“I was what they called a studio dame. I just showed my big boobs and acted flirty. I was the fizz on the soda,” Joan Blondell modestly noted in an interview. But for many of her fans she was the soda. The workhorse of Warner Bros. in the 1930s, Blondell gets her own retrospective at MOMA this month. The wisecracking, self-reliant, brash, and bubbly blonde acted in nearly 100 features in a career that spanned over 50 years. She could play gold diggers and dumb bunnies, but was most memorable as warm and honest Depression dames who knew the score.
Blondell was born to stage parents and grew up in vaudeville. When Warners bought the Broadway play Penny Arcade, it brought its two unknowns—Blondell and James Cagney—to Hollywood for the film version, retitled Sinners’ Holiday (1930). Blondell and Cagney had great chemistry and became a popular team. She made seven movies with him, including Footlight Parade (1933), one of the greatest of the Depression-era musicals.
MOMA will also screen Mervyn LeRoy’s rarely shown The King and the Chorus Girl (1937), in which a monarch-in-exile falls for showgirl from Brooklyn Blondell when he ogles her in a cancan ensemble. It’s understandable: She never looked better.
By the 1940s, Blondell had outgrown her breezy youthful image and developed a talent for character roles. In Elia Kazan’s debut film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)—a sanitized four-handkerchief adaptation of Betty Smith’s bestseller about tenement life in turn-of-the-century Williamsburg—she is funny and engaging as man-hungry Aunt Sissy, although, unfortunately, what the actress called “the best scene I ever played” was cut to appease Production Code censors.
Blondell exhibits a new mature beauty on-screen and reveals herself a dramatic actress of considerable strength in Edmund Goulding’s remarkably moody Nightmare Alley (1947)—the noirish story of the rise and fall of a sideshow hustler who puts the moves on Blondell’s blowsy fake telepath to learn her tricks.
During the latter part of her career, Blondell returned often to the stage and made dozens of appearances on radio and TV. Her last challenging screen role was a striking comeback in John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1977). Gena Rowlands is virtuosic as the depressed leading lady coming apart at the seams while working in a play headed for Broadway. Blondell is shrewd and sympathetic as the playwright, and with her résumé of backstage movies, she’s a reminder of the film’s roots.
MOMA’s retro coincides with the publication of Matthew Kennedy’s dishy and well-researched Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes. Kennedy will be on hand to introduce several screenings in the 13-film series, which is well chosen but doesn’t include the one movie Blondell fans would most love to see. No series could. In Archie Mayo’s Convention City (1933), she plays a gold digger busy at work during a salesmen’s convention in Atlantic City. The Production Code made a fuss about “the low morals” of the characters. When the picture remained controversial after its release, Warners not only withdrew it—the bastards incinerated all prints and negatives.