Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Anecdote of the Week: Blondell Crazy



Alas, the Siren has been up to her step-ins in work and has consequently been missing you all terribly. Since April, she's been doing some freelance film reviewing for (drum roll) the New York Post. The Post's Website is a strange and wonderful thing, but you should be able to access most of her efforts here. Last week's review of Bel Ami, in which Robert Pattinson and his cheekbones attempted to erase memories of George Sanders and his can-can, may be of particular interest. So anyway, between that and the blogathon and the usual demands of life chez Siren, opportunities to dig into a nice big post have been thin on the ground.

The Siren did manage, however, to spend a wonderful afternoon watching pre-Codes with Imogen Sara Smith, an extravagantly talented writer whose reverence for pre-Codes, noir and the art of classic-film acting should endear her to everyone who's ever visited this blog. Imogen has a book out now, called In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, available from McFarland here. The Siren recommends it highly and plans to write more of it anon. Meanwhile, you can read Imogen's ode to the Pre-Code era at Bright Lights Film Journal.

One movie we watched was Blondie Johnson, starring Joan Blondell, everyone's favorite Depression blonde (right? right?). Imogen billed it as "the ultimate Blondell" and she's probably on the money. It's a blast watching Blondell go from desperate poverty to running a con-artist syndicate, even if you never do really believe Chester Morris would get past first base with this gum-snapping goddess.

Naturally this is all leading up to a story, one the Siren believes to be as trustworthy as the World Almanac, but like all good yarns, you can take it or leave it, toots.



Years ago the Siren worked for a venerable man (Will would have snorted and said, "Honey, I'm fuckin' old") who'd had as fascinating a life as you can imagine. One of his many incarnations was as a stage manager for a series of regional and summer-stock theaters in the early to mid-1950s. Through his productions rolled many a faded star, some trying to duck the blacklist, some trading on the last vestiges of a marquee name, and some of them just troupers who couldn't imagine not working.

To that last group belonged Joan Blondell. At that point in her career, Will said her off-screen persona had become very like the one she had on screen; whether the difference had ever been huge, he couldn't say. He adored her, naturally. Decades after he'd met Blondell, he still chuckled at the memory of her at a hotel-room party, shoes off and fully dressed, holding court on the bed with her then-paramour.



According to Will, Blondell enjoyed a post-rehearsal nightcap with cast, crew, whoever, it didn't matter. He said (and isn't this precisely what you want to hear) that Joan Blondell didn't have a snobbish bone in her body.

What she did have was a gift for improv, which Will discovered one night when Blondell, out with a group that was all male and rowdier than usual, slipped on the floor, went straight down--and stayed down in a heap, apparently out for the count. Her rather woozy drinking crew crowded round for a second, debating. Had she hit her head? A concussed star was no joke, but neither did they want "Hooched-Up Joan Blondell Passes Out in Saloon" as tomorrow's headline in the East Nowheresville Gazette, there to be picked up by the wire services. Someone went to the bar to get a glass of water, which took a minute as it wasn't what they were used to serving, and the bartender may even have needed directions to the tap.

And while the water was being fetched, Will, who was kneeling closest to Blondell, saw one enormous blue eye fly open to half mast, and shut almost before he was sure what he'd seen.

So when the glass was raised to Blondell's lips, and she snatched it and said cheerfully, "What took you so long?", Will was the only one who didn't jump two feet.

The Siren believes this story; don't you?

45 comments:

Michael Guillen said...

I always love reading about Blondell. Thank you. I'm sure you're aware that the Pacific Film Archive mounted a retrospective of her work (http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/filmseries/joan_blondell2008), to which biographer Matthew Kennedy contributed commentary. His bio on Blondell is indispensible: http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1066

VP81955 said...

What a splendid anecdote, a perfect reason to love the guiding light of pre-Code. The lady was a trouper, something she must have learned from her vaudeville parents. She made so many films in the early '30s that I'm certain she spent more than a few nights catching some Z's at the Warners studio rather than simply go home. (Her status sort of straddled between character actress and star.) Love her.

Kendra said...

Amazing story! Joan Blondell is one star I haven't managed to get around to checking out yet, but will do so after reading this. And thanks for the link to Imogen's Bright Lights article. She's a wonderful writer!

Kendra

Richard said...

One reason to force-march one's way through late period 1960s episodes of The Lucy Show: Blondell's recurring bit as the wacky former hoofer next door. She still had what it took even in later age. Favorite line (to Guy Kibbee, treading on her corns on the dance floor) "Oh, you're as light as a heifer, I mean feather."

The Siren said...

Michael, I will have to check out that bio although frankly I don't expect to find Will in it!

VP, isn't it just how you wanted Blondell to be? I've been meaning to share that one for ages..

Kendra, yes, Imogen is a great writer with a beautiful idea for details.

Richard, ha! my mother would watch re-runs of *anything* with Lucy so I have seen The Lucy Show and I recall one where Lucy and *maybe* Joan, plus another actress, get drunk at a wine tasting? That ring a bell?

The Siren said...

And shoot, how funny is it that 30 years later, Kibbee still couldn't keep up with the showgirls.

VP81955 said...

VP, isn't it just how you wanted Blondell to be? I've been meaning to share that one for ages.

I don't know how well Joan knew Carole Lombard (I'm sure they at least had a passing acquaintance), but I have no doubt they would have been simpatico. The only real difference was that Carole was from the Midwest, not New York, and didn't grow up in an entertainment family (although I believe her mother did a bit of amateur stage acting in her youth). Joan and Carole were both great with people, probably why Lucille Ball got along so well with each of them.

barrylane said...

Try someone other than Guy Kibbee for The Lucy Show and Blondell.

The Siren said...

Ha, Barry, I realized later that could not possibly be what Richard meant, but it would be fun now wouldn't it.

Kirk said...

"everyone's favorite depression blonde"

Sorry, but I have to put Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlowe, and Carole Lombard before her, but she's a solid fourth. Loved her in Gold Diggers of 1933 ("Forgotten Man") and Topper Returns (where I believe she was a brunette. If not, I saw a really faded black-and-white print.) And, decades later, kvetching with fellow Depression-era movie star Edward G. Robinson in The Cincinatti Kid.

Kirk said...

Jean Harlow. No "e"

Trish said...
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Trish said...

I'm really envious! I've never seen those episodes of "The Lucy Show". I did see the one where Lucy and Ethel thought Joan Crawford was destitute and asked her to appear in their stage show...

But I digress... I just love the way Joan Blondell nails Warren William in "Three on a Match". Pre-code movies so precious...

hamletta said...

Richard confused me, too: Guy Kibbee? On The Lucy Show? He was an old fart in the ’30s!

Kirk, I thought of The Cincinatti Kid, too. I've always wondered why movie hairdressers in the ’60s dispensed with historical accuracy all of a sudden.

Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld, the babes in that movie, have these mod, ironed ’dos (with back-combed bumps at the crown!), even though it's set in the ’30s.

Miss Joan must've thought they were insane. Those gals shoulda had hair like, well, Joan's...back in the day.

The Siren said...

One of the worst offenders in that regard was Ship of Fools, where the clothes are also completely not of the period. And then by the tine They Shoot Horses Don't They rolled around, they suddenly remembered what the 30s looked like. Very strange.

Kirk, I get around this by going with Ginger as a redhead (well, strawberry anyway), Jean was platinum and Carole ... was for all time. :) As was Bette, very blonde in that still. And very cute as a blonde too.

gmoke said...

According to Wikipedia: 'In 1965, she was in the running to replace Vivian Vance as Lucille Ball's sidekick on the hit CBS television comedy series The Lucy Show. Unfortunately, after filming her second guest appearance as 'Joan Brenner' (Lucy's new friend from California), Blondell walked off the set right after the episode had completed filming when Ball humiliated her by harshly criticizing her performance in front of the studio audience and technicians."

She was nominated for two Emmys for her work on the series "Here Come the Brides." A trouper to the end.

barrylane said...

I believe Richard's reference between Guy Kibbee and Joan Blondell is from Gold Diggers of 1933. Hope so, because that is a fun film. Remade as Painting The Clouds With Sunshine. All right, but they weren't paying strict attention to the original.

X. Trapnel said...

I loathe Lucy/Why oh why do I loathe Lucy/Because:

"...Ball humiliated her by harshly criticizing her performance in front of the studio audience and technicians."

Another notable later Blondell performance was the Twilight Zone episode "What's in the Box" with William Demarest.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Saw Guy Kibee and Joan Blondell recently on TCM in Havan Widows -- a marvelous piece of pre-code nonsense.

Without Joan Blondell the cinema simply does not exist.

Cassavetes was exceptionally lucky to get her for Opening Night.

mas82730 said...

Well, I loves me a two-fisted drinker, especially when she's a dame. Yes, I believe the anecdote, I passionately do.

Brookes Martin said...

If you guys are into strong leading ladies and movies focused around female empowerment, you should check out Parker Posey's new indie film, The Love Guide, coming out on DVD on June 19th! Here's the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwSkHKK2EjA

Brookes Martin said...

If you guys are into strong leading ladies and movies centered around female empowerment, you should check out Parker Posey's new indi film, The Love Guide, coming out on DVD on June 19th! Here is the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwSkHKK2EjA

DavidEhrenstein said...

LOVES ME SOME PARKER POSEY!

Shamus said...

I meant to ask last week but kept forgetting: who is the lady in the banner? (Is it someone so obvious that everyone else had recognized her?)

Yojimboen said...

May 14 1962, Natalie Wood at the Cannes Festival being photographed by US sailors from the visiting Sixth Fleet.

Here’s another angle.

mndean said...

One correction: The "light as a heifer" line was delivered by Aline MacMahon.

I always found some of the films that teamed Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell as pals a bit problematic since Joan takes over and leaves Glenda little to do outside the occasional tart line. I love Joan and Glenda, so seeing Glenda in Havana Widows after she had done Girl Missing makes me a trifle disappointed.

Trish said...

Yojimboen, thank you for posting the Natalie Wood details. You are wonderful.

Yojimboen said...

Praise indeed, Mlle T.

barrylane said...

mndean:

Good going. Still from Gold Digger of '33 and a good picture. A really good get from you.

Monique D said...

I love Joan Blondell...she's definitely in the top five of my dream list of utterly perfect dinner guests. Prop me up in front of Traveling Saleslady any old time and I'll have a smile on my face that lasts the rest of the week.

Shamus said...

Thanks, Y!

brookesboy said...

It's sometimes amusing when the costumes for a movie are obvious in their anachronistic glory. I read that Sidney Lumet wanted the wardrobe for "Murder On the Orient Express" to be exaggerated to effect an Old Hollywood glamour. The result from Tony Walton was spectacular. Lauren Bacall's hat was something akin to Gibraltar.

Yojimboen said...

Semi on topic: I don’t know if it’s true of all his work but I do know first-hand that on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson’s instructions to costume designer Milena Canonero were simple: “No natural fibers.”

Dan Leo said...
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Dan Leo said...

Woops! Here we go, Joan and Glenda. Perfect:

http://youtu.be/pnH_XnUIyxs

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"Through his productions rolled many a faded star, some trying to duck the blacklist, some trading on the last vestiges of a marquee name, and some of them just troupers who couldn't imagine not working."

Precisely what makes this my favorite period of summer stock. Well put.

hum'n'mum said...

Lovely post, Siren. For me, one of Joan's loveliest performances is in "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn". The old Blondell sass and spitfire is wreathed by an unexpected kindliness, which really transmutes her frank sexuality into something almost maternal. Of course, she is joined by one of my other faves, Lloyd Nolan, in a lovely pas de deux of "dese,dem,doze" romance.
As for Lucy, it seems she finally settled on Ann Sothern in the recurring role of the brassy, blowsy, blonde guest-star.

Yojimboen said...

Words fail me. So instead…
My fave image of Ms B.

The Siren said...

Hum, thanks so much for de-lurking. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an eternal favorite, and I agree, Blondell is perfect. Aunt Cissy is one of the loveliest characters in the book and when I saw the movie, Blondell was exactly the way I wanted Cissy to be.

Y., tell me - has anyone ever nailed down the relationship between that picture of Joan and the famous image of Christine Keeler? A direct crib, a coincidence, what?

X. Trapnel said...

One interesting link is the oh-so-modern quality of the chairs. The ladies, though, are timeless.

Yojimboen said...

The high, solid-backed chair has been an obvious prop as long as there’s been glamour photography – I could post a score of different actresses in the same pose - the point, obviously, was the coyly inferred nudity.

The famous Christine Keeler shot (collectable print w photo credits here) here, was just another example.

Except in Ms Keeler’s case, nothing was inferred, judging from the out-takes #1 and #2.

Lasso The Movies said...

I have seen very little Blondell and knew almost nothing about her. Thanks for the informative post.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Re your banner pic, I've met Jennifer Grant and she's really quite charming. Her memoir of her life with Cary is worth a read.

Yojimboen said...

I posted above the colorized version; for those completists in the house, herein the (better IMHO) original B&W version.

Anagramsci said...

ah Madame Siren, your anecdote does indeed ring true (or, at least, chimes very nicely with my own mental picture of the great Blondell) -- thanks for sharing!

I somehow haven't managed to see Blondie Johnson, I guess because I try to avoid Chester Morris whenever possible... This seems like another case in which it ISN'T possible!

I'll have to check out In Lonely Places - it sounds fantastic!

Of the Blondell vehicles that I have seen, my dark horse candidate for top honours is Mervyn Leroy's Three Men on a Horse, in which she does wonders with her Brooklynese lines and holds her own against hardcore scene-stealers like Sam Levene, Allen Jenkins, Edgar Kennedy and Frank McHugh, all firing on all cylinders... I'm also deeply attached to Union Depot, Lawyer Man and Bullets or Ballots (in which she has a great part as a sympathetic numbers racketeer), along with the more celebrated Berkeleys, Blonde Crazy and the immortal Three on a Match, natch (although that last is far more of a Dvorak vehicle -- possibly my favourite Depression brunette!, of course)

onward!
Dave