Joan Blondell Showed Me the Way

As a schoolgirl, I never heard about women to admire. Sacajawea might slip in by chance, but most girls my age looked to Josie and the Pussycats as role models. I was given to reading biographies of black women, so if asked I would have named Harriet Tubman, Phyllis Wheatley, and Mary McLeod Bethune as my heroes. And Joan Blondell. Not the actual Joan Blondell, the movie star of the 1930s and 40s. I knew nothing about her. (Children, sit down here by the fire and let me tell you a scary tale about  how there was no such thing as an “Internet”. We had to go to these places called “libraries” and hope to borrow these paper-y things called “books”…) There were no books about Joan Blondell, but I can’t say I really cared. My hero wasn’t the actress Joan Blondell; my hero was the woman I saw in various occasional old black-and-white movies I might be lucky enough to catch on TV. While she didn’t lead an underground railroad rescuing slaves – an endeavor waaaay too important, heroic, historical and scary for me to emulate  — Joan Blondell did show me a pathway out.

She was everything a shy, unlovable girl could want to be: smart, funny, fearless, kind, and cute as hell. Her round face, huge eyes and snappy dialogue were mesmerizing to a girl for whom Charlie’s Angels’ insipid, cheekbones-based exploits were as inaccessible as the real heroism of Harriet Tubman. A staple in Warner Brothers’ pre-code movies, Joan held her own against gangsters, corrupt businessmen, cunning lawyers, criminals and shifty characters of every stripe in the hardscrabble urban world of the Great Depression.  And for much of the time she did it in various stages of undress.

Joan Blondell (née Bluestein –always excited to find out when my idols turn out to be Jewish) was born in New York in 1906. Her father, Levi Bluestein was a vaudeville comedian known as Ed Blondell and Joan was metaphorically “born in a trunk”, making her first appearance on stage at the age of four months when she was carried on in a cradle. She joined her family’s troupe, “The Bouncing Blondells”, and saw much of the world (Hawaii, Australia) before landing in Texas.    Teenage Joan adopted the moniker Rosebud Blondell (why didn’t I think of that?!) and  became Miss Dallas in 1926.  Later that year she was a finalist in an early version of the Miss Universe pageant, and went on to win fourth place  in the Miss America pageant later that same year. “Rosebud Blondell” also found time to edit her high school yearbook, appear in school plays,  and attend North Texas State Teacher’s College.

But once you’ve ‘bounced’ around the world, changed your name to Rosebud, and been officially dubbed beautiful by Dallas, America and the Universe, teaching Texans might not hold enough appeal. Blondell went to New York where she worked as a model, a circus hand, and ended up acting on Broadway as part of a stock company. In 1930, she starred with James Cagney in Penny Arcade. The play only lasted three weeks, but Al Jolson saw it, bought the rights and then sold them to Warner Brothers under the condition that Blondell and Cagney be cast in the film (renamed Sinners’ Holiday.) Now under contract to the studio, Joan moved to Hollywood. Jack L. Warner wanted her to change her name to “Inez Holmes”, she refused. (I like the Latina and Sherlock-y ring of “Inez Holmes”, but I still think Joan’s cherubic face makes her much more Rosebud-y. IMHO.)

Warner Brothers was known to put their contract players in film after film after film, cramming actors into dozens of films in a single year. (By the end of the decade, she’d made almost 50 movies for the studio!) Joan Blondell was versatile and popular, and along with Barbara Stanwyck became one of the faces (and figures) of saucy pre-code films.  Mostly in comedies and musicals, she was paired with Cagney many more times, including well-known pre-codes like The Public Enemy (1931) and Footlight Parade (1933), and co-starred nine times with snappy Glenda Farrell as half of a street-smart gold-digging duo. (Hey, a girl’s gotta make a living. Between the Depression and the patriarchy, wise women didn’t have lots of options. Joan and Glenda made it all funny and feisty.) Perhaps Blondell’s best-known today as one of the Gold Diggers of 1933, where she outsmarts millionaire Warren William (perhaps prince of the pre-codes), plays a weary prostitute singing “Remember My Forgotten Man” in a big Busby Berkeley number, and off-screen met future husband, star Dick Powell. (At the time she was married to cameraman George Barnes.)

Blondell was finally able to leave her servitude to Warner Brothers in 1939. She returned to Broadway in 1943, starring in Mike Todd’s production The Naked Genius, a comedy written by real-life oft-naked genius Gypsy Rose Lee. The play only ran for 43 performances, but Joan did get to play a character named Honey Bee Carroll, so it was worth it. (Which is a better dame name: Rosebud or Honey Bee? Discuss.)

Back in Hollywood, movie roles weren’t coming fast and furious like they were in the 30s. Unfortunately, the almost-Miss Universe made the fatal mistake so many actresses make by turning 40.  For the first time in 14 years she was billed below the title in M-G-M’s Adventure (1945), starring Clark Gable and Greer Garson. (This was Gable’s first film after coming back from the war, and the movie had the now famous tagline, “Gable’s back and Garson’s got him!”) Joan excelled in character parts, most notably as sexy and sexual Aunt Cissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) – a wonderful movie BTW – and in another classic, the original Nightmare Alley (1947).

It was around this time she married producer big shot Mike Todd. Blondell had divorced Dick Powell, who’d left her for June Allyson. (Can you imagine?? I mean no offense but, yuck.  “I think I’ll trade this diamond pendant for this beige Ann Taylor skirt.” In 1972, Joan wrote a novel, Center Door Fancy, a thinly veiled autobiography that throws some juicy shade at Dick and June.) Mike Todd had ended his affair with Gypsy Rose Lee and it would be years before he’d 1) marry a very young Elizabeth Taylor, and 2) die in a plane crash.) Joan ended up divorcing Mike in 1950. He did stuff like lose all their money and hold her out a hotel window by her ankles. (Elizabeth Taylor, was never one to recognize a red flag, or dozens of red flags, was she?)

In 1948 Blondell started concentrating on working in the theater, touring with Cole Porter’s Something for the Boys, reprising her role as Aunt Cissy in a musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and played the nagging mom in a national tour of Bye, Bye Birdie. But she hadn’t quit Hollywood for good. In fact, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Blue Veil (1951).

In 1965, Joan was a top candidate to replace Vivian Vance as Lucille Ball’s sidekick on the the TV series The Lucy Show. But after filming her second guest appearance as Lucy’s friend from California, Blondell walked off the set after the episode completed filming when not-so-lovable Lucy humiliated her by harshly criticizing Joan’s performance in front of the whole crew and studio audience. Blondell’s last big showbiz hurrahs were a Golden Globe nomination in 1977 in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night and her appearance in the big hit Grease (1978).

Joan died on Christmas Day in 1979, and I remember crying when I heard about it on the news. She’d meant so much to me growing up, and she’s still a sort of beacon for me today, a North Star of dame perfection. The short bio I just wrote really tells me little about Joan Blondell the woman. But the Joan Blondell I came to admire one the screen embodies the best aspects of a dame. Her vibrancy, quick wit, resilience and kind heart made her a girlhood idol. (And her cute AF face and round curves didn’t hurt either.) There are a lot of actresses I admire and respect, lots of whose movies I enjoy. But I cried that Christmas long ago because I genuinely loved Joan Blondell. She was the big sister I never had, the streetwise friend who always looked out for me, as well as the good “bad girl” I thought it’d be cool to be.

It’s over 4 decades later and Joan’s face and pre-code pluck still jump out at you from the screen. I still admire her, I still love her. And the girl I used to be and the dame I want to be still think of her each year at Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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