Wisecracking Joan Blondell an Audience Favorite in Diverse Career
Joan Blondell personified the sassy, smart gold digger in 1930s Warner Bros. movies — but proved herself versatile and adaptable in a six-decade career.
When Judy Garland sang Born in a Trunk, she could have been referring to Rose Joan Blondell, who literally grew up on the road. Blondell was born in 1906 to vaudevillians and her cradle really was a trunk. At four months of age, Joan was onstage in a play; she joined the family act at age three.
Joan Blondell Finished Fourth in 1926 Miss America Pageant
By the time the Blondell family finally settled in Dallas in 1926, Joan was a teenager whose lifelong roadshow had included tours of Europe, China, plus six years spent in Australia.
In Dallas, the young beauty’s huge blue eyes, electric smile, and hourglass figure helped her capture the Miss Dallas beauty contest. Later that year, she placed fourth in the Miss America Pageant.
Joan attended college briefly but made her way to New York, where she landed on Broadway in the 1929 show Maggie the Magnificent. Among her castmates was a young New York actor-dancer named James Cagney. They were so good together that they were re-teamed the following year in Penny Arcade.
Al Jolson Puts Joan Blondell and James Cagney in the Movies
Arcade’s run was brief, but long enough for entertainer Al Jolson to see the show, snap up the rights (for $20,000) and sell them to Warner Bros. on the proviso both Blondell and Cagney reprise their roles in the film version.
They did, and their performances, in the re-titled Sinner’s Holiday, led Jack Warner to sign both as contract players on the same day. But when Warner asked Blondell to take the stage name Inez Holmes, she refused.
Cagney had great affection for his friend. They eventually made six films together, including Blonde Crazy, the seminal gangster picture The Public Enemy and the Busby Berkeley-choreographed Footlight Parade, in which she played the loyal (and secretly admiring) assistant to Cagney’s producer of “prologues” – mini live shows mounted at movie theaters.
Cagney Admired Blondell Bottom
Typical of their warm friendship was an on-set exchange recounted by Cagney biographer John McCabe. One day between takes, the actor, who enjoyed sketching, roughed out a drawing of Blondell’s posterior, then held it out for her to see: “’ How’s that for a beautiful ass?’ She did not recognize it and, when told it was hers, beamed proudly.” (John McCabe, Cagney, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997, p. 125)
Blondell and Cagney never were romantically involved. In fact, Blondell went off the market in 1933, marrying cinematographer George Barnes, who would shoot 11 pictures featuring Blondell, including Footlight Parade. Together, they had a son, Norman. But Barnes reportedly drank and withdrew emotionally. The marriage ended in 1936, just in time for Joan to marry Dick Powell, who on film usually was paired off with Ruby Keeler. (Coincidentally, Keeler had been married to Al Jolson, to whom both Blondell and Cagney owed their movie careers.)
Powell, who made 10 films with Blondell, legally adopted Norman Barnes. Norman Powell grew up to be a busy television producer-director with credits including 24. Blondell and Dick Powell also had a daughter together, Ellen, who in adulthood became a movie and TV hairstylist.
Joan Blondell Was “Warners Workhorse”
During the 1930s, Joan Blondell referred to herself as the “Warners Workhorse,” since the studio cast her in about 50 films during the decade, including 10 in 1932 alone. This included musicals, despite the fact she couldn’t carry a tune. In fact, during the dramatic production number Remember My Forgotten Man, which capped Gold Diggers of 1933, Blondell spoke rather than sang the lyrics.
The next year in Dames, Blondell attempted to sing the Harry Warren-Al Dubin song The Girl at the Ironing Board. It became painfully clear singing was not among her strengths. (The sequence is greatly entertaining anyway, thanks to clever staging, a strong musical composition and Blondell’s charm.)
From the 1940s onward, Joan was relegated to character roles – and was happy to have the work. The roles may have been smaller, but Blondell was still appearing in A-pictures, among them the family film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the intriguing noir Nightmare Alley (playing a cynical phony psychic, opposite Tyrone Power) and 1951’s tearjerker The Blue Veil, for which she earned a supporting actress Oscar nomination as an aging actress.
Blondell Makes Producer Mike Todd Husband No. 3
Off-screen, Blondell and Powell divorced in 1944. Each soon remarried, Powell to actress June Allyson and Blondell to movie producer and general bad-boy Mike Todd. But according to Blondell biographer Matthew Kennedy, Todd was violent and a gambler, and forced them into a controversial bankruptcy during the three-year marriage. She divorced him in 1950.
(Two years later, Todd wooed and won Elizabeth Taylor. He was to die in a plane crash in 1958, two years after his Oscar-winning epic Around the World in 80 Days.)
As the years took their toll on Blondell’s face and figure, she moved further into character parts, including two notable roles in 1957 — the Hepburn-Tracy corporate computer farce Desk Set and the ad-agency comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? In the next 20 years, she turned in fine work in many films, among them the period card sharp picture The Cincinnati Kid (which earned her a Golden Globe nomination for supporting actress), Grease and the remake of The Champ.
Television Appearances Kept Joan Blondell Busy Into Her 70s
Blondell also worked extensively in television, making many guest appearances (including a hilariously shrewish part on The Twilight Zone, opposite William Demarest) and regular roles in series including the short-lived Banyon and Here Comes the Brides.
In 1972, Joan published the novel Center Door Fancy, a fictionalized autobiography.
After Mike Todd, Blondell never remarried. She continued to work almost continuously until Christmas Day, 1979, when she succumbed to leukemia in Santa Monica, California, her children at her bedside.
Joan Blondell’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 6309 Hollywood Blvd.
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