Old Movies: the films of Joan Blondell

Tyrone Powers and Joan Blondell in Nightmare Alley
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In this week’s old movies column, we take a look at the work of notable Pre-Code actor Joan Blondell.

Blondell by name, Blonde by Nature.

If you’ve traipsed gleefully into the pre-Code era of movies then you would’ve come across the wide-eyed, wise-cracking beauty that is Joan Blondell. After all, she starred in at least 50 films during the 1930s. Whether it’s toe-tapping musicals, intense crime thrillers or wicked smart comedies, Blondell is the definitive staple of the pre-Code decade.


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Born 1906 as Rose Joan Bluestein, Joan Blondell started her career in vaudeville alongside her family. After working as a model for some time in New York, she joined James Cagney on Broadway in the show Penny Arcade. The pair would translate the show to film The Sinner’s Holiday (1930) – a thriller about a bootlegging operation underneath the guise of a, well, penny arcade.

Blondell would soon be signed to Warner Brothers and become an absolute sensation. As mentioned, over the next ten years she would start in so many films and become an absolute staple for the pre-Code era. In fact, one of her promotional images (naked in a chair) would become the source of conversation for the strengthening of the infamous Hay’s Code itself. The photo itself would be banned.

Sassy and slick, Blondell’s work made her iconic. Following their first outing in The Sinner’s Holiday, she was paired with James Cagney in numerous films. They would sing and dance together in fantastic musical Footlight Parade (1933), they would be lovers in He Was Her Man (1934) and she would star as Tom’s girlfriend Mamie in one of Cagney’s most acclaimed films The Public Enemy (1931). Cagney and Blondell have some insane chemistry together – whether it’s dancing or doing mob-business – across any of their films. 

During this time, Blondell would be one of the highest paid individuals in the United States. In Gold Diggers of 1933, she would captivate the entire world with her heart-wrenching rendition of ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ – proving herself an incredible singer as well.

Another unmissable pairing of Blondell’s is with the immutable Glenda Farrell. In seven films, the two would play women who are trying to ensnare a wealthy man whilst also having flirty fun with some hot bachelors. Alone, Blondell and Farrell are brilliant but together they are sensational. The movies this insatiable pair would star in together would be Havana Widows (1933), I’ve Got Your Number (1934,) Kansas City Princess (1934) We’re In The Money (1935) Travelling Saleslady (1935), Miss Pacific Fleet (1935) and Gold Diggers of 1937.

Some personal highlights in this era of Blondell’s work include the comedy-mystery caper Miss Pinkerton (1932) which sees Blondell as a bored nurse charged with taking care of an elderly woman who witnesses a murder. There is also Night Nurse (1931) in which she plays support to Barbara Stanwyck. One of the greatest is The Greeks Had A Word for Them (1932.) Here, Blondell plays alongside Ina Claire and Madge Evans as a trio of money hungry women who all have sugar daddies. Over the course of the film, the three butt heads in this jazzy and hilarious film that is filled with topics quintessential for the time.

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in Footlight Parade

Footlight Parade (1933)

But honestly, you could pick any 1930s film of Blondell’s and have a lot of fun. Post-code films of this decade also see Blondell opposite the likes of Errol Flynn in The Perfect Specimen (1937) and Leslie Howard in Stand-In (1937).

In 1939, Blondell split from Warner Bros to pursue other career opportunities. She would spend her time delighting audiences on the stage in Broadway. Blondell would return to Hollywood with a whole host of films during the 1940s. In 1947 she would star in Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley alongside Tyrone Powers as a fortune teller who guides our lead man to con-artistry and also predicts his downfall.

Most famously, she’d appear in The Blue Veil (1951). Also starring Charles Laughton and Kane Wyman, the film revolves around a woman who cares for other people’s children in World War I. Blondell stars as Annie Rawlins, a fading musical actress who leaves her daughter Stephanie in the hands of nurse LouLou Mason (Wyman) only to find the girl has become more attached to LouLou. For her performance here, Blondell would earn her one and only Academy Award nomination.

Later films also included supporting performances in The Opposite Sex (1956) and Desk Set (1957) Blondell would receive critical acclaim for her performance as Lady Fingers in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and play Glenda Callahan alongside Elvis Presley in 1968’s Stay Away Joe.

Most people would recognise her from 1978’s musical Grease as the diner waitress Vi. Her supporting performance in the 1979 remake of The Champ would be released after Blondell’s death. The star would pass away from leukaemia in 1979.

What made Joan Blondell so special is her undeniable presence on the screen. Particularly in roles where she has to spar with her words, Blondell’s eyes illuminate with a spark and her insulting line deliveries are impeccable. She truly is a spitfire of an actor and often she can kill with a roll of her eyes or a pained expression on her face. That said, in more serious roles and moments, Blondell is able to get to the emotional heart of the film.

One of the best Blondell films, and certainly my favourite of hers, is Smarty (1934). It’s a film that many consider to be the most pre-Code-iest pre-Code film of all time. We’ll be taking a deeper look at the movie next time because it is wild, I tell you, wild!

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