The Naive Sophistication of JOAN BLONDELL

Interrupted in the bath by her partner Bert’s request for funds for his next scam, Ann (Joan Blondell) tells him “It’s in my brassiere.” “Where?” “My brassiere!” “You got pockets in that?” BELOW, Looking for the cash (and presumably, the “pockets”), Bert (James Cagney) finds the brassiere and tries it “on,” or rather, examines it a little closer. “Blonde Crazy,” Warner Brothers, 1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth.

[On Wednesday, August 24, 2011, TCM is broadcasting an entire day of films of Joan Blondell as part of their month-long Summer Under the Stars series:  Beginning at 6:00AM with “The Reckless Hour,” (1931) also starring the great Dorothy Mackaill, and several other “Pre-Code” Blondell films including the RARELY SEEN “Big City Blues” (1932), “Central Park” (1932), and “Lawyer Man” (1932); the great Warner Brothers musicals, “Gold Diggers of 1933,” Footlight Parade” (1933) with James Cagney, and “Dames” (1934); and kicks off its prime time lineup with one of the films discussed in this post, “Sinner’s Holiday” from 1930, the feature film debut of Joan Blondell and James Cagney.]

In their mad scramble to beat their competitors in the new game of “talking pictures,” the American film studios, with their operations divisions firmly rooted now in Southern California, headed back east both figuratively and literally to New York — to Broadway.  The same Broadway that had looked down upon “posing for pictures” at the embryonic moving picture studios, and the same motion picture industry that by 1919 had boasted of being the nation’s biggest industry second only to the automobile, had decided they both needed someone else for survival:  each other.

This realization had hit Broadway earlier.  For at least ten years, since before the first World War, actually, Broadway used the popularity and publicity offered by movies to advertise their “star players.”  They had begun to emphasize not the negative aspects of movies on the culture of performing arts, but the renown, the exposure, that movies gave to actors — who if playing in both fields, film and stage, could allow more than a little of that movie star-dust to fall on the Great White Way.  At first grudgingly, and then gratefully, Broadway accepted “Hollywood,” as the movie industry became known by the late ‘Teens.

During the mad year of 1928, as film producers frantically reconfigured their operations to make sound films, those producers began to “raid” Broadway of its talent, not necessarily the biggest stars of stage — money still had to be made and the film studios were already paying huge salaries to their stars, many of whom had not spoken a line of dialog from a script in years, or not at all — ever.  While the reward, as Warner Brothers began to show in 1926 and 1927, was potentially great, so was the investment in new equipment, and the already high cost of movie actors whose talent was unproven in sound film.  It was a risk the producers of movies could not afford to take without at least some insurance — which came in the form of Broadway:  actors who could speak dialog from scripts, and writers who could create the lines they spoke.  Hence, Broadway became Mecca for movie “talent scouts.”

Among the talent scouted and signed in 1929 were two budding stars of the Broadway stage hit “Penny Arcade,” James Cagney and Joan Blondell.  They were hardly novices on stage.  Each had begun their careers in vaudeville, where becoming a headliner meant that you had to have talent in more than one aspect of the performing arts.   You had to do it all — be a “Triple Threat.”  You had to sing and/or play music.  You had to dance — at least a little.  You had to act — not just drama, but comedy — and not just speak dialog, but deliver a well-timed comic line — a task that scares even the best of dramatic actors, both then and now.

Cagney and Blondell had all of those talents — in spades, as they used to say.  Aside from Justin Timberlake, how many of those do we have today?  In 1928, fortunately for Broadway, Hollywood and audiences everywhere, there were many.  But not many were able to parlay that talent into long careers in movies.  Joan Blondell had plenty of competition — blondes, platinum blondes were becoming or soon to be the rage; there were always prettier faces, hotter bodies, but few could combine all those attributes (minus the platinum) and be a genuine all-around performer as Blondell.

Joan Blondell and James Cagney were signed by Warner Brothers as part of what eventually turned out to be a “package.”  The studio was interested in the rights to the stage play, “Penny Arcade,” not necessarily the two unknown actors, but at some point someone convinced WB to hire and cast them in the film version.  Not surprisingly, Cagney and Blondell were the hit of the picture.  Not surprising at all.  They had spent most of their lives in Vaudeville as attention-grabbers, audience attention.  They knew it and lived it and breathed it.  No mystery there.  But it was a surprise to Warners, who began to place the virtual unknowns in more films that featured their talents.  They weren’t unknowns for long.

Although they each had considerable musical and dancing talent, the first era of film musicals, 1928-30, had flamed out with the initial excitement over sound — “All Singing All Talking All Dancing.”  The public had quickly tired of musicals which tended to use sound as a gimmick, if at all, when not featuring music on the soundtrack.  So dialog — snappy, fast and smart — was in.  The perfect milieu for Blondell, Cagney, and others like them.

Cagney was easy to place in roles — tough, smart, good-but not pretty-looking — and could lead a film.  He was a man.  Blondell wasn’t.  Oh, she was smart, tough, pretty-but not drop-dead-beautiful; sexy, but not threateningly so to either sex.  Hollywood hadn’t been able figure out, then or now, how to best utilize a strong, smart, physically attractive woman as a leading “type” in drama (comedy sometimes, but mostly in TV not often in feature films).  As a result, she never achieved the level, the plateau of achievement in movies as Cagney.

In the 1930s alone, Joan Blondell appeared in over fifty films — co-starring or supporting roles in “A” pictures, starring or co-starring roles in”B” pictures.   By way of comparison, and I mean comparison of gender-related opportunity, not talent, once Cagney had made half a dozen movies, he never appeared as anything less than a star or co-star in an “A” picture.  But Blondell had an impressive career in many ways that Cagney did not.  She returned to the stage in the 1940s, and later starred in series television (nominated for two Emmys), and worked consistently in film throughout the 1960s and 1970s (nominated for two Golden Globes).  From her first Broadway appearance in the Ziegfeld Follies in the Twenties, to supporting John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in “Grease” in the late Seventies — a long and varied and successful career indeed.

After their debut in “Sinners Holiday” in 1930, Blondell and Cagney made six more pictures together at Warner Brothers: “Other Men’s Women” (1930, dir. W.A. Wellman), “The Public Enemy” (1931, Wellman), “Blonde Crazy” (1931, dir. Roy Del Ruth), “The Crowd Roars” (1932, dir. Howard Hawks), “Footlight Parade” (1933, dir. Lloyd Bacon), and “He Was Her Man” (1934, Bacon), including several from which I have selected images for illustration of their remarkable abilities as well as their incredible chemistry together.  They were as two hearts with one mind — there were never two more compatible film stars.  And they were never better together than in “Blonde Crazy.”

“Blonde Crazy,” (Warner Brothers, 1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth):

After a scam to get Ann Roberts (Joan Blondell) a job as hotel maid, Bellhop Bert Harris (James Cagney) is already looking for his “reward.”   He gets what he has coming: a hard face-slap, the first of a half-dozen in which he is on the receiving end in “Blonde Crazy,” WB, 1931, dir. Roy Del Ruth.
Not one to give up easily, Bert lures Ann up to an unoccupied room with a request for “maid service.” Not the kind she was prepared to give, and with the same result for Bert: a red cheek and a sore jaw.
And co-workers aren’t the only dangers in Ann’s new job: an out-of-town jewelry salesman (Guy Kibbee) wants to show Ann how nice she’ll look in an expensive pearl (“it goes with your pearly teeth”) necklace he’s willing to give her, for a “price” of course . . .
Struggling free from his “embrace,” the broken necklace spills pearls everywhere; Ann scoops up a handful, shoves them down his pants and lets him have it with a hard right slap to the butt.
Ann’s more experienced co-worker (“I’ve been here six months”), resents Ann taking money from Bert as “commission” for selling some of his illegal whiskey, telling her “After all I told you to stay away from this shrimp,” A bitch-slap ensues . . .
. . . and Ann gets the best of it. And Bert is a guy who enjoys any girlfight, especially when he is the cause.
At a swanky Chicago hotel (as the film identifies the biggest hotel in the second biggest City), the wealthy, and those about to separate them from their wealth, congregate.  Bert, frustrated at romantic rejection from his by-now partner in crime, Ann, admiringly eyes the lady friend of another, bigger, con artist with whom he soon begins to work.
While Bert makes it clear he’s wanted Ann from first sight, she lets him know that she can’t be with someone who “worships nothing but dough;” then Bert tells her, “Aw come on, we’re gettin’ too serious, let’s dance!”
After a night with his new partner and the partner’s blonde girlfriend, there is tension in the cab ride back to the hotel.  Bert tells Ann, “I know what’s botherin’ you, you’re burnt up by that blonde dame!”   “Why should I be jealous of a bleached-out bag like that? Of all the conceited apes I ever saw, you take the cake . . you make me sick!”    “You mean that blonde makes you sick!”  Ann’s reply is– what else? —  a hard smack . . .
. . . after which Joan Blondell starts to break up at Cagney’s reaction, but holds herself together just long enough to (barely) complete the take.
“Is it alright for me to come in?” “Hey whaddya mean crashin’ in on me like this, can’t ya see I’m takin’ a bath?” “Yeah? Well, move over!”
. . . but Bert is “only” asking for money for his next con job with his new big-time partner.  After Ann tells him the cash is in her bra, Bert rummages through the pile of satin things on her bed. Here and BELOW, Bert seems unfamiliar with women’s undergarments — rather odd for a guy who comes on as a “ladies’ man.”

“Other Men’s Women,” (WB, 1930, dir. William A. Wellman):

As Marie, the diner waitress looking to marry a railroad man, Bill, watching the clock to get off work and meet him, asks her customers as she gets ready to meet Bill, “Anything else you guys want?” “Yeah, gimme a big slice o’ you on toast and french fried potatoes on the side!”
Marie’s retort? “Listen, baby, I’m A. P. O.” “What does she mean, A. P. O?” “Ain’t Puttin’ Out!”   Besides, I’m Bill White’s girl and I’m a one-man woman!”
Marie is excited to see Bill; Bill wants her to cool it –“Nix, nix, nix, baby — there’s too much of a gallery lookin’ on.”  So what of it, Ya love me, don’t ya?”  “Sure I do baby . . .”
“You know what day this is?”  “Saturday’s one day I never forget.”  (Its their Wedding Day)  “Don’t tell me you don’t remember? What?  Well you asked me the other night and I said I would.”
But both were drunk out of their minds, Bill (a big league alcoholic) more so than Marie, and he doesn’t remember asking her to marry him!  “Well, I’m afraid I can’t do that, ya see I . .” Marie storms off and off-screen blows him the raspberries. His reaction, “Marvelous!”
But soon the love birds are back together — for now. “Do ya love me?” “Do I love you? . . Say, . . I’m nuts about you . you listen . . .” “Just like old times.”
Unfortunately, they are both again drunk out of their skulls and history is about to repeat itself . . . Marie: “Remember when we was gonna get married . . (sobs) . . .
Bill: “Aw, sure, I remember. Say, you broke my heart!” Marie: “Oooh, I felt sooo bad! . . . I couldn’t look at another guy for weeks!”
(Bill:) Say! . . (he now blows raspberries at her) . . .

“Sinners’ Holiday,” (WB, 1930, dir. John G. Adolfi):

At a seedy seaside resort, a carnival barker (Grant Withers) advertises his attractions, “For one thin dime you get to see all these gorgeous women! Give ’em a quick flash girls!”   The “girls” respond with all the enthusiasm of a suspects lineup.
At another corner of the carnival, another barker’s pitch: “Here she is here she is , the ‘Little Happiness Girl’ (Joan Blondell). Let her pose with you for your photograph!”
Harry (James Cagney), “fresh” from an all-night poker game, gets the treatment from “Ma” (Lucille La Verne): “If you was out all night with that tenth avenue cruiser (a reference to Blondell’s character). I’ll . . .” “I wasn’t out wit nobody, I tell ya!” “Happiness Girl” Myrtle (Joan Blondell) to her customer: “Leave me one of your pictures, I wanna keep it on my dresser.”
ABOVE and BELOW, Harry and Myrtle make plans, via “sign” language, to meet later . . .

Harry’s happy but Myrtle’s boss isn’t happy with his “Happiness Girl” flirting with a non-customer . . .

. . . and the boss’s anger at the “Happiness Girl” makes her unhappy, with potential negative impact on business . . .”Here she is, folks, the little “Happiness Girl . . .”

“Smarty” (WB, 1934, dir. Lloyd Bacon):

The opening shot of “Smarty,” (WB, 1934, dir. Lloyd Bacon), the famous Blondell Legs. Not bad for an ex-Vaudeville hoofer . . .
. . . and Warren William finds the rest of her rather hard to resist, too . . .
IN a rare turnaround for Joan Blondell, SHE is the slap recipient from husband Warren William after a testy game of cards. “Smarty” (WB, 1934, dir. Lloyd Bacon).
Unfortunately, director Lloyd Bacon (who began his career in silent comedy and worked with Chaplin at Essanay, was known best for fast, physical comedy and musicals) and cinematographer George Barnes (husband of Joan Blondell from 1932 to 1936, and during the filming of “Smarty”) chose to bathe her in soft light and unnecessary soft focus (although the backless and low-cut gowns weren’t hard for her to pull off) it seems as if they were trying to make a Constance Bennett movie, not a Joan Blondell picture.

“The Public Enemy,” (WB, 1931, dir. William A. Wellman):

Mamie (Joan Blondell) and Kitty (Mae Clarke) find themselves out on the town with a couple of “deadbeats” already passed out from excessive consumption of hooch.  But then Mamie spies something that piques her interest . . .
. . . Matt (Edward Woods) and Tom (James Cagney); and Mamie immediately goes big for Matt.
and Matt soon is escorting her to the Gangsters’ Ball(s) . . .

. . . but Mamie senses trouble in the form of . . .
. . . Tom (Cagney) an agressive and ambitious pug who wants to use his new mob muscle to take care of some old, unfinished business — knocking off a rival mobster. Tom’s new girlfriend (who has for now replaced Kitty), Gwen (Jean Harlow) is oblivious to the events.
Tom waits impatiently for the more humane Matt to reassure Mamie that everything will be fine. And he’s right. For now.

Cagney referred to Blondell as a “naive sophisticate,” a phrase which baffled me until I went back to look at her films in preparation for this post.  I should never have doubted — it was the perfect description for someone who keeps her cool and knows what is right and what is wrong in nearly every circumstance or situation, and they know it instinctively.  It is sophistication — the root word meaning “intuitive knowledge,” not the knowledge from formal education or cultural acquirement, it is something we would call “street smarts,” but even that seems inadequate.  David Thomson in his “New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” offers an accurate and poignant description of Blondell and her career: “Hardly any of her pictures were big or important for their time, but look back over the Warners product and see how her slightly blowsy blonde, as round and shiny as cultured pearls, has lasted.  Time and again she brings life, fun, and worldliness to her scenes.”  As a summation of her legacy to motion pictures it is exceeded only by Cagney’s  “naive sophisticate,” a more personal description from a man who knew her as well as anyone, and one that seems truly unique to Joan Blondell.

One thought on “BLONDE CRAZY

Your Comments and Opinions are Welcome! Leave a Reply . . .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.