Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Centennial Tributes: Joan Blondell

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This is the first in an occasional series marking the 100th anniversary of notable film figures' births. First up, Josh R celebrates Joan Blondell.

By Josh R
Joan Blondell, who was born Aug. 30, 1906, spent the bulk of her career as a supporting player, usually cast as a brassy but genial confidante. In her best performances — 1945's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and 1947's Nightmare Alley chief among them — she found a delicate balance between toughness and warmth; in both films, she plays survivors, women who've learned tough lessons in the school of hard knocks, but summon the inner resolve to overcome with their dignity, humanity and humor intact. In the latter film, perhaps the bleakest exercise in film noir to emerge from the studio system (it was judged to be so unsavory in terms of its subject matter that it more or less disappeared for 50 years following its release), she had some startling moments of pain and loss, so that her trademark pluckiness attained the appearance of a necessary defense against the evils of the world. As an over-the-hill vaudevillian eking out a meager living as a bunk artist in a fleabag carnival, she registers all the hurt and humiliation of someone who's been manipulated and betrayed by a callow suitor (an effectively smarmy Tyrone Power). It's her ability to take things in stride, refusing to succumb to bitterness and despair, that turn what could have been a pathetic character into the heart and soul of the film. That's Blondell at her best — very few actresses were able to temper the edginess of such knowing, tough-talking characters with such an unexpected element of tenderness.

She made a splash on Broadway in the late '20s opposite James Cagney in Sinner's Holiday. Both were brought to Hollywood by Warner Bros., to repeat their performances for the film version. It was 1931's Night Nurse, a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, that showed how well she played opposite other actresses — a rarity at a time when most female pairings on screen could seem forced or competitive. Time and again she was able to create a natural rapport with her female co-stars, often bringing out the best in them — her scenes with Dorothy McGuire in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn have such a delicate poignancy that it makes the bond between the sisters one of the film's most compelling considerations; it echoes the interplay between Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire, for which it may, in fact, have been the template — both were directed by Elia Kazan.

She played a few leads, most notably in Gold Diggers of 1933 in which she delivers a memorably torchy rendition of the mournful lament "My Forgotten Man," but she really flourished in sidekick roles opposite more glamorous stars. In Desk Set, even Katharine Hepburn seemed to be, for once, as engaged and amused by her female co-star as she was by her leading man (the comic give-and-take between them is seamless). Blondell always seemed more interested in complementing the film's leading lady than in stealing scenes. When she did, it was usually the other actress's fault rather than her own. She had much more natural chemistry with Clark Gable in Adventure than poor Greer Garson could manage — you can practically see Gable heaving a sigh of relief (and becoming more visibly relaxed) when the flouncy blonde enters the room for some appealingly flirty banter. Her only Oscar nomination came in 1951 for The Blue Veil, which gave her a bit more of an edge as a Broadway singer who neglects her young daughter, but still allowed her to inject some much-needed sincerity into an overly maudlin exercise in tear-jerking that otherwise felt rather counterfeit.

She worked steadily right through the 1960s in a variety of character parts that made use of her alternately mischievous and maternal persona. She enjoyed herself as Ladyfingers in The Cincinnati Kid, a role which echoed Zeena from Nightmare Alley without offering her nearly as much to do. Her last major role came for John Cassavetes in 1977's disastrous Opening Night — she was one of the only things in the film that made any sense, and earned a Golden Globe nomination for her efforts. She is best known to the modern generation for her cameo as Vi, the waitress in Grease, offering a sympathetic shoulder to Didi Conn's discouraged beauty school dropout. It was a career full of small gems, consistently enjoyable and eminently worthy of rediscovery.

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Bravo Josh R! If it's not too weird to say it -- this is the best thing I've ever read on Joan Blondell. I need to rush out and see the main two films you talked about: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Nightmare Alley. I always persist in remembering the former only as a gag in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I like the way you notice how she works with other female actors. I get the same vibe from Eve Arden.
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