Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Always the heroine's friend


My posting on Grease got me thinking about Joan Blondell, and it turns out she was born 102 years ago tomorrow: as good an excuse as is needed to recall this slightly unusual, always enjoyable regular of thirties Hollywood.
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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).
She could do comedy, musicals and intense drama and, without conforming to anyone's definition of beautiful, conveyed an earthy sexuality that made her ideal for the risqué pre-Code years and always left her looking somewhat constrained thereafter, delightful though she is in films like The King and the Chorus Girl (1937) and Topper Returns (1941). She has enormous eyes and a cute quality in stills that is totally belied on film by her sure gift for rapid-fire dialogue and uncompromising air of independence and cynicism, of vivacity made weary from too many broken hearts and broken promises. City life has made her a realist.
But in the forties she is an essentially comic presence; the old danger is gone because Hollywood no longer has any room for it; the realism is gone because the world in which she is a realistic figure is essentially off-limits.
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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.
Her work for Busby Berkeley included the startling 'Remember My Forgotten Man' number in Gold-Diggers of 1933; she appeared in four of his films, and many similar variations for other producers.
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.
The best of these roles are her performances in two still-jawdropping classics of pre-Code excess. In Night Nurse (1931), again with Stanners, she's the fellow nurse helping to uncover a really creepy plot to murder two wealthy children for their inheritances. Joan chews gum from first scene to last; as a more experienced nurse her function is to show Stanwyck's novice the ropes; how to pull a fast one under the nose of the formidable matron and how to deal with the predatory machinations of wolfish interns. Their rapport is wonderfully real; the scene in which they share a bed because a practical joker has left a skeleton in Barbara's is highly reminsicent of Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts.
And in the incredible Three on a Match (1932), Joan is the emotional centre of a film that plays as a female version of the kind of Warners gangster film that starts with the characters as children and follows them through their divergent life paths. Here it's three girls and the two other points of the triangle are hard acts to shine alongside: Bette Davis has the smallest and least consequential role, but she looks amazing in her Hollywood-conformist period, platinum blonde and never less deserving of Carl Laemmle's famous verdict given when she was briefly under contract at Universal: "I can't imagine any guy wanting to give her a tumble". And Ann Dvorak, another cut off at the knees when the Code was enforced, gives one of the most amazing performances in Hollywood history, fearless in its courting of audience enmity as she helter-skelters into despair, degeneracy and death. Despite this, Joan's is the central character, the main point of identification for the audience and the character with the most interesting life-story. Her performance is extremely canny in its recognition of this: she knows the others have the better close-ups and the bigger outbursts and the sexier swimming costumes and the splashier deaths, so she contrives simply to get it right: relaxed and natural and necessary. I say 'simply' but obviously this is not simple and the majority of actors and actresses cannot do it, because they lack the judgement, or the subtlety, or temperament gets in the way.
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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.
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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.)
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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”.