Joan Blondell (1906-1979) was one of the most versatile and durable stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Never reaching the stratospheric heights of a Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Katherine Hepburn, Blondell, in a career spanning over fifty years, eighty films, and dozens of TV shows, was a hugely appealing actress who gracefully moved from leading roles to feature player.
Audiences felt comfortable with her blue-collar image—it was so genuine that Blondell could never convincingly play a society girl—a girl who snaps gum and seems to have a wisecrack for ever occasion. She comes across as a hard luck dame who has no time for self-pity, the straight talking best friend every woman needs.
But beneath the easy-come, easy-go surface, audiences sensed that Blondell was hopelessly vulnerable to the too smooth male who would, no doubt, break her heart and run off with the glamorous and selfish heiress.
Blondell was sexy without being vulgar and even when she plays a cynical gold digger, the Blondell character always comes across as loyal and decent when decency is least expected.
Born into a vaudeville family, they traveled from town to town practically living in cheap hotels and grim railway stations. Joan was a hard-working stage kid who yearned for a stable life and a school in which she was not always the new kid in the class.
In her very fine novel, Center Door Fancy Blondell gives an excellent account of a lonely, gypsy childhood and the gradual transition into the movie business. It’s one of the few Hollywood novels I’ve read that refuses to glamorize an unforgiving industry filled with neurotic players and brutal, bottom liners.
At the time of her 1970 interview with John Kobal for his must-read, People Will Talk, Joan was still working in films and television. And though she was 64 years-old and suffering from severe arthritis, Kobal says that she looks just the same as she did when she starred in Gold Diggers of 1933.
With her saucer eyes, baby-fat cheeks, and wide, generous smile, Blondell was a warm and approachable all-American beauty. Indeed, Joan stood in direct contrast to, say, Garbo or Dietrich, exotic creatures whose faces were so symmetrical, so perfect—cheekbones sharp as swords—they seemed like angels from another planet.
Blondell admits that she never fought for better roles or a higher salary. Other players waged bitter battles with their studio heads over contracts, salaries and better scripts. Jimmy Cagney went on strike. Bette Davis fled to Europe. Olivia De Havilland changed the Hollywood system forever when she fought and ultimately prevailed in a lawsuit against the standard Warner Brothers contract that included the notorious suspension clause. Blondell was just happy to be working, glad that she had a weekly salary, owned a house and a car, luxuries she could only dream of as a child.
And there was something else, a shameful secret that Joan kept hidden for many years. Before coming to Hollywood, Joan worked as a librarian in a small town. Late one night, while she was putting books away, a cop entered, and maneuvered her into a back room where he brutally raped her. So violent was the rape, Joan suffered chronic back pain for the rest of her life.
At the time, Joan was just an innocent young teenager. Too ashamed to tell anyone, Joan kept this outrage a secret for many years. But in her novel, the rape is so vividly conveyed that I had to put down the book for a few minutes.
I believe that Joan’s self-image was severely shaken by this horrifying incident and for her, the antidote was work, a dizzying schedule of movies, one after the other, a strategy designed to keep to keep her mind from dwelling on that shameful hour.
Here, Joan talks about her crushing production schedule. Remember, this is during Hollywood’s Golden Age when each studio was releasing over a hundred movies a year, and stars, under contract, often appeared in six or seven movies back to back.
I never got away from that little salary, never did. I didn’t fight enough. You know, they’d bring in other studio stars for Warner pictures and I’d say, “Oh, you know I could have done that. Doggonit, why didn’t they give it to me?” But I just didn’t put up a fight careerwise. I didn’t even see the stuff I was in at the time, just went home and skipped it all, from the rushes to the premiers… Every day was filled with work and my only relief was to get home.
Joan Blondell and Jimmy Cagney, Footlight Parade, 1933
I see them now [the films she made with Jimmy Cagney] and the story always surprises me ’cause I have no recollection of it! We made them so fast and furiously: go in and do it and the next day start a new one. I just did it. During the Depression I was making more than six pictures year. I made six pictures carrying my son and eight with my daughter. They’d get me behind desks and behind barrels and throw tables in front of me to hide my growing tummy. And I never had more than two weeks before starting a picture. I mean, just let me have the poor child and get back to work. The only other kind of vacation I had was in the middle of a picture with Pat O’Brien called Back in Circulation, 1937 and my appendix broke. They took me to the hospital. Well, I was very near the end of that picture and about to start another, so they wanted me out of the hospital and the doctor said, “She can’t get out of this hospital.” So they made a deal with the doctor to take me by stretcher to my house up on Lookout Mountain, and they had the set designer come and make it look like the bedroom Pat and I had done a scene in, and they got a crew of sixty up there, sound and everything, and changed the end of the story so that I was sick in bed and that I’d marry Pat or something.
Blondell’s casual remarks about her pregnancies are ironic. Mike Todd Jr,. (Mike Todd, real name, Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen, was Joan’s third and last husband) described Joan as the most maternal woman he ever met. He says that even when she was working in a film, she’d come home, cook, clean and make sure that the children went to bed on time.
Tragically, Joan’s first husband, (1933-1936) noted Cinematographer George Barnes, was adamant that he did not want to have any children. Thus, he forced Joan to endure seven abortions. When she resisted he turned abusive. The multiple abortions were a crushing moral weight. Finally, Joan stood up to her tyrannical husband and carried to term her son, Norman.
Sadly, the stable home life Joan yearned to live eluded her grasp. Joan’s second husband, Dick Powell, left her for June Allyson. Mike Todd left Joan for Evelyn Keyes and then abandoned her for Liz Taylor.
n her novel, Blondell portrays Powell as an insufferable narcissist, hopelessly cheap, and a classic anti-Semite. Todd comes across as a vulgar hound, sniffing after every beautiful starlet in Hollywood.
They [Warner Bros.] didn’t waste any time with me. Oh, hell, when I was carrying my daughter, I was doing one picture and they had me squashed into a girdle and I thought I was gonna die. I passed out a couple of times from it. But that was me, I didn’t fuss about anything, and I don’t know why. I think there were times when I probably should have. But I don’t think I was mistreated. I wouldn’t have worked all that time feeling mistreated. It didn’t bother me, it was all part of working… no matter what was wrong, broken bones or whatever, you always worked, that’s been true all my life.
I think only once did I run away and not start a picture on time, and that was the year in the 30′s when I did eight pictures, if I’m not mistaken. I was so exhausted that I got in my car and I drove, oh, some old inn up above Santa Barbara… I took a bath, got in bed and slept about four days. I was starting to stutter and my eyes were blinking so that I couldn’t even look at anyone steadily. That’s how exhausted I was. But I slept four days, then came back and they docked me for it. Took part of my salary away, but I had to do it.
It is the best kept secret in Hollywood: how hard people work.