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 co-star 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 co-star 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 co-star 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.]
I know that one Joan Blondell movie is supposed to be lost. Which one is it? What about The Greeks Had a Word for Them? Is that United Artists comedy – the talkie prototype of the three gold diggers in search of rich husbands – available?
Convention City is lost. It’s a 1933 comedy that was said to be utterly scandalous. Jack Warner ordered all the prints and negatives destroyed, and no one has yet come forward with a long-lost copy. Some of us will go on waiting and hoping. [Archie Mayo directed from a screenplay by Robert Lord; Peter Milne received story credit. Blondell co-starred with Adolphe Menjou, Dick Powell, and Mary Astor.]
When I read about Convention City, I just want to weep. It sounds like such a sterling piece of pre-Code near-vulgarity. There are some fairly raunchy studio memos that went back and forth during the making of this movie, specifically on the topic of Joan’s breasts. (Of course, I included them in the book.)
Mark Vieira does a terrific job of reporting on Convention City in his book Sin in Soft Focus.
The Greeks Had a Word for Them survives. It’s available as a poor-quality public domain DVD. The cameraman was George Barnes, who became Joan’s first husband. [James Bazen discusses Lowell Sherman’s The Greeks Had a Word for Them – with Blondell, Ina Claire, and Madge Evans digging for gold in the pockets of rich men – in his Hard-to-Find Movies: Cinesation report.]
Joan Blondell and Dick Powell. What was their marriage like? What was it like for them to work together at WB? And what was it like for Blondell to work with June Allyson in The Opposite Sex, considering that Allyson was then married to Powell?
I get the impression that her marriage to Dick Powell was short on passion. They were good for each other for a time, dedicated to their home and kids, and they shared a lot of laughter. But then they drifted apart, and both found romance elsewhere.
Apparently June Allyson and Blondell were cordial but hardly chummy on the set of The Opposite Sex. There are so many cat fights in that movie, and you’d think the two of them would have staged a real one, but they didn’t. Again, it speaks to Blondell’s professionalism. But she was no fan of June Allyson, and everything I found on her (Allyson) in connection with that love triangle is not flattering. Joan and her daughter called June “Whimpsy Poo” as a private joke putdown.
Ted Donaldson, Joan Blondell, Peggy Ann Garner, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
My favorite Joan Blondell performance is her Aunt Sissy in Elia Kazan’s 20th Century Fox drama A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). How did she get that role? What was it like for her to work with Kazan, Peggy Ann Garner, Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn? What did the film do for her career? And how in the world could she not have received an Academy Award nomination? (Especially considering that James Dunn won in the supporting category.) Did Fox push Dunn while ignoring Blondell?
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a beautiful movie, and certainly Aunt Sissy is one of Joan’s best performances. According to the sources I use in the book, a Fox contract was delivered to her while she was touring with the musical Something for the Boys. The implication is that it fell in her lap, which is possible, since it was by then well known that Joan was a safe bet on any movie set.
She loved filming Brooklyn, and everyone was happy to be in a quality production. That was Kazan’s first movie, and he shows so much confidence and command for a beginning film director. Joan admired his no-nonsense approach to direction and his way of getting the best from his actors.
You would think that that movie would have been a major career boost, but, alas, it wasn’t. Fox misused Joan in the ho-hum comedy Don Juan Quilligan after that, and next she appeared in the equally ho-hum comedy The Corpse Came C.O.D. at Columbia. Then she made Nightmare Alley [at Fox in 1947, right], which is an amazing movie, but it was a box office dud and admired only in retrospect. [Tyrone Power starred, cast totally against type.] By then she had married Mike Todd, and her career was on the back burner.
Blondell actually said she thought the censors prevented her from getting an Oscar nomination for Brooklyn. Her character was problematic to the Hays office, since she has lots of beaus and works in a condom factory. According to her, the best scene she ever played was in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the censors insisted it be cut. But she was never bitter about it. [Kennedy describes the scene at length in his book. Needless to say, it involved condoms and – a topic that still turns puritans into apoplectics – sex education for children.]
Joan Blondell’s husbands #1 and #3, cinematographer George Barnes and impresario Michael Todd, were abusive. Barnes was emotionally abusive; Todd was physically abusive. What attracted Blondell to those two men? And why did she stay with them?
Joan’s three husbands (Dick Powell was #2) seemed to have been quite different from each other. I think Joan was responding to changing desires as she aged. With Barnes, she was very young and naive. He showered her with attention, and made her look beautiful for the camera. [Barnes shot 11 Joan Blondell movies, including Footlight Parade, Dames, Havana Widows, Broadway Bad, Kansas City Princess, and The Greeks Had a Word for Them.] What young, inexperienced, ambitious actress wouldn’t respond to that? After their son was born, George withdrew, and Joan lacked the experience to cope. Barnes was possessive, then withholding, then alcoholic, leaving Joan unable to reach him.
Dick Powell was more outgoing, affable, popular in Hollywood, and seemingly less complicated psychologically. They had a happy, joking relationship in the beginning, but their sex life was ho-hum. Several years into that marriage, they became restless.
Unlike Powell, Todd was a passionate lover, and Joan was overwhelmed. He dazzled her with his energy and creativity, in the bedroom and professionally. With Todd, Joan tried valiantly to be a stay-at-home mom for the first time in her life. But then the threats and violence began, and Joan left him to protect herself and her children. I don’t think Joan had a clue to Todd’s dark side when they were dating. She, like so many others, was simply knocked over by his charisma. She ignored the warning signs, married him, and lived to profoundly regret it.
Though I know that Joan Blondell and Ann Sothern were quite different as performers, they often played no-nonsense, wisecracking dames in lots of programmers – Blondell at WB, Sothern at RKO and then MGM. Now, Sothern became an A-list player at MGM in the late 1940s, after having been around for more than 15 years. Why didn’t Blondell keep her leading lady status after the early 1940s? Did she refuse to sign any long-term contracts with the studios?
There was a critical point in Joan’s career in the late ’30s and early ’40s – after she left Warners and began freelancing – where opportunities were lost. The quality of roles offered at Columbia, MGM, and Universal, was no better than what she had at Warners. As she describes it, she wasn’t a fighter for decent scripts the way Bette Davis was. Joan’s compliance cost her dearly, but just look at how she lights up the screen! Here we are, decades after her death, realizing that someone very special was making the very most of what she was given.
Joan Blondell continued working all the way to the time of her death in 1979. Why? Did she need the money, or was it a love of acting and/or the film business? Both? Did she have a favorite role or movie? And did you manage to track down little-seen fare like The Baron (1977), The Glove (1979), and The Woman Inside (1981)? [Blondell died of leukemia in Santa Monica, Calif., on Dec. 25, 1979. She was 73.]
She worked to her death because she needed the money. Plain and simple. Her marriages were financially disastrous for her, and by the time she divorced Mike Todd in 1950, she was a character actress who could no longer command top dollar. She never remarried, so she continued to be what she always was, a hard-working actress. [Todd later married Elizabeth Taylor. He died in a plane crash in 1958, leaving Taylor a widow.]
I must say, André, you impress me with the mention of The Baron, The Glove, and The Woman Inside. I did see all three, thanks to the used-video market on Amazon. They’re pretty hard to sit through, though The Woman Inside, her last film, is interesting in that it deals with transsexualism. But I can’t help feeling sad when I see an actress of her stature working with material far beneath what she’s worth.
On a happier note, she did make one extraordinary movie at the end of her life, and that was Opening Night. This was a John Cassavetes-Gena Rowlands outing, and Joan began the shoot way over her head. After 50 years in the business, she was unprepared for Cassavetes’ loose, improvisational style. But the finished product is stunning, and she is amazingly good as a seasoned playwright who detests Rowlands, playing an actress. The movie is long, challenging, and enigmatic – and I love it! I know Cassavetes is an acquired taste, but for me, Opening Night belongs right behind A Woman Under the Influence as his best.
And finally, what are your own impressions of your subject, Joan Blondell?
I loved Joan Blondell before starting this book, and I love her even more now. I don’t know of anyone who could turn so-so material into something worth watching as often as she could. And everyone I talked to who knew her spoke in the most glowing terms. She was amazingly generous and fun loving. She was deeply attached to her family – parents, brother, sister, kids, everyone.
Many don’t realize that she was quite a good writer. She published a popular novel in 1972 called Center Door Fancy, which was really a thinly veiled account of her early years in vaudeville and Hollywood. So many details speak to her charm. She loved animals, and knew how to make good comfort food, which she distributed to her friends and family unannounced.
She had her faults, certainly. She didn’t handle her business affairs well. She didn’t choose her husbands wisely. But the pros so very much outweigh the cons. There’s so much more to say about Joan Blondell, but you’ll find it in the book!