Joan Blondell. Those who have heard the name will most likely picture either a blowsy, older woman playing the worldwise but warm-hearted saloon owner in the late 1960s television series Here Come the Brides, or a lively, fast-talking, no-nonsense, and unconventionally sexy gold digger in numerous Pre-Code Warner Bros. comedies and musicals of the early 1930s.
Matthew Kennedy’s Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes (University Press of Mississippi, 2007) seeks to rectify that cultural memory lapse. Not that Blondell doesn’t deserve to be remembered for Here Come the Brides or, say, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Havana Widows, and Broadway Bad. It’s just that her other work — from her immensely touching performance as a sexually liberated woman in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to her invariably welcome (if brief) appearances in films as varied as The Blue Veil, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and Grease — should be remembered as well.
As the title indicates, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes explores the life and career of this actress who, though never a major star, remained a popular leading lady and, later, supporting player — on film, stage, and television — for half a century.
Among Blondell’s partners in crime during her Warner Bros. years were Glenda Farrell, Ruby Keeler, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, and Aline MacMahon. Her leading men included the likes of Warren William, Dick Powell, William Powell, Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Ricardo Cortez, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Pat O’Brien, Wayne Morris, and Leslie Howard. Later on, she supported just about everybody, from Jane Wyman and Jayne Mansfield to Jon Voight and John Travolta.
Her list of directors ranged from Busby Berkeley (Dames, Stage Struck) to John Cassavetes (Opening Night), from Mervyn LeRoy (Gold Diggers of 1933) to Franco Zeffirelli (The Champ), from Elia Kazan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) to Frank Tashlin (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?).
Throughout her career, Blondell received several best supporting actress nods: an Academy Award nomination for her performance as a mother too busy with her own life to pay much attention to her offspring in Curtis Bernhardt’s 1951 melodrama The Blue Veil (Jane Wyman steps in to save the day); two Golden Globe nominations, for Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1978); and a National Board of Review win for The Cincinnati Kid.
Additionally, she was nominated for a Tony as Best Supporting or Featured Actress (Dramatic) for The Rope Dancers (1958), and received two Emmy nominations (1969-70) as Lead Actress in a Dramatic Series for Here Come the Brides.
If that weren’t all, Blondell also kept a busy private life. She married three times: Oscar winner cinematographer George Barnes (The Greeks Had a Word for Them and other Blondell vehicles, plus Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, The Greatest Show on Earth, and dozens of other movies), Dick Powell (they were divorced in 1944; the following year Powell married June Allyson), and producer/showman Michael Todd, who physically abused Blondell, and who later romanced Evelyn Keyes and married Elizabeth Taylor.
In November 2007, around the time Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes came out, Matt agreed to answer a few questions about his research on Blondell. This post and the q&a that follows (please see link below) were initially published then. This article has been reposted to coincide with Turner Classic Movies’ presentation of several Joan Blondell films.
Matt also took part in two other q&a’s for Alt Film Guide: Edmund Goulding (about his book Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy) and Marie Dressler (about Marie Dressler: A Biography).
And one very important thing about the on-screen Joan Blondell that’s worth acknowledging: the desire for sex and money never turned her into a bad girl. She was pleasant no matter the role, but when she was sexy and — ahem — enterprising, she was much, much pleasanter. Let that be a moral lesson to all.
Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes cover: Joan Blondell, 1938. Photo by A. L. Schafer