by Raymond Strait
Who was Joan Blondell?
If you have to ask, then you missed one of the most consistent film stars of the 20th Century.
Her parents were vaudevillians, so it could be said that she was "slept in a trunk" throughout her early childhood. Rose Joan Blondell was born on August 30, 1906 in New York City, to Eddie Joan Blondell and Kathryn Blondell. Her father (born in Indiana to French Jewish parents in 1866) was a well known comedian and one of the original Katzenjammer Kids (long before "Our Gang"). Her mother, Kathryn (Katie) was born on April 13, 1884, in Brooklyn. Rose had two siblings; a younger sister, Gloria Blondell (an actress), once married to Cubby Broccoli who came to produce the James Bond films, and a brother.
If travel is educational, she would have been a genius. Her parents, known professionally as "Blondell and Company," performed throughout Europe, the United States and Asia. They even included baby Rose in their act. At age 4 months she was carried on stage in a cradle by Peggy Astaire (as her daughter) in a production of The Greatest Love.
Beginning in 1914, she spent a year in Honolulu and six years in Australia on tour with her parents until they decided to settle in Dallas, Texas. As a teenager, using the name Rosebud Blondell, she was awarded the 1926 crown as Miss Dallas, then placed fourth for Miss America in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
She seemed not to be focused for the future when she entered college at, what is now known as, the University of North Texas, in Denton where a teaching degree awaited the graduates. Although she never completed college, she did manage to be educated in other ways, becoming employed as a fashion model, circus hand and store clerk in New York.
In 1927 she joined a New York stock company and made her debut performance on Broadway (6th billing) opposite James Cagney (7th billing) at the Fulton Theater on West 46th Street in Penny Arcade. "We opened March 1, 1930 and closed March 10, 1930 - a total of 24 performances. Still, Al Jolson saw something and purchased the rights, and sold them to Warner Brothers with the provision that Jimmy and myself were part of the package. Things started moving fast and furious," she told a columnist.
"I remember it all so well. On April 9, 1930, Jimmy Cagney and I got off the Super Chief at Pasadena. Warner Brothers had a limo waiting and we were whisked off to Burbank to meet Jack Warner, then head of Warner Brothers Studios."
Jack Warner did not show the same enthusiasm as Jolson. He said Cagney would never be a big star because he was "too short, too blonde and your voice is too New Yawkish." He thought Joan had "nice jugs," and warned her not to "become too loose in any way."
She had been working a couple of weeks on Penny Arcade, renamed Sinner’s Holiday because "Jack didn’t think Penny Arcade sounded sexy enough. We were three weeks into production when Darryll Zanuck, then head of production at Warners, driving through the lot one day, stopped me outside a sound studio, said he’d seen the rushes and would like to sign me to a long term contract. I didn’t even read it, just signed on the dotted line."
Her second film, Office Wives starred Dorothy Mackaill and Lewis Stone. "I walked around in my undies a lot on that one, which I found embarrassing."
In 1931, Joan made ten movies - unheard of today. "I worked fifteen hours a day, six days a week - sometimes until dawn. I did everything I was asked. It was the depression and every actor I knew thought his or her latest picture would be their last." She needn’t have worried. She became one of the highest paid movie actresses during the depressed thirties.
She sang a soul-wrenching Remember My Forgotten Man in Gold Diggers of 1933, which became the theme for the unemployed throughout the great depression. That film, co-starring Dick Powell and Ruby Keller, shot her career into an orbit from which she would never exit. She found it somewhat hilarious, "I wasn’t a singer. I talked my way through that one."
Early on she co-starred with Barbara Stanwyck, already a super star, in Illicit followed by Night Nurse, in which they were to undress and sashay around in their lingerie. "Barbara was outraged. She considered such behavior scandalous. I took it in stride."
She considered Public Enemy, with Cagney and Jean Harlow, one of her most famous films. Jean, she said, "Was too forward for me. She never wore a brassiere or panties" Marilyn Monroe emulated her many times. " One day Jimmy asked Harlow how she got her nipples so taught before a take. She said, ‘I ice ‘em!’"
Asked why she made so many films with Cagney, she said, "I don’t know. We just clicked. Jimmy once said I was the only one of his leading ladies he was ever in love with."
During the filming of Blonde Crazy, Joan was in the bathtub when Cagney walked into the room. "Move over," he said, "which drove our director Roy Del Ruth nuts. Jimmy was great with one-liners that brought us to tears from laughter."
Blondell and Cagney in Blonde Crazy
IN 1932 she nearly suffered a nervous breakdown, having completed some fifteen movies without a vacation. On one occasion she was loaned out to Samuel Goldwyn Studios making a film called, The Greeks Had a Word for Them, based on the play, The Greeks Had a Word for It. The censors thought the play title was too suggestive. Joan replaced Carole Lombard who couldn’t go on because of "abdominal pains." She confided to Joan that she’d had a botched abortion and suffered from the aftershock. She co-starred with Ina Claire, known to be somewhat of a snob and seemed to Joan, always condescending. During a scene in which she was unhappy with Joan’s reactions, she said, "I’m from the theatre, and you my dear are from vaudeville." Joan liked to say, "Ah, but who lasted in movies and who didn’t?"
David Manners, Madge Evans, Blondell, Ina Claire in The Greeks Had a Word for Them
In 1932 M.G.M. sort of outdid itself with Grand Hotel. The cast read like a future who’s who of Hollywood’s golden years. Starring: Greta Garbo, John & Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt - just for openers. The uncredited list of characters was long. Paul Bern (Jean Harlow’s future spouse who committed suicide when he failed to perform sexually for the blonde bombshell) was an uncredited ‘Supervisor.’ It was Grand Hotel that Garbo uttered the line that would haunt her career, "I vant to be alone." The film won the Academy Award for best Film.
Warner Brothers countered with Union Depot, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Guy Kibbee and Joan Blondell. This was prior to the Hays Office and it’s code of decency. The film was actually quite trashy because the studio turned it into a baudy demonstration of sex and anything else that could be stuffed into the film’s length. An enormous set was erected (something Jack Warner rarely did). It was filmed non-stop in three weeks. The picture received raucous reviews and went nowhere.
Joan went directly into Three on a Match. The film’s director Mervyn Leroy (who wrote a best-selling book, It Takes More Than Talent), said of his three stars, "Joan will have a solid career, Ann Dvorak will be a big hit and Bette Davis will go nowhere." Bette never spoke to him again.
In 1933 Joan took time off for matrimony. On January 4, 1933 in a private ceremony she tied knot with George Barnes, a photography director, at the First Presbyterian Church in Phoenix, Arizona. She gave birth to a son from that ill-fated union, Norman S. Barnes. They divorced two years later. Before you could say "cut," she married actor/singer/director Dick Powell on September 19th of that same year. Powell adopted Norman whose name was changed to Norman S. Powell.
She recalled a film she co-starred in with Glenda Farrell. Havana Widows, which became a big hit, so Jack Warner, anxious to capitalize on two female stars that might be compared to a young duo that Hal Roach was making money on in comedy shorts, Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts.
Joan and Glenda made a number of films in succession; Merry Wives of Reno, Kansas City Princess, Miss Pacific Fleet, Traveling Saleslady, We’re In The Money and finally a big hit at the box office, Gold Diggers of 1937. Joan felt that Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts were no competition. "I loved those shorts they did. My sides with ache from laughing at their routines. I often wondered if Glenda and I would have been such a successful team if those two made feature films."
The beginning of the end with Warner Brothers began when Jack Warner decided not to make any more pictures co-starring Joan and Jimmy Cagney. He told Joan, "Why should I put the two of you together when I can get two pictures instead of one by not filming you together?"
She starred in several Busby Berkeley musicals. Berkeley belched out "B" musicals on an assembly line plan. Usually the beauties (girls) worked and slept on the sets. He brought in dozens of cots on the huge sound stages. "He was afraid to let them go home, afraid they wouldn’t come back." Little wonder. Their pay was $7.50 per day, plus meals. "Most of them were looking for husbands. The only one I remember becoming more than a dance extra was Toby Wing who went on to a moderate career. The way he exposed their bodies was awful. He got away with it simply because we had no code when he did them."
Joan was a trooper. No actress today would think of working with intense pain. During the filming of Back in Circulation (1937) she complained to the Assistant Director of terrible pains. "The son-of-a-bitch said my only problem was a ‘tight girdle.’ After fainting on the set she was rushed to the hospital with a ruptured appendix. She was near death and probably would have died within hours according to her surgeon.
When she didn’t return to the set as fast as the director thought she should, the studio bribed the doctor to charter an ambulance."They drove to Lookout Mountain and changed the script so my ruptured appendix became part of the story. Jack Warner never gave a damn about his actors. All he ever respected was box office receipts."
Joan was loaned out to Walter Wanger to do a film with Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart. She’d never worked with Leslie at Warner’s. However he was a major star at M.G.M. The picture, Stand In wasn’t released until ten years later. By that time Leslie Howard was dead from a plane crash in World War II and Bogart was listed as the star, which confirms her opinion of what is and what isn’t important to studio moguls.
She remained with Warner Brothers until 1939. She had acted in 50 films by that time. "I was offered some pretty big bucks to stay on with the studio, but my husband (Dick Powell), was leaving Warners under less than joyous terms, so it would have been awkward for me to stay on."
MGM promised her a lucrative contract, which she turned down, again because of her husband who was going through some rough unemployment problems at the time and she felt he would resent her being the big money-maker and him without any source of income.
Before exiting Warner Brothers she was loaned out to Columbia Pictures for There’s Always A Woman which teamed her with Melvin Douglas (a matinee idol of the times), followed by The Amazing Mr. Williams, also with Douglas. By then she had bid Warner Brothers goodbye.
She and Dick made a film at Universal together in 1940, I Want a Divorce."Prophetic, isn’t it?" She said. They were divorced on July 14, 1944. They produced one child, a daughter Ellen who became a successful studio cosmetologist.
Although she declined a term contract at Metro, she did several movies for the big studio and in a sense regretted having not signed. "I might have been cast as Maisie, which made millions for Ann Sothern both in movies and television. "For a long time I felt that Ann was stealing my roles."
1945 gave Joan the opportunity to work with one of the great directors of all times, Elia Kazan, although she didn’t think so at the time. "Kazan was from the theatuh, and the rest of us were not really up to his standards." When Betty Smith’s best-selling novel, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, was made into a movie, Kazan was chosen to direct it. Kazan, from Broadway, and highly successful on the big street, having directed plays starring the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean, came to Hollywood with great expectations. His only thing on film, to date, had been a short documentary. He’d never dealt with major stars on film, so many were skeptical of his film talents.
Peggy Ann Garner and Blondell in A Tree Grow in Brooklyn
"Betty Grable was his first choice for Aunt Cissie. Betty took one look at this squirt and decided he couldn’t direct a piss ant, much less a star of her magnitude." When asked, Joan read the script and loved the part. She said yes. Kazan agreed. The making of the film had more drama than a dozen soap operas. "It ruined my career as a leading lady. He never used me again. I was thirty-three and many leading actress were much older than me, but that picture relegated me to character roles ever after."
Jimmy Dunne, consumed a great deal of booze during the filming, which fit right in since he played the part of an alcoholic father. Dorothy McGuire, the female lead had battles with Kazan heard coast to coast. Never mind the fights and accusations, the picture established Kazan as a top flight director, an honor that never wavered throughout his career.
Joan had an interesting story to tell about that picture. "My granddaughter stayed over with me one night. I happened to notice in the TV Guide that A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was on television, so I asked the child if she would like to see grandma in a movie, hoping to make her proud of me. As you can imagine, she never saw me because they had cut the picture to make it fit 90 minutes with commercials and Aunt Cissie was nowhere to be seen. I’d literally been erased. With mud on my face I tried to convince her that I actually did appear in that picture in a good role."
After the war, when actors were returning to their studios, Clark Gable came back to MGM, and in 194 7was badly miscast in Adventure. "I was his under-star," said Joan, my first demotion in fifteen years, but what the hell, it was Clark Gable." A bad comedy did not become Gable. "He was worn out from the war and still mourning his wife, Carole Lombard who, returning from a successful bond tour in the east was aboard a plane that crashed into a mountain outside Las Vegas, killing all aboard."
Joan spent a lot of time playing big sister to Clark whom she says, "Cried every time somebody mentioned his dead wife." Also he and his co-star, Greer Garson, hated each other. She claimed he had bad breath. He denounced her as believing she was better than anyone else. "I may be from Ohio," Clark declared one day so that everyone on the set could hear, "but I’m damned well as good as anybody around here, and better than some."
He didn’t make another picture for two years. Partly because of his bad experience on Adventure, but mostly because he was simply worn out from the war and the loss of Carole.
The future, in 1947, seemed quite bright for Joan. It is highly considered that her skanky performance in Nightmare Alley with Tyrone Power was one of her best. The director, Teddy Goulding, told her to "play this dame as hard and blowsy as you can." "I can’t figure out how it got past the censors. Women were disgusted with all the violence and crude sexuality." She remembered that "We all got great reviews and nobody came to see it because it was that scary."
Tyrone Power and Blondell in Nightmare Alley
She married for the third time to producer Mike Todd in 1947, a nuptials that barely lasted three years. They were divorced in 1950 amidst rumors that "Mike dumped her for Elizabeth Taylor."
"I divorced him years before he even met Elizabeth. Mike was a monster at times. He once held me by my ankles outside a hotel window. Scared the hell out of me. We were always in debt because he spent like a drunk sailor on Saturday night. His extravagances cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars which forced us into bankruptcy."
"I was going through some rough times with very little work. I wasn’t in demand and on New Year’s Eve 1957 I got hilariously drunk and flopped down on my bed to sleep it off. The following morning, hangover and all, I get a call from Kate Hepburn, would I like to play with her and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set, which they were about to make at M.G.M. Would I ever. While she and Tracy threw barbs at one another I would stand by and observe. Great part. Can you imagine during a period of time when stars didn’t even like to admit to having children for fear of ruining their images, a love story between two superstars, both over fifty?"
Her next film at M.G.M. which starred June Allyson, The Opposite Sex wasan awful experience. "Oh," she said, when asked in an interview about her relationship with June, "If I never hear her name again it will be too soon. Next question!"
She found a revived career in television, beginning in the fifties. "I remember my first check from Suspense, $650 I was so thrilled. A $50,000 film couldn’t have been more receptive. I was broke and needed the money.
She shone on television, appearing in Lux Video Theatre, Shower of Stars, Fireside Theatre, U. S. Steel Hour, Playhouse 90, The Untouchables, Death Valley Days, The Real McCoys, The Virginian, Wagon Train, Twilight Zone, Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, My Three Sons, Slatterys Peope, the Man from U.N.C.L.E., Petticoat Juncion and was part of the ensemble on NBC’s Banyon detective series for two years.
In 1965 Joan made her second picture with Edward G. Robinson. She laughed about the first one, from hindsight, but they did not get along too well previously. First day on the set of The Cincinnati Kid, Robinson wandered over to her and whispered, "I guess I was a pretty big stinker back then." They both enjoyed a good laugh. Joan said, "Eddie, bigger than you can imagine." The director, Norman Jewison cut some of their great scenes together under the guise that the picture was running too long. Joan had other thoughts. "I think it was because we blasted the leads, Steve McQueen and Ann-Margret, out of the ball park. Let me tell you, I got used to that kind of treatment a long time ago."
In 1969 she finally got her own series, Here Comes The Brides, which went on for 51 episodes.
In the movies she played opposite some of the biggest stars in films; Glenda Farrell, Ruby Keeler, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers and Aline MacMahon and a library of famous male names, 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. She later supported the likes of Jane Wyman, Jayne Mansfield, Jon Voight and John, just to mention a few.
As a kid growing up in a West Virginia "Holler," I spent most of my Saturday afternoons at the local theater in Charleston where Joan Blondell was one of my favorite actresses. When I came to Hollywood to work for Jayne Mansfield, I pumped her endlessly about her experience working with Joan on Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter. Jayne confirmed my opinion that Joan Blondell was one hellova lady.
FAMOUS BLONDELL QUOTES
“There’s a very fine line between underacting and not acting at all. And not acting is what a lot of actors are guilty of. It amazes me how some of these little numbers with dreamy look and a dead pan are getting away with it. I’d hate to see them on stage with a dog act.
In the 20's, you were a face. And that was enough. In the ‘30s, you also had to be a voice. And your voice had to match your face, if you can imagine that. Jimmy Cagney and Eddie Robinson had voice that were as important as the characters they played. You knew what you were getting even before you paid for the ticket.”
(On Al Jolson) “The screen didn’t give him enough space to project in. I remember as a kid seeing him on stage and I think to this day there have been two great performers in the world: one is Jolson and the other is Judy Garland. They had some kind of magic in front of people that no one could surpass – they were sheer, magnificent talent beyond belief”
(On Leslie Howard) “Leslie Howard was a darling flirt. He’d be caressing your eyes and have his hand on someone else’s leg at the same time. He was adorable. He was a little devil and just wanted his hands on every woman around. He just loved the ladies.”
(On Jean Harlow) “You know, she never wore underclothes and she was walking past the guys on The Public Enemy (1931) one day and James Cagney said, "How do you hold those things up?" and she said, "I ice them."
(On director Edmund Goulding) “He did something that drove actors crazy. He’d get out there and act out everybody’s role for them – even the women! And we were supposed to imitate him. We wanted to give our own interpretations.”
(On Clark Gable) “It was the joy of your life to know Clark Gable. He was everything good you could think of. He had delicious humor, he had great compassion, he was always a find old teddy bear. In no way was he conscious of his good looks, as were most other men in pictures at the time. Clark was very unactorly.”
(On Bette Davis) “When Bette’s good, she real good. When she’s bad, she’s awful. But at least she’s not afraid to bat an eyelash.”
(On her husbands) “(George) Barnes provided my first real home, (Dick) Powell was my security man, and (Michael) Todd was my passion. But I loved them all.”
“On my tombstone my epithet should read: I finally got top billing.”
Joan Blondell died of leukemia at the age of 73, on Christmas Day 1979, in Santa Monica, California. She rests in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.