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.
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
Why Joan Blondell?
Actually, this book idea originally came from Joan's son, Norman Powell, who is a director and producer. I was writing a biography of the director Edmund Goulding a few years back, and Norman interviewed me for a documentary he was making on Old Hollywood. When we were through filming, he said casually "Maybe you should do a biography of my mother next."
Well, I knew his mother was Joan Blondell, and I was frankly stunned at the suggestion. I have admired her ever since Here Come the Brides, a show I watched religiously when I was a kid, and here was her son inviting me to tell her life story! I finished the Goulding book about a year later, then contacted Norman again to ask if he was serious. He was, and that really got the ball rolling.
Joan Blondell was a Warner Bros. contract player for most of the 1930s. How come she never quite made it as a major star? What did she think of her WB years? Did she ever express disappointment that she never reached the very top?
These are good questions, because they really hit at the heart of who she was as an actress and as a person. Joan was at Warner Bros. from 1930 to 1938, and they worked her to the bone, particularly in the early years. She made 10 movies in 1932, and she had a lead part in each one of them! I call that chapter in the book "Hammer and Tongs," since the 12 or 15-hour days under those lights was sweaty and rough. Being a glamorous movie star was no picnic; the effortlessness is all an act. I point out in the book how well Joan maintained that illusion while literally fighting off nervous breakdowns.
It's true that she never reached the upper heights of movie stardom, and she offered some explanations why. She always maintained that acting was a job for her, nothing more. She was utterly professional – always prepared, cooperative, hard working. But when the whistle blew, she was gone. It's something to consider, that someone that talented, that gifted in front of a camera, could be somewhat indifferent to the whole business. But it explains why she didn't reach the heights of some of her cohorts at Warner Bros., including Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and Bette Davis.
Joan lacked the ambition, but certainly not the talent. I think she did suffer professional disappointments – she was in plenty of perfectly dreadful movies – but she had her family and her spirituality to sustain her. She had amazing survival instincts. If she didn't become the biggest star, she was a respected and sought-after actress for 50 years. That's no small achievement.
I devote quite a bit of space to the Warner Bros. years, since they are so important to her career. If people know of Joan Blondell, it's for Here Come the Brides or Grease when she was an older character actress, or for those great 1930s musical-comedy performances at Warner Bros. I think she had mixed emotions about Warners. They were loyal to her, and she did make a few wonderful movies, but she was typecast unmercifully. Her true gifts as a dramatic actress really didn't get a good workout until she went to Fox in the 1940s and appeared in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Nightmare Alley.
What's up with Curtis Bernhardt's 1951 melodrama The Blue Veil? That was Joan Blondell's only Academy Award nomination (in the Best Supporting Actress category). The movie seems to be completely unavailable.
I was able to see a video copy thanks to a collector, but it is not available on the home market. That's a shame. It's a worthwhile movie, a kind of sentimental wallow that Hollywood hasn't made for a very long time. It's got an amazing cast, including Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead, Charles Laughton, Audrey Totter, and a pubescent Natalie Wood. Joan is absolutely wonderful in it. She plays Wood's neglectful, self-absorbed mother, yet she keeps our sympathy and understanding. She very much deserved that nomination. [Blondell lost the Oscar to Kim Hunter in Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire. As for The Blue Veil, it was screened at New York City's Museum of Modern Art on December 21, 2007, as part of a two-week Joan Blondell retrospective.]
What did Joan Blondell have to say about the musicals she made for Busby Berkeley? What about Ruby Keeler, James Cagney, and her other fellow contract players? Did she get along with them? [Photo: Joan Blondell in Mervyn LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933.]
Joan said, not surprisingly, that those musicals were tough. There was extra rehearsal needed for production numbers, and Berkeley was very demanding. But she always spoke well of her fellow contract players. Or at least most of them.
She and Keeler were friendly, and they had a happy reunion in New York in the early 1970s when they were both appearing on Broadway. Cagney she adored and admired, and maybe fell in love with. But they were not romantic off screen, only on.
She was particularly close to Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Glenda Farrell, her costar in several low-budget comedies at Warners. She and [MGM contract player] Judy Garland were friends; they connected over a shared childhood in vaudeville. Garland was a high-maintenance friend, as you can imagine. Sometimes she called Joan in the middle of the night during one of her emotional meltdowns.
Joan found Bing Crosby [her costar in the 1939 Universal musical East Side of Heaven] and Humphrey Bogart [who had supporting roles in four of Blondell's 1930s films] to be somewhat distant, but thought highly of Pat O'Brien [with whom she appeared in four movies in the '30s] and Leslie Howard [her costar in Tay Garnett's 1937 comedy Stand-In]. Let's see, is that enough name dropping?
She was also very close to Clark Gable. In fact, he once proposed to her, and she turned him down. [Blondell had a supporting role in Victor Fleming's 1945 drama Adventure, Gable's first film after his return from World War II. Greer Garson was the leading lady.]