New York City, 30 August 1909.
Married 1) the cameraman George Barnes, 1933 (divorced 1935), son: Norman
Scott; 2) the actor Dick Powell, 1936 (divorced 1945), daughter: Ellen; 3)
the producer Michael Todd, 1947 (divorced 1950).
1910—born into vaudeville family; stage debut at age 14 months;
1919—incorporated into family vaudeville act; toured U.S., Europe,
China, and Australia; 1926—joined stock company in Dallas; won
"Miss Dallas" beauty contest; on Broadway in
The Trial of Mary Dugan
; also in the
; 1929—played lead in Broadway musical
Maggie the Magnificent
; 1930—signed with Warners to star in
; 1938—left Warners and begins to freelance; 1940s—began
working in radio and making USO appearances; 1951–56—worked
on stage and television only; 1963—in TV series
The Real McCoys
; 1968–70—in TV series
Here Come the Brides
; 1972–73—in TV series
Of leukemia in Santa Monica, California, 25 December 1979.
The Office Wife (Bacon) (as Catherine Murdock); Sinners' Holiday (Adolfi) (as Myrtle); Broadway's Like That (Roth)
Illicit (Mayo) (as Helen "Duckie" Childers); Millie (Dillon)(as Angie); My Past (Del Ruth) (as Marion Moore); God's Gift to Women (Curtiz) (as Fifi); The Public Enemy (Wellman) (as Mamie); Other Men's Women (Wellman) (as Marie); Big Business Girl (Seiter) (as Pearl); Night Nurse (Wellman) (as Maloney); The Reckless Hour (Dillon) (as Myrtle Nicholas); Blonde Crazy (Del Ruth) (as Anne Roberts)
Make Me a Star (Beaudine) (as Flips Montague); Union Depot (Green) (as Ruth); The Greeks Had a Word for It (Sherman) (as Schatze); The Crowd Roars (Hawks) (as Anne); The Famous Ferguson Case (Bacon) (as Maizie Dickson); Miss Pinkerton (Bacon) (as Miss Adams/Miss Pinkerton); Big City Blues (LeRoy) (as Vida); Three on a Match (LeRoy) (as Mary Keaton); Central Park (Adolfi)(as Dot); Lawyer Man (Dieterle) (as Olga)
Blondie Johnson (Enright) (title role); Broadway Bad (Lanfield)(as Tony Landers); Gold Diggers of 1933 (LeRoy) (as Carol King); Goodbye Again (Curtiz) (as Anne); Footlight Parade (Bacon) (as Nan Prescott); Havana Widows (Enright) (as Mae Knight); Convention City (Mayo) (as Nancy Lorraine)
I've Got Your Number (Enright) (as Maria Lawson); Smarty (Florey) (as Vicki Wallace Thorpe); He Was Her Man (Bacon) (as Rose Lawrence); Dames (Enright) (as Mabel Anderson); Kansas City Princess (Keighley) (as Rosy)
Traveling Saleslady (Enright) (as Angela Twitchell); Broad- way Gondolier (Bacon) (as Alice Hughes); We're in the Money (Enright) (as Ginger Stewart); Miss Pacific Fleet (Enright) (as Gloria Fay)
Colleen (Green) (as Minnie Mawkins); Sons O'Guns (Bacon)(as Yvonne); Bullets or Ballots (Keighley) (as Lee Morgan); Stagestruck (Berkeley) (as Peggy Revere); Three Men on a Horse (LeRoy) (as Mabel); Gold Diggers of 1937 (Bacon) (as Norma Parry)
The King and the Chorus Girl (LeRoy) (as Dorothy); Back in Circulation (Enright) (as Timothea Blake); The Perfect Specimen (Curtiz) (as Mona Carter); Stand-In (Garnett) (asLester Plum)
There's Always a Woman (Hall) (as Sally Reardon)
Off the Record (Flood) (as Jane Morgan); East Side of Heaven (Butler) (as Mary); The Kid from Kokomo (Seiler) (as Doris Harvey); Good Girls Go to Paris (Hall) (as Jenny); The Amazing Mr. Williams (Hall) (as Maxine Carroll)
Two Girls on Broadway (Simon) (as Molly Mahoney); I Want a Divorce (Murphy) (as Geraldine "Jerry" Brokaw)
Topper Returns (Del Ruth) (as Gail Richards); Model Wife (Jason) (as Joan Keating Chambers); Three Girls about Town (Jason) (as Hope Banner); Lady for a Night (Jason) (as Jenny Blake)
Cry Havoc (Thorpe) (as Grace)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Kazan) (as Aunt Sissy); Don Juan Quilligan (Tuttle) (as Marjorie Mossrock); Adventure (Fleming) (as Helen Molohn)
The Corpse Came C.O.D. (Levin) (as Rosemary Durant); Nightmare Alley (Goulding) (as Zeena)
For Heaven's Sake (Seaton) (as Lydia)
The Blue Veil (Bernhardt) (as Annie Rawlings)
The Opposite Sex (Miller) (as Crystal)
Lizzie (Haas) (as Aunt Morgan); Desk Set (Walter Lang) (as Peg Costello); Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Tashlin) (as Violet)
Angel Baby (Wendkos) (as Mollie Hays)
Advance to the Rear (Marshall) (as Easy Jenny)
The Cincinnati Kid (Jewison) (as Lady Fingers)
Ride beyond Vengeance (McEveety) (as Mrs. Lavender); Waterhole Number Three (Graham) (as Lavinia); Winchester '73 (Daugherty) (as Larouge)
Stay Away, Joe (Tewksbury) (as Glenda Callahan); Kona Coast (Johnson) (as Kittibelle Lightfoot)
The Phynx (Katzin) (as Ruby)
Support Your Local Gunfighter (Kennedy) (as Jenny)
The Dead Don't Scream (Harrington—for TV) (as Levenia); Winner Take All (Bogart—for TV) (as Beverly Craig)
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (Winner) (as landlady); Death at Love House (Swackhamer—for TV) (as Marcella Geffenhart)
Opening Night (Cassavetes) (as Sarah Goode)
Grease (Kleiser); Battered (Werner—for TV); The Glove (Hagen) (as Mrs. Fitzgerald)
The Champ (Zeffirelli) (as Dolly Kenyon); Family Secrets (for TV)
The Woman Inside (Van Winkle) (as Aunt Coll)
Center Door Fancy , 1972.
"Joan Blondell, The Great Golddigger Still Digging Hollywood," interview with M. Koch in Inter/View (New York), August 1972.
Parish, James, and Don Stanke, The Leading Ladies , New York, 1977.
Bowers, Ron, "Joan Blondell," in Films in Review (New York), April 1972.
Shipman, David, in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years , revised edition, London, 1979.
Obituary in Cinéma (Paris), March 1980.
Hollywood in the '30s (cassette). New York, Norton, 1972.
* * *
Joan Blondell's career spanned a half-century and her output numbered nearly a hundred films, not to mention innumerable television appearances, yet she was never less than vivid, bright, and appealing; often she is the single saving grace of an otherwise tepid work.
She played roles of every description, but specialized in a specific type; the brassy, blowzy, blonde golddigger with a kind heart and legs that won't quit. She could trade quips, crack wise, wring tears, and generally meet any challenge a scriptwriter could throw her way. Though she wasn't much of a musical performer, she was so thoroughly a trooper that Warner Brothers felt no compunction in featuring her prominently in most of the popular and influential Busby Berkeley musicals; as often as not, she remains more vividly in the memory than the more accomplished singers and dancers in the films. "Remember My Forgotten Man" from Gold Diggers of 1933 and "The Girl at the Ironing Board" from Dames are but two examples of the impressive emotional range of which her rather ordinary voice was capable. Her versatility and professionalism made her invaluable to her employers (a little too valuable since, more than once, Blondell was worked to the point of exhaustion) but the public responded to her round, expressive face, Art Deco eyes, and brilliant (though friendly and familiar) smile.
She came to Hollywood with James Cagney in 1930 to appear in Sinners' Holiday , the movie of a hit play in which they had co-starred. They both signed long-term contracts with Warner Brothers on the same day and were immediately put on the treadmill. Cagney's star ignited with more intensity than that of his co-star, and Blondell never quite escaped the supporting player category. Nevertheless she regularly eclipsed the "stars" of her pictures and built a loyal following and an impressive, diverse body of work.
She made over 50 films at Warners during her first decade in films and this pace must have contributed to the frenetic edge which characterizes her style. Her beauty, optimism, quick wit, and unpretentious bearing made her the archetypical 1930s woman. For a workhorse, it is surprising how many facets of herself she exposed to the public gaze: she is wistful and sentimental in that otherwise hard-edged The Public Enemy ; in Night Nurse she and Barbara Stanwyck spend an inordinate amount of time in their underwear. Her delightful way with snappy patter illuminates Blonde Crazy , The Crowd Roars , The Greeks Had a Word for It , and the hilarious and unjustly neglected Convention City .
After her exhausting stint at Warners, Blondell began to slow down and choose her films with more care. As she became more matronly, her character roles took on a different, but equally interesting character. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn gave her a rich part which she played brilliantly. She was nominated for an Academy Award for The Blue Veil and proved that her sense of comedy was as keen as ever in Desk Set , Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? , and Advance to the Rear .
A more dramatic part came her way in the tense and dramatic Cincinnati Kid , in which she plays a tough cardsharp, but her roles thereafter lack punch. She remains dependable and bright in the otherwise tepid Support Your Local Gunfighter , Grease , and The Champ , but The Woman Inside was a poor swan song: low budget, sleazy, and poorly done in every way.
Still, over the whole of her career, there is an astonishingly high level of quality and a reevaluation of her work is called for. Three years before her death she said, "I don't have any regrets about my career, though I'm sensible enough to know that if I'd taken myself more seriously and fought for better roles I might have been a damn good dramatic actress." Those willing to do as she did not and take her career seriously, will find a talent as open and generous as that beaming, malleable face of hers.