when censorship was in name only. In the years 1932-1934, these were the rebellious years of filmmaking where the envelope was pushed so far, the Hays code of censorship was finally enforced. One of the benefits of this scintillating period was the portrayal of women in a liberated and empowered way.

Women were nor longer just sinners or saints. These women were more real than we had ever seen before. We felt sympathy for the nice women who were also naughty, and the naughty women who were also nice. These women were liberated enough to live life more as they chose. They were more in control of their lifestyles -whether it was to hold a career, or to be sexually liberated in choosing their romantic partners (sometimes more than one at a time, and sometimes suggesting homosexuality). These women in film from the years 1932-1934 were no longer simple linear characters, they were complex and often on par with men.

Here are just a few examples:

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William Dieterle’s MAN WANTED (1933)

Kay Francis is Lois Ames, the splendid example of the woman who could have it all. Her character is in charge of her life. She’s the hard-working and successful career woman as the editor of her family magazine. She’s high-styled, beautiful and happy. Her husband is a spoiled, wealthy party boy whose only exercise is polo and secretly chasing other women.

She came from money and married into money. So she works not because she has to, but because she wants to (which she directly asserts more than once in the film). Things get more complex when she hires a man to be her secretary (the adorable David Manners). Life is suddenly filled with all sorts of choices. Note: there are a couple of lesbian references via stereotypes of whom to expect as the female editor prior to meeting her.

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Michael Curtiz/ William Dieterle/ William A. Wellman’s FEMALE (1933): 

Ruth Chatterton as Alison Drake makes Lois Ames look like a girl scout when it comes to the freedoms to pursue men. Drake is the top executive of an automobile factory who aggressively pursues and chews up men, then tosses them out to pursue her next conquest. She even has rituals she follows to snare her ‘victims’ not unlike Rock Hudson in PILLOW TALK.

She is also seemingly happy in her lifestyle of plethora of choices, that is until she meets engineer/business partner, George Brent as Jim Thorne. When she falls in love for the first time, she eventually finds herself at a crossroad to make a hard choice of love over her career. Personally, I hate this ending but it’s a fun change of character while it lasts. Why can’t she have monogamous love and still continue as the boss? Oh, Hollywood you came SO close on this one.

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Ernst Lubitsch’s DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933):

Two men in Paris, Frederic March as playwright Tom Chambers and Gary Cooper as painter George Curtis, fall for free-spirited Miriam Hopkins as Gilda Farrell. She can’t decide between the two so she shares her flat with both.

Based on the original play by Noel Coward, Ben Hecht and Samuel Hoffenstein crafted the hilarious screenplay as Ernst Lubitsch used his razor-sharp genius to infuriate the censors with constant sexual chat and innuendos.  Although it just barely made it through the Hays office, it was banned by the Legion of Decency and refused a certificate by the PCA for re-release in 1934.

Other Notable Female Characters of Dimension in Films:

Blonde Venus (1932) Directed by Josef von Sternberg Shown: Marlene Dietrich

 

 

 

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Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) and BLONDE VENUS (1932)

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Jean Harlow in Jack Conway’s RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) and Victor Fleming’s RED DUST (1932)

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Joan Crawford in Lewis Milestone’s RAIN (1932)

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Greta Garbo in Rouben Mamoulian’s QUEEN CHRISTINA

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Mae West in Lowell Sherman’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933) and Wesley Ruggles’ I’M NO ANGEL (1933)

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Thelma Todd in Frank Tuttle’s THIS IS THE NIGHT (1932)

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Loretta Young in Roy Del Ruth’s EMPLOYEE’S ENTRANCE (1933), William A. Wellman’s MIDNIGHT MARY (1933) and Lowell Sherman’s BORN TO BE BAD (1934)

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Bette Davis in Robert Florey’s EX-LADY (1933) [Bette played the empowered female with fierce ferocity throughout her career but those roles built up stronger for her after Pre-Code]

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Katharine Hepburn in Dorothy Arzner’s CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933) and Sylvia Sidney in Dorothy Arzner’s MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932) [Dorothy Arzner was one of the rare female directors at this time]

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Miriam Hopkins in Stephen Roberts’ THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (1933)

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Busby Berkley musicals featured free-spirited ladies like Joan Blondell, Una Merkel, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Aline MacMahon, and Bebe Daniels in Mervyn LeRoy’s GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), Lloyd Bacon/Busby Berkeley’s 42ND STREET (1933), Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), Ray Enright/Busby Berkeley’s DAMES (1934)

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Barbara Stanwyck in Alfred E. Green’s BABY FACE (1933) and LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT (1933)

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Naked Maureen O’Sullivan swimming in Cedric Gibbons’ TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934)

These films portrayed women in varying shades of adultery, prostitution, betrayal, ambition, determination, confidence, inhibition,  and empowerment. Sometimes as the instigator, sometimes the victim. These roles were not always depicted in the most flattering light, but they pushed the boundaries for women regardless.

Many salacious films presenting titillating female characters occurred prior to 1932 but the films made from 1932-1934 hit the censorship ceiling. While the films mentioned above are not a complete list, it touches upon many colorful examples of women that scared the begeezus out of ole Will Hays and the Catholic bishops over at the Legion of Decency. It’s a shame, really. Because it’s astonishing how few empowered or juicy female roles have come along since the enforcement of the Code beyond that summer of 1934.

So when you see MILDRED PIERCE, DOUBLE INDEMNITY or THE LETTER, note that the strong noirish Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis of the post-WWII 40’s and 50’s have the Pre-Code Joan, Babs and Bette to thank (along with all the other amazing Pre-Code women and filmmakers). Not to mention those roles that followed like Sigourney Weaver in ALIENS, Jodie Foster in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and the more current crop of comedy gems like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in BABY MAMA, Kristen Wiig and cast in BRIDESMAIDS, and Melissa McCarthy in SPY. As the saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history…

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This article was my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by talented Fritzi aka @MoviesSilently of Movies Silently, Ruth aka @925screenings of Silver Screenings, and Aurora aka @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen and sponsored by Flicker Alley, on June 26-28. Check each of their sites for the updated lists of participating bloggers.

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