“You’re aces,” says Edward G. Robinson to Joan Blondell in the course of “Bullets or Ballots,” a 1936 crime melodrama from Warner Bros. Cast as a hard-bitten cop, Mr. Robinson is too endangered professionally to follow through on this compliment; Miss Blondell, playing a wised-up professional herself, a club owner, always suggested desirable yet realistic women, capable of dealing with disappointment.
It was easier to imagine a Joan Blondell character as a friend for life than a heartbreaker or pushover. More often than not, “You’re aces” would have suited the characters she embodied admirably. The daughter of vaudeville entertainer Eddie Blondell, the future movie actress was born in New York City on Aug. 30, 1906. Since she fudged her age by three years somewhere along the way, it’s possible to regard her as one of the centennial luminaries of 2009, at least according to many uncorrected reference works.
It’s also easier to understand why an actress might find this ruse useful, compared to a film director such as France’s Marcel Carne. Born a few days before Miss Blondell, he was also destined to alter his birthdate by an identical margin. It seems a pity that fate never brought them together for a yarn about the vagaries of show business.
Joan Blondell’s family settled in Dallas when she was in her teens. A role in a failed Broadway play, “Penny Arcade,” led to Warner Bros. contracts for her and James Cagney, who re-created their roles in a 1930 film, “Sinners’ Holiday.” They were soon reteamed in Mr. Cagney’s breakthrough vehicle as a hood, “The Public Enemy.” They never ceased to be an optimum temperamental match, most agreeably in the 1933 musical “Footlight Parade.” Miss Blondell, a smitten and loyal girl Friday, spends the entire plot trying to rescue her boss, Mr. Cagney as an overworked musical producer, from chiseling partners and predatory dames.
Between 1931 and 1933, Joan Blondell appeared in about 50 movies and became a round-faced, large-eyed, curly-tressed, straight-from-the-shoulder fixture, often as humorous variations of aspiring showgirls or gold diggers. She was a pivotal figure among the original title set of “The Gold Diggers of 1933,” a quartet that included Ruby Keeler as the ingenue, Aline MacMahon as the shameless comic schemer and Ginger Rogers as an intermittent rival to Miss MacMahon. Joan Blondell’s character, Carol, is dignified by getting second thoughts about fleecing Warren William, a stuffed shirt from Boston. Eventually, he proves a redeemable stuffed shirt, and their romance is the only match that qualifies as a dramatic and salutary contrivance, since they promise to wed plebeian and patrician virtues in ways that prove personally gratifying and socially enlightened.
Mr. William and Miss Blondell remain an endearing vintage match, and they crossed paths more than once. Regrettably, Warner overlooked their potential as competition for William Powell and Myrna Loy at MGM. Mr. William, who rivaled John Barrymore for combining an impressive voice and profile, played all sorts of sleuths during his career: Perry Mason, Philo Vance, the Lone Wolf, Sam Spade.
They were married, on the rebound, in a 1932 movie titled “Three on a Match.” Miss Blondell, a reformable ex-con, inherits Mr. William when he is abandoned by Ann Dvorak, a privileged but restless sort driven to doom by assorted illicit hungers. It’s one of the Blondell titles in the second edition of “Forbidden Hollywood,” a DVD anthology series created by Turner Classic Movies and distributed by Warner Home Video. The other is “Night Nurse,” in which Miss Blondell plays the gum-chewing pal of leading lady Barbara Stanwyck, who runs afoul of the emerging and still sinister Clark Gable while caring for two neglected kids.
In each film, Joan Blondell played a secondary figure, and in each case you feel that her character could get along without undue solicitude from the screenwriters. She may have been a charter member of talking comedies that relied on an “Apartment 3-G” pretext, depicting young women roommates intent on finding jobs and consorts. As a rule, she was the most sensible and adaptable member of the group, neither an outrageous deceiver nor lovelorn dupe.
The “Forbidden Hollywood” apparatus should probably try to rehabilitate a 1932 example originally titled “The Greeks Had a Word for Them,” derived from a Zoe Akins Broadway farce of the previous year and now available only in a ragged copy under the alternate title “Three Broadway Girls.” Ina Claire, as an incorrigible poacher and troublemaker among a trio of former showgirls, is always causing problems for Madge Evans, a classy playboy magnet. Miss Blondell’s character stays clear of such rivalries by enjoying a benefactor called Pops who remains offstage.
The play was one of the sources for “How To Marry a Millionaire” a generation later, and might lend itself to an uproarious revival, with a vamp as explosive as Gina Gershon in the Ina Claire role. The original movie encountered censorship roadblocks in so many states that it kind of bit the dust without a stand-up fight. The cheerful amorality of it all remains startling at this late date, but that in itself should qualify it as a “Forbidden” reclamation project.
Married to cinematographer George Barnes, co-star Dick Powell and producer Mike Todd without lasting gratification, Joan Blondell sustained a distinctive career as a character actress after her decade as a Warner Bros. workhorse. She deserved an Academy Award nomination as Dorothy McGuire’s disreputable but affectionate sister in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” She finally got one playing Natalie Wood’s neglectful mother in “The Blue Veil,” one of the numerous Blondell credits still in video limbo.
Miss Blondell and Tyrone Power brought such a persuasive carnal undercurrent to the early reels of “Nightmare Alley,” arguably the great unsavory Hollywood movie of the late 1940s, that it always seems a bit of a letdown when her character drops out of the plot. Not that you question Zeena the mind reader’s ability to get along without an untrustworthy partner. There was a lot in Joan Blondell’s makeup that seemed to anticipate double-crosses and the need to start over. I don’t recall if she ever got to say, “Hit the road, Jack,” in a movie role, but she would have nailed it.