The axiomatic Depression-era Warner Brothers star Joan Blondell shows up frequently in Film Forum’s ongoing Essential Pre-Code series (previously discussed), including this weekend, including Saturday’s double feature of The Public Enemy and Blonde Crazy, as well as Thursday’s Three on a Match and Union Depot on Tuesday the 9th.
Forget those diamonds, sisters; Blondell is a girl’s best friend. Especially in the films she made during the Depression, when she and the country were young and brave and cracking wise, Joan Blondell comes off as the kind of loyal and level-headed, funny and fun-loving pal who can make even bad times fun, her big eyes shining and her bullshit meter clicking like a Geiger counter.
The cheery nature and bedrock reliability Blondell radiated sometimes got her miscast as a wide-eyed innocent in films like the vacuous Good Girls Go to Paris, in which she seems chagrined as the one-note title character, tossing off what feels like a half-hearted Shirley Temple impersonation. But she spent most of her onscreen time in a niche that fit her much better, playing a broad with a heart of gold. In Public Enemy, which screens this Saturday (pictured), Blondell plays the girl who marries the James Cagney’s character’s best friend, their happy relationship providing a counterpoint to Cagney’s tortured tap dances with his mistreated molls. And in Night Nurse, which screened earlier in the series, she plays a droll, eye-rolling, gum-chewing nurse who shows Barbara Stanwyck the ropes. Blondell’s B. Maloney is too cynical to object to the corruption she sees everywhere, but she’s too good a friend not to support Stanwyck when she rises up against it.
With her kewpie-doll eyes and lips, bright smile, and voluptuous curves, Blondell was gorgeous in a ripe, pre-War way. That lush beauty was undoubtedly part of her appeal (check out all the shots of her peeling off or putting on clothes in Film Forum’s series), but she never seemed vain about her looks. In Center Door Fancy, her lightly fictionalized biography, she explains having won a beauty contest by saying she entered only for the $2,000 prize (her family, which did a vaudeville act that she was part of from the age of three, was perennially broke), and she won not because of her looks but because of her experience onstage. “I said to myself: ‘I’m going to pretend I’m a great actress, and I’m playing the part of the most beautiful contestant in the world,’” she writes. In Gold Diggers of 1933, which also screened last week, her Carol is by far the best-looking of her gang of gal pals, standing out enough to be “featured” in the play-within-a-movie that they all put on (the gruff producer says he can’t wait to see “This gorgeous woman singin’ a song that’ll tear their hearts out”), yet she never preens or claims extra attention, blending happily into the background in the group scenes.
Maybe growing up on the road in that close-knit showbiz family knit teamwork into her bones. Or maybe her story is just another chapter in the ancient saga of women putting family before work. (“You’re an enigma in a lot of ways, Nora,” a boyfriend tells her alter ego in Center Stage Fancy. “No drive to be an actress, really. It’s just a job to you that may pay off and take care of your troupe, as you call them, in style… Yet it seems you’re more pleased with yourself when you’ve placed a vase of flowers strategically in your room than—than at the sound of applause!”) Whatever the reason, her cheery, we’re-in-this-together attitude was as good a fit as her looks for the Depression era. Blondell made 56 features between 1930 and 1940 (29 of then came out before 1934, the year Hollywood began enforcing the Hays Code). Her tough-but-tender vibe and feisty attitude (“Don’t you dare!” is the first line she speaks in Gold Diggers of 1933) made her a particularly good fit for scrappy movies about people fighting their way through hard times. No wonder she costarred seven times with Cagney, more than any other actress, and appeared in more Warner Brothers movies than any other actress.
Maybe she was too much of a team player for her own good. In her book, she writes that she “yearned for deeper, more meaningful roles” than “the happy-go-lucky chorus girl, saucy secretary, flip reporter, dumb-blond waitress, I’ll-stick-by-you broad,” but hints that she wasn’t ambitious enough to land them. “Once in a while I’d like a real heavyweight part, like the kind they give to Garson or Bette,” she wrote. “I can do them, too, but I don’t fight for them.”
I bet she could have done them. You can see her range in Gold Diggers of 1933, a slapdash variety show whose high points are its Busby Berkeley numbers—and a couple of scenes featuring Blondell. In the first one, she tries to fight off the man she’s falling for when he makes a drunken pass, convinced that he has only contempt for her and won’t be interested once he sobers up. She plays the scene in profile, so she can’t rely too much on those expressive eyes, but her alternately stiffening and melting body tells us all we need to know. The second is the final number that producer was talking about. In it, she sing-talks her way, Rex Harrison-style, through a sad song about “the forgotten man,” the Depression’s metaphor for the fast-growing army of indigents spawned by that grim era. It’s a corny bit, but Blondell succeeds where the rest of the film mostly falls flat, injecting a flimsy backstage dramedy with real dignity and feeling.