The Naive Sophistication of JOAN BLONDELL
[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):
“Other Men’s Women,” (WB, 1930, dir. William A. Wellman):
“Sinners’ Holiday,” (WB, 1930, dir. John G. Adolfi):
“Smarty” (WB, 1934, dir. Lloyd Bacon):
“The Public Enemy,” (WB, 1931, dir. William A. Wellman):
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.
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