Born into a vaudeville family and on stage from the age of three, her abundant talent and sassy style made her perfect for the Jazz Age and flapper musical revues that defined Broadway in the late-twenties (and twenties culture generally), leading to a number of headlining performances and a stint with the iconic Ziegfeld Follies.
When Al Jolson revolutionised Hollywood practices in 1927, killing off silent movies overnight and catapulting all of the major studios, quite unprepared, into the talkie era, desperate producers looked instantly to Broadway for performing talent with a proven track record in vocal projection. Blondell and James Cagney had scored a huge hit on Broadway in 1929 with a revue called Penny Serenade; both were put under contract by Warner Brothers and appeared in the film version of the show, re-titled Sinner’s Holiday (1930).
They were teamed again the following year in the gangster classic The Public Enemy and a further six times through the thirties. But though Public Enemy made Cagney a major star, Blondell would only ever rise to supporting roles in major releases (supplemented by leads in ‘B’ films).
Her roles tended to fall into one of three categories. The first of these is the chorus girl in Warner backstage musicals that differ from later Hollywood musicals (and those of other studios at the time) in their avoidance of showbizzy gloss and feathers; typically they will involve struggling producers and sharply-etched Depression-era backgrounds, with chorus girls dancing as an alternative to poverty. Blondell (and others, such as the young, pre-Fred Ginger Rogers) are not gotta sing, gotta dance-types but smart-aleck dames who have been around the block and know all the angles.
This type segued into that of the gold-digger, as most gold-diggers tended to be ex-chorus girls who had left the stage and married their sugar daddies, or are on the lookout for one. They tend to travel in pairs or trios, wisecracking and earthy in each other’s company but able to instantly turn on the helpless little girl routine when they spot a rich sucker. This type is associated with the real life Peggy Hopkins Joyce and the fiction of Anita Loos, who wrote the gold-digger classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As well as appearing in the Berkeley musicals Gold Diggers of 1933 and Gold Diggers of 1937 Blondell had helped define the type in the hilarious The Greeks Had a Word For Them (1932), later re-titled Three Broadway Girls and based on the hit Broadway play Gold Diggers.
Her second distinct type was the friend of the heroine, again something of an archetype in the early thirties, when no pretty leading lady was complete without a smart-mouthed girl-buddy, who tended to be much more pragmatic and cynical in matters of love and romance. In 1931 alone Joan was best pal to Barbara Stanwyck in Illicit, Bebe Daniels in My Past and Loretta Young in Big Business Girl: always the bridesmaid and never the bride, both as character and performer.
An especially notable feature of these films is the license allowed and taken with regard to erotic imagery: not for nothing are these sometimes termed ‘the lingerie years’. Thomas Doherty notes one memorable example in his book Pre-Code Hollywood: “in Office Wife (1930) the camera follows Joan Blondell’s legs into a bathroom, where her lingerie drops to the floor as she disrobes. The camera remains focused on her legs as she slips out of her chemise, her arms entering the frame from above, thereby conjuring an image of the naked actress bending over… Under the Code, so explicit a mental image – that is, an image not even depicted on screen but merely planted in the spectator’s mind – would be too arousing to summon up.” Pre-Code, however, it was par for the course.
Finally, she proved a natural for another early-thirties favourite: the wisecracking reporter. The most famous example of the tradition is the male Lee Tracy, but many of the others were women, their characters a variation on the ‘heroine’s friend’ and often engaged in high-decibel, insult-laden spats with crass editors (whom they would sometimes end up marrying at the fade-out). To emphasise their status as partially de-feminised women in a man’s world, these characters were often given masculine first names: Joan is Timmy (for Timothea) in Back in Circuit (1937). (Another key exponent of this type was the physically similar Glenda Farrell who, because she was also under contract at Warners, was paired with Joan in a variety of films on eight occasions.)
Very much an icon of the early thirties, Joan’s career stalled a little from the forties on. But she kept working continuously until her death, both in movies and, with greater individual success, on stage.
In the seventies she became one of the comeback queens of the tv movie, giving delightfully skittish performances in
The Dead Don't Die (1975) and, alongside Sylvia Sidney, Dottie Lamour and John Carradine, in Death at Love House (1976). These roles led to nostalgic turns in Michael Winner's Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) and Grease, and a last chance to really act in Opening Night (1977) for John Cassavetes.
Blondell made just under a hundred films between her debut in 1930 and her death on Christmas Day, 1979. Her thirties roles are characterised by wit, sparkiness and strong characterisation, and she was always somewhat bemused by the vapidity of many leading ladies who achieved superstardom with none of her professionalism or hard graft, once remarking: “I’d hate to see them on stage with a dog act”.