Monday's Glamour Starter --- Joan Blondell
If King Kong’s Ann Darrow had been a real person, she might have been Joan Blondell. To read Joan’s recollections of a hardscrabble life in vaudeville, and the frequent days and nights of starvation attendant upon that, is to evoke an image of hungry A.D. creeping up to the fruit-stand. Performers often went without food --- sometimes for days. Lucille Ball would order hot water at a diner, then pour in tomato ketchup so she could have soup. No wonder these people were so frugal in later life. They never forgot the struggle. Jack Benny’s stingy persona was more likely a role model for them, rather than a joke. Like so many others in the life, Joan Blondell never spent more than a week in public school. She attended that hard knocks place we keep reading about in star bios. Seems most crawled out on stage for debut performances, what with whole families in the biz, kids being just one more useful prop for their act. Blondell could do anything in the way of performing before she was five. Is it any wonder she’s so good on the screen? Discovered while still in her teens by none other than Al Jolson, she and stage co-star James Cagney got the big break when Al bought their play and insisted Warners use them for the movie version. The two youngsters worked together lots, though Jim freqently rebelled against studio dictates --- fighting control like the very devil, and inasmuch as it was possible in such feudal days, bringing them to their knees. Joan, on the other hands, was compliant --- grateful just to have the work. Perhaps that specter of ketchup soup loomed over her. Anyway, she never regretted a live-and-let-live philosophy. Working eighteen hour, six-day-a-week jobs doesn’t allow a lot of time for introspection. There was one occasion, however, when Blondell became so exhausted from overwork that her eyes twitched, she couldn’t focus steadily, and even developed a stutter. Without telling anyone, the beleaguered star drove up California's coast, checked into a quiet inn, and slept four days. Reporting back for work, Jack Warner docked her pay, possibly on the theory that horses out at Santa Anita need care and delicate handling, but the same philosophy need not apply to actors.
Well, I guess it’s hard to escape the fact that Joan Blondell looks her very best sans clothes, and in those happy, free-wheeling pre-code days, that’s usually how they got her. You'd have to assume no one complained, because this woman did more cheesecake (and some of this goes beyond cheesecake) than any major actress I can think of. This very early one with an awe-inspiring deco lamp (where, oh where, is that beautiful thing today?) was dated February 1930, and the photographer was Warner maestro of the lens, Bert Longworth. Joan looks cheerful. Maybe they let her off after just sixteen hours that day.
I’d like to think the obliging leopard who loaned Blondell a portion of his coat went on to a full and happy life, as she used such a small portion of the natural raiment. Would PETA object to such minimal borrowing? Hopefully not, as it looks so becoming on her. Joan seems at home in funky costumes. How many pin-ups successfully combined torrid leg art with clown costumes? The caption reads "Quite a lovely panel for your room or office" (the photog was Elmer Fryer). Nuff said!
A whip-wielding Joan reads the riot act to co-stars Ruby Keeler and future real-life husband Dick Powell in a publicity shot from Dames (too bad the post-code movie wasn’t friskier). Joan recalled the public outrage that ensued when she and Dick got married. Seems the fans thought she was stealing him away from on-screen heartthrob Ruby Keeler. They didn’t mind so much when Ruby married Al Jolson around the same time (that was Ruby’s problem --- and how!). Blondell never took time to watch her rushes nor the finished movies. She was too anxious to get home and perform domestic chores (no kidding!). Finally getting around to some of them late in life, she couldn’t remember any of the stories. All those sausages off the Warners assembly line were just a blur to her.
It’s always a good thing when Bill Powell gets into the act, here at dapper summit on the set of Lawyer Man with Joan. Bill’s got that notorious cigar that he uses to such good effect in a particularly raunchy pre-code moment during the film. Another Elmer Fryer shot of our star on the telephone carries this caption --- "Joan Blondell’s anonymous friend on the other end of the wire doesn’t know what he is missing by not talking to the blonde Warner Bros. player face to face." But does the anonymous friend know how heavily they’ve had to airbrush Joan’s cleavage here? Imagine what this would have looked like before the retouching! The next shot was something we picked up from a French dealer at a show (appropriate, n’est-ce pais?). Try to focus on that super-duper art deco chair, if only for a moment. Did fan mags actually print this shot? It really does look like something off a French postcard. Maybe that explains how my vendor wound up with it. Finally, the gal in the abbreviated pirate costume is not Joan Blondell. It’s her sister Gloria, whose own Warners career was a brief one. She does play Errol Flynn’s secretary in Four’s A Crowd (1938), and when she comes into the room, you’d swear it was Joan. That could be why she never hit it big.