“If she hadn’t looked like a tootsie, she’d have made a great Lady Macbeth.” —James Cagney
“Here she is, the little happiness girl!” cries a carnival barker, inviting passers-by to have their pictures taken with this living prop, who will beam and bat her eyelashes on cue, your best girl for the length of a camera exposure. For the moment, with no takers, she sits flipping through a magazine, snapping gum, and looking bored. This is Joan Blondell’s introduction in her first feature film, Sinners’ Holiday (1930), and the moment is prophetic. Descriptors like “breezy” and “bubbly” always stuck to her, as flimsy as the “little happiness girl” tag, distracting from her real power and depth. She could bubble all right, but beneath the effervescence there were glimpses of reserved yet stinging hurt, of wariness and wistfulness, even of blazing anger. “She utters comedy lines but looks sad in the process,” a reviewer commented in 1935, hinting at her remarkable ability to hit several moods at once, the way Mongolian singers can emit multiple tones in a single breath.
She never played Lady Macbeth, but in Blondie Johnson (1933) she plays a racket boss who faces the necessity of having the man she loves rubbed out. As she considers this decision, for a long moment she is absolutely still, yet inside this quiet immobility she draws from a bottomless well of bitterness and regret. At several points throughout this movie—the kind of Warner Brothers programmer that’s inevitably described as “snappy”—her eyes are so bleak they momentarily wither her surroundings. But then she tosses off a few wisecracks and her smile opens with a radiance that seems to banish any knowledge of suffering. No other actress had quite the same ability to be simultaneously wised-up and unprotected, generous yet nobody’s fool.
Rose Joan Blondell was born in the proverbial trunk, in a hotel on West 91st Street in New York in 1906. Her parents were vaudevillians, and she joined them onstage at age three, as baby “Rosebud.” She spent her childhood traveling the world, theater to theater and boarding house to boarding house. Like other vaudevillians, she graduated with an ability to work through pain, loss, and bone-deep exhaustion. As vaudeville began to stagger into obsolescence, the Blondell family struggled. Of the lean period in the late 1920s when she lived in New York and earned meager wages at a public library, she said, “I’ve known what it is to wonder where I was going to sleep when night came. I’ve been at a stage of pocketbook flatness when half a sandwich, shared with another girl in the same predicament, was a banquet.”
A respectful biography of Joan Blondell by Matthew Kennedy appeared in 2007, and it is sometimes hard to read. Perhaps she was unlucky, or simply too attractive for her own good, but she seems to have brought out the worst in men. Her triumph in a “Miss Dallas” pageant in 1926 was crowned by a nasty assault from a man who assumed he had bought her favors. In New York a few years later, she was brutally raped by a policeman, who threatened to kill her if she reported the crime. Her first husband, cameraman George Barnes, objected to using birth control but did not want children, and coerced her into a horrifying seven abortions. (Surprisingly, when she finally balked she was able to bear a son, Norman, who later took the name of his stepfather Dick Powell; she and Powell also had a daughter, Ellen.) All three of her marriages ended in divorce, and third husband Mike Todd was abusive. Through it all, she remained a work-horse and an open-hearted, down-to-earth woman. If she had a tragic flaw, it was that she did not fight hard enough for herself, in her career or her private life.
Her career took off in 1929, just as the economy went into freefall, when she appeared in a play by George Kelly called Maggie the Magnificent. It was while waiting anxiously to audition for this show that she found herself next to a cocky young red-head who impressed her with his ebullience and his thick-lashed, Delft-blue eyes. He was James Cagney, and they were both spotted in the short-lived production (New Yorkers, Blondell noted, were too busy jumping out of windows to attend the theater) and cast in Penny Arcade. That show was snapped up by Al Jolson, who sold it to Warner Brothers with the proviso that the studio take Cagney and Blondell, whose short-term contracts were swiftly lengthened as they made good in the film’s rushes. These contracts amounted to sentences of hard labor, but produced the throng of slangy mini-masterpieces that the studio spat out like hot newsprint, stacked up like wheat-cakes sizzling off the griddle to feed the broke and hungry masses during the Depression’s darkest years. The style of these films probably owes much to the delirious, dance-marathon exhaustion induced by the grinding schedule the studio imposed on its players.
Penny Arcade was re-titled Sinners’ Holiday (1930), which promises naughtier pleasures than the film delivers. It opens with wonderfully pungent scene-painting of a cheap carnival, where a weenie vendor hawks “Coney Island hot dogs—all pedigreed! All housebroken!” and the slumping cooch-dancers have notably bad figures. The stars are the irritating, oddly fey Grant Withers and the wan Evelyn Knapp. Cagney is electric as a misbehaving mama’s boy, a bundle of hysterical energy who works for a bootlegger but also sits in his mother’s lap, kisses her on the lips, and bursts into tears when she slaps him. Joan Blondell, in the much too small role of Myrtle (or Moitle, as Cagney calls her), stands out as by far the most natural, relaxed actor—the only one whose performance, today, is not a bit dated. She’s playing a tougher cookie than she ever played again: in one delicious moment she puts Cagney’s overbearing mother in her place with: “Aw, shut up you old bat! You ain’t runnin’ this show.” Though hardboiled and rather coarse, she’s immensely likable with her vibrant, chesty voice and unmannered directness. Her hair, in a short bob, is still its natural light brown. Though in black-and-white films she looked like a blue-eyed blonde, according to her granddaughter Blondell’s huge, round eyes were “martini-olive green,” with an irresistible sparkle.
Blondell appeared in a staggering ten movies in 1931, mostly in supporting roles. Films like Wellman’s Other Men’s Women, in which Grant Withers and Regis Toomey compete fiercely for the zero-charisma title while Cagney and Blondell twiddle their thumbs on the sidelines, call into question the savvy of the studio system. That the moguls were basically clueless is further suggested by the fact that Jack Warner wanted Blondell to change her name to Inez Holmes. (No, see, you change your name from “Inez Holmes” to “Joan Blondell.”) Her third movie with Cagney was none other than Public Enemy, but his big break was not hers. She’s not even the one who gets the grapefruit in the face, and what was probably her most memorable scene, a tussle in bed with Edward Woods, was cut from later prints and survives only in stills. (Since Cagney was originally cast in Woods’s role, the intention was presumably to continue the Cagney-Blondell pairing.)
Twice in 1931 she was cast in films with Barbara Stanwyck, who would become a close friend. Blondell had a small role in Illicit, one of Stanwyck’s earliest starring vehicles, and was more prominently featured, though still in the sidekick part—Maloney—in Night Nurse. Stanwyck and Blondell had much in common on screen—they were two of the most unaffected, straightforward actresses of their era, and they shared the same mixture of guardedness and quick emotion, vulnerability and hardened poise. They were also different enough to play well as a team, Joan’s full curves and round eyes setting off Barbara’s greyhound slimness and narrowed gaze, her earthier warmth balancing Stanwyck’s keener focus. In Night Nurse, Maloney’s wisecracking cynicism is ballast to Lora’s nervy idealism: when they take their oath as nurses, Lora responds ardently to the solemn moment, while Maloney chews gum, unmoved.
As in real life, Stanwyck has the fierce ambition her friend lacks; Blondell admitted that making movies was never as important to her as personal life, and attributed to this her failure to fight harder for good roles. She was sometimes shockingly cynical and dismissive in later comments about her work at Warner Brothers; perhaps in her memory her best films simply blended in with the dross, or all she could remember was how tired she was. These were, after all, films that usually played for a week, and were considered ephemeral. No one thought they would be cherished 80 years later.
Night Nurse is one of the definitive exemplars of pre-Code, with its lurid plot elements of child murder, adultery, dipsomania, and corrupt authority; its bootlegger hero and smiled-on vigilantism; its sexy, smart-mouthed, working-girl heroines. Especially beloved among pre-Code aficionados are the many scenes in which the two nurses casually strip to their underwear, and the moment where Stanwyck, frightened by a skeleton put in her bed as a prank, jumps into Blondell’s bed and the two giggle under the covers. While she may have had the kind of looks that men like best, Blondell was also—on-screen and off—the kind of woman that women like best, and much of her mail came from female fans who identified with the characters she played, and who no doubt longed for the kind of friend—warm, fun, and utterly trustworthy—they knew she would be.
Yet another of her 1931 films, Big Business Girl, offers proof that a Warner Brothers pre-Code can be almost entirely tedious, and it’s only Blondell who justifies the “almost.” Alas, she doesn’t appear until the last ten minutes, after a seeming eternity of dumb and lifeless script that gets no help from the performers. The star is the impossibly beautiful (and gorgeously clothed) Loretta Young, who was often excellent in pre-Code films but here gives a tiresomely arch, simpering performance. She’s supposed to be a brilliant advertising writer, but her budding high-powered career is sidetracked by a love triangle with her leering boss (Ricardo Cortez) and her puppyish husband (Frank Albertson); and the film shows her getting most of her results on the job by flirting shamelessly with clients. It’s almost worth suffering through the movie, though, for Blondell’s last-minute appearance as a professional co-respondent hired to help Young’s husband get a divorce. As he fidgets with nervous embarrassment she fixes him with her straight, cut-the-crap look and demands, “Whatsa matter, you got fleas or something?” She tells him about her career in hotel rooms and every line seems like a winner, but they’re not actually so good—she just puts them over with such easy, zingy timing, and her good-humored frankness is such a relief in a movie full of people behaving foolishly.
Finally, in her last film of 1931, Blondell got a part she deserved, and her partnership with James Cagney fully blossomed. I speak, of course, of Blonde Crazy, and merely mentioning the title gladdens my heart. This is the one where Cagney makes his era-defining declaration, “The age of chivalry is over. This, honey, is the age of chiselry.” He’s Bert, a booze-peddling bellboy who dreams of making easy dough as a con man. He first gets a load of Ann (Blondell) when she comes to the hotel looking for a job as a chambermaid, and his split-second reaction as he gives her the once-over amounts to the most lascivious silent wolf-whistle ever put on film. She responds to his persistent passes with slaps that send his head snapping back against his spine, yet neither his blatant stratagems nor her indignant refusals interfere with their amiable partnership. Bert lures her into his chiseling schemes, telling her that “everyone has larceny in his heart” and “honest men are scarcer than feathers on a frog.” Though a reluctant crook, she turns out to be a smarter one than he is, and the film includes step-by-step guides to clever grifts. (Try this at home!) Blonde Crazy is often hilarious, as when Bert appreciatively inspects Ann’s underwear, or when Ann reacts to the advances of Guy Kibbee by breaking the pearl necklace he tried to tempt her with, then gathers up a handful of pearls, shoves them down his pants, wallops him on the backside, and scrams. But underneath all this, there is a genuinely moving love story.
Blondell was the best love interest Cagney ever had, able not only to stand up to him but to bring out an unexpectedly tender side of his cocky, wound-up persona. Her stillness complements his manic energy, and her quiet inner caution speaks to the aloof, nervous intensity under his outrageous extroversion. Ann and Bert are both so wised-up they can’t realize the depth of their feelings until they lose each other. The final scene, where Bert, lying wounded in a prison hospital, gazes up at Ann with shining, worshipful eyes, is perhaps the most romantic moment in Cagney’s career. It’s touching to see these two wary, skeptical souls finally embrace each other so openly. But the movie never back-peddles on its view of a world divided between hustlers and chumps, a cut-throat competition to see who can laugh last.
In the terrific, densely packed Union Depot (1932) Blondell went even further in revealing the contained hurt behind her accustomed poses of gum-snapping cynicism or party-girl fizz. When Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.—a hobo who has found a suitcase full of counterfeit cash and uses it to pose as a man of means—catches sight of Blondell she’s sitting dejected on a bench in the lobby of a train station, her wary and woebegone face distilling the reality of the Depression. Broke and desperate for train-fare to a job, she has decided there’s nothing to do but sell herself for it, and she goes to a hotel room with Fairbanks. She tries to put on an act of giddy gaiety, but her would-be “Santa Claus” soon realizes she’s not a lady of the pavements but a nice girl miserable about what she’s doing. Too decent to make her go through with it anyway, he berates her for leading him on. Between sobs, she tucks into the dinner he bought her and polishes it off, at once wretchedly ashamed and pragmatically determined to at least fill her empty stomach.
In Central Park (another of her ten 1932 films) she meets cute with Wallace Ford over stolen hot-dogs in the park. Both are broke and famished, and they can’t stop talking about food: when they part to chase after jobs she calls cheerfully, “Till we eat again!” Filled with escaped lunatics, near-blind cops, and gangsters plotting to rob a charity ball for the unemployed, this is one of the weirdest, wildest, most dizzy-from-hunger movies of the Depression years. We actually see a man being mauled by a lion, and later the escaped beast invades the Central Park Casino while swells in evening dress run screaming through the bushes. When Depression-era movies are described as escapist one thinks of Fred and Ginger gliding over a mirrored floor, but perhaps what people really wanted was to see rich people thrown to the lions. At the end, when she and Wally are arrested, wrongly accused of being in on the gangsters’ scheme, Blondell faces the cops with a tearful, burning mixture of fury and hopelessness. Her ability to embody the exhaustion and end-of-her-rope desperation so fitting in these Depression-era stories may have had much to do with the wear and tear of her ten-movies-a-year schedule, which repeatedly pushed her to the brink of nervous breakdown.
Big City Blues ends similarly, with naïve Eric Linden barely escaping being railroaded for a murder he just happened to witness. For most of its length, the film is far more light-hearted, lavishly salted with snazzy dialogue—the kind of movie where people don’t say “Have a seat,” they say, “Park your pants;” not “Have a drink,” but “Here, saturate the bridgework.” Without containing any real footage of New York, it evokes a hectic, ruthless, yet strangely enchanting city, a place of “tramps and bootleggers and bishops and reporters and gun-men and borough presidents.” Blondell is a hoofer who pockets soap from hotel washrooms and remarks, “Chorus girls used to get pearls and diamonds. Now all they expect is a corned beef sandwich.” (Again with the food obsession.) Her part isn’t large, but she has one fantastic scene where she gambles in a nightclub, rolling the dice in a hopped-up frenzy of excitement—talking to them, coaxing, pleading, urging, her words rattling out like the dice themselves. In a mini-parable of the Crash, she makes a glittering fortune and sees it all vanish in snake-eyes.
Blondie Johnson (1933) opens with the eponymous heroine already at the end of her rope, steeped in the Depression’s bitter dregs. Bedraggled, in a drab suit and no makeup, she pleads with a welfare officer for aid: she and her sick mother have been evicted from their apartment in the rain. She had to quit her job because of the lecherous boss’s pestering, and her younger sister died after getting pregnant at 15. Nonetheless, she’s denied aid, and gets home to find her mother dead. Hollowed out, she decides “the only thing that matters is dough,” and when a priest sanctimoniously reminds her that there are two ways of making money, she replies grimly, “Yeah, the hard way and the easy way.”
The easy way does not, however, involve using her body like Stanwyck in Baby Face. Blondie uses her brains instead, and while she’s happy to bat her eyelashes and show off her curves to reel in male suckers, she fends off any who try to get too familiar. She is perfectly frank about her unwillingness to give out: “This town’s going to pay me a living,” she says soon after her arrival in New York, “And it’s going to get back from me just as little as I have to give.” Throughout the film, Blondell keeps reminding us of the depth of Blondie’s bitterness without flattening the fizz of jokes, colorful performances, and general hotcha entertainment. This was probably the best leading role she ever had, one of the few “Stanwyck parts” that let her show her full range. This includes indulging in deliciously phony histrionics when Blondie poses as a damsel in distress to con men out of sawbucks; as a tearful “little mother” pleading for her husband in court; as a debutante reduced to nervous collapse by a false accusation of theft. Blondell was famous for her ability to cry on cue, and it’s extraordinary how she distinguishes between the fake tears and the real ones—when her mother dies, for instance, she collapses into harrowing, face-contorting sobs, not the pretty tear-trickling of most Hollywood actresses. Blondie Johnson has a few drawbacks—as a love interest Chester Morris is no Jimmy Cagney, though his character is meant to be a bit of a lunkhead; and the “we’ve-learned-our-lesson” ending feels more imposed and less sincere than in Blonde Crazy. Yet it remains one of the most inspiriting films of the time for the way it not only presents a woman who is far smarter than the men around her, most of whom have no problem with that, but also takes the situation for granted rather than treating it as a titillating aberration or an issue to be resolved.
Blondell ended the year 1933 in the legendary lost film Convention City (reportedly so raunchy that the studio destroyed all prints rather than wrangle with censors). Earlier, she appeared in two Busby Berkeley films, enormous hits that kept Warner Brothers afloat, and were even more grueling to make than the usual programmers. In Footlight Parade she takes no part in singing or dancing; she’s Cagney’s loyal, overlooked gal Friday, pining for him while he chases after bitchy Claire Dodd. This situation is an exact repeat of her 1932 role in Lawyer Man with William Powell (even down to the casting of Dodd), and given that the only straight men I know who aren’t infatuated with Joan Blondell have never seen her, the premise puts a severe strain on my credulity. But it does set up her best-known scene in Footlight Parade, when she throws Dodd out of her apartment with the words, “Outside, Countess! As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!” and adds the extra punctuation of a kick aimed at Dodd’s shapely rear.
She has a meatier role in Golddiggers of 1933, and her relationship with Warren William is the most complex and mature depicted in any of the Berkeley musicals, a far cry from the juvenile cooing of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. (Earlier, Blondell had married William in Three on a Match, but that film belongs to Ann Dvorak.) Here she’s a chorus girl and he’s a haughty, puritanical Boston blueblood trying to scotch his younger brother’s romance with a fellow chorine. Enraged by his prejudice, Blondell ruthlessly avenges her tribe, stripping William of his dignity and his pants, getting him drunk and extracting payment for an alleged night of passion. That we can believe, amid all the humiliation, shame and resentment swirling around them, that these two really love each other, is an impressive feat.
The movie closes with an even more astonishing feat, a Busby Berkeley production number about the suffering and injustice of the Great Depression, which somehow clears the hurdles of frivolity and questionable taste to pack a genuine punch. It owes a lot of its power to Blondell, who cuts through the stagy spectacle with burning intensity. She stands under a streetlamp in a trampy dress, talk-singing the bluesy lament about her “forgotten man” whose neglect by the government has reduced her to streetwalking. (This is social protest à la Busby Berkeley, who never forgot that sex sells.) But if the set-up is a bit sleazy, Blondell makes it searing as she gives a cigarette and a look of fierce solidarity to a man too broke to afford her services, then confronts a cop who is rousting a bum out of a doorway. As she points to the military medal pinned to the bum’s shabby lapel, her eyes are daggers of hatred for the policeman. Here she’s not merely an avenging chorus girl but the avenging conscience of the Hoover years. At the end of “Remember My Forgotten Man,” after parades of men are seen marching off to war, stumbling through the trenches, then shuffling along in breadlines, Joan Blondell reappears at the center of the kaleidoscopic spectacle. She spreads out her arms, and the men encircle her and reach out towards her, turning her into a kind of mother goddess, a fallen angel of mercy. It’s all a bit much, but she carries it off because she has such a warm, visceral connection with the world; because her generosity is a matter not just of giving but of taking; because her heart is so big—“as big as an artichoke,” as she says in her best late movie, Nightmare Alley, “with a leaf for everybody.”
This is the first part of a two-part series.
by Imogen Smith