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Sunday, March 12, 2006

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great Joan Blondell pics!

6:44 AM  
Blogger Tim Lucas said...

There is an old promotional photo for Warners' MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM that shows badly-scarred boogey man Lionel Atwill leering through a frosted window pane at a topless woman. Neither the scene nor the woman are in the picture. Needless to say, the woman isn't identified, but I've always been inclined to think it was a very young Joan Blondell. The photos you've unearthed here, and your allusions to others, are reinforcing my opinion. Have you seen this photo, John, and do you have an opinion. I know that we once ran the photo as an inside front cover in a back issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG, but I can't remember which one...

Tim / VW

7:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

To answer Tim --- I do remember seeing that still. I wish I had it. As far as Blondell being the woman in the window, it could, of course, be her. While I don't think she would have been used merely for a publicity still for "Wax Museum" (her own career being too far along by this time --- "Wax" was released February, 1933), I do think it possible that Blondell was originally cast for that film, then replaced by either Fay Wray, or more likely, Glenda Farrell (I can certainly see her in Farrell's part). It could be she did some stills during that interim period before she was replaced. All this is guessing, of course, but I would like to see that still again. Can you tell us which back issue of Video Watchdog it appears in? Thanks, John.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Tim Lucas said...

It's the inside front cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG #12, John. Perhaps you have it in your collection?

5:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watched "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" last night. I can never stop myself from crying when watching this wonderful movie.
Joan Blondell was just great in it, just great. So was every other member of the cast.
Thank you for highlighting Joan Blondell in your blog.

6:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joan Blondell is one of my new favorite actresses, discovered thanks to TCM. :) I think she's charming, and equally adept at comedies and dramas. She used those big eyes to great effect!

It's too bad Joan's not better known today... I guess because she tended to have smaller supporting roles in the "big" pictures, and when she starred, they were, well, B-movies, I guess. Sausage-factory films, as you put it. :) But they're very entertaining, much moreso than the bloated big-budget bore-fests (with supposed A-list stars) made today. God I love those short & snappy Warner B-movies!

Anyway, thank you for sharing some background info on Joan... I can understand her films seeming like a blur to her, but I hope she was ultimately proud of her work. I'm *dying* to see "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn", since the Oscars acknowledged her there. I read it was supposed to be a FOX Studio Classics DVD, but got delayed (hopefully not cancelled!)

Question - in your post you describe a photo of Joan with Dick Powell...but I don't see one on the I blind?

Oh, and all I have to say about the nude photos is...pity she was exploited that way. Joan was too talented to be treated like a bimbo who had to use sex to get ahead. (Hey, I'm a girl, so what do you expect me to say?)


1:37 AM  
Anonymous Kelly said...

t's too bad Joan's not better known today... I guess because she tended to have smaller supporting roles in the "big" pictures, and when she starred, they were, well, B-movies, I guess. Sausage-factory films, as you put it. :) But they're very entertaining, much moreso than the bloated big-budget bore-fests (with supposed A-list stars) made today. God I love those short & snappy Warner B-movies!

12:27 AM  
Blogger TumblinDice said...

The pirate picture looks like GLORIA Blondell, Joan's sister

9:18 PM  

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