Star of the Month: Joan Blondell
December 5, 2019 | by Shannon
Joan Blondell. Have you heard of her?
Maybe her name sounds familiar, but you can’t place her in a film?
Not surprising. Joan Blondell is one of the most underrated actresses in Hollywood history. EVER.
Joan’s Hollywood career started in the 1930s at Warner Bros. She appeared in many classic films, such as gangster flick The Public Enemy (1931), and starred alongside some of the most legendary leading men, including James Cagney, Dick Powell, and Clark Gable.
But superstardom was always just out of Joan’s reach. She was most often the supporting actress in her films, and excelled at everything from comedy to drama, though comedy would be her bread and butter. Even more admirable, Joan successfully made the transition to character roles, and became a respected and sought after character actress in her later years.
After reading Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes [aff. link] in preparation for this month, the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Joan is what a sweet woman!
Here are a few things that I find particularly noteworthy about Joan Blondell’s fascinating and full life:
She Grew Up on the Road
Joan’s parents were Vaudeville performers, and Joan and her younger brother and sister grew up on the road, frequently joining their parents on stage. The Blondells were quite successful, even performing in Europe! Joan actually celebrated her first birthday in Paris because that’s where work took the Blondell family!
However, as was often the case for Vaudeville performers, the Blondell income was not always steady. Joan’s naturally bright disposition shines through as she once described growing up with very little in an ever changing home:
“My mother and father made a miraculous home life for us in cheap hotels and rooming houses. We learned the importance of our profession, the importance of giving a good performance no matter how exhausted we were. We learned to cook on a Sterno stove and to sew; we learned compassion and we learned how to work.”
One Degree from Grace Kelly
Growing up on Vaudeville basically decided Joan’s career for her, and she stuck with the stage as a young adult. Joan’s big break came from none other than playwright George Kelly, the uncle of future Hollywood star and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly! Joan’s reading at her audition for Kelly’s play, Maggie the Magnificent (1929) so impressed him that Joan was basically cast on the spot.
The play, though not terribly successful on Broadway, showed Joan and her co-star, the also as yet unknown James Cagney, to full advantage. It wasn’t long before both Joan and Cagney were discovered by Hollywood scouts, and signed contracts at Warner Bros.
Never a Superstar, Always a Super Supporting Actress
Film historian John Kobal once said about Joan that
“People like her never won awards. They just saved movies.”
Boy was this true! Joan saved countless films over the years because of her natural charisma and always spot on comedic timing. Friend and co-star James Cagney adored Joan—just like everyone else she ever met—and echoed Kobal’s words:
“She could have done many better things than the roles they gave her. If she hadn’t looked like a tootsie she’d have made a great Lady Macbeth.”
She was a Bombshell
Ok this is easy to forget because Joan made so much out of the second half of her career as a character actress, but look at what a cutie she was! I think she was adorable in her character actress years as well, but Joan was a downright glamour girl in the 1930s and 1940s!
Joan knew that one of the main reasons she never became a Warner Bros. superstar like her good friends Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck was that Joan’s career was never her top priority: family always came first.
Joan reveled in motherhood, often defending her decision to have babies at the prime of her glamour girl years. Joan insisted after the birth of her son Norman in 1935 that:
“This business of a baby spoiling the fan’s interest in a female star is all bunk. Audiences…like to see an actress give a good performance…and a baby helps a female become a better actress. My baby is helping me. He takes me out of myself. Makes me understand many more emotions than I have ever felt before.”
Lots of wisdom there! I’m not an actress, but I can totally understand and relate to what Joan is saying here.
Did Someone Say Bette Davis?
Bette Davis and Joan were good friends! They became close during their starlet days at Warner Bros. Joan was one of Bette’s few basically lifelong female friends in Hollywood. Bette often said that she envied Joan’s ability to cry on cue. And if Bette Davis envies something about your acting, then you know you’re good!
She Was Mrs. Dick Powell Before June Allyson
I certainly didn’t know Joan was married to boyish crooner Dick Powell! Furthermore, she was married to Powell before his union with June Allyson. Powell and Allyson are known as one of Hollywood’s golden couples, so I think it’s particularly fascinating that before Dick and June, it was Dick and Joan.
I’ve never been a huge June Allyson fan—I do enjoy her unique singing voice, but she’s never really been a standout star in my book. So when I found out that June and Dick Powell were getting it on while he was still married to Joan, it kind of made me happy that June Allyson’s lasting fame has come from being a spokesperson for Depend adult diapers….
She was Mrs. Mike Todd before Liz T
Yep, just like she was Mrs. Dick Powell before June Allyson, Joan was also Mrs. Mike Todd before Elizabeth Taylor. It’s as if Joan primed her husbands for the financial success they would each enjoy after divorcing her: Dick Powell became a multi-millionaire with his production company, Four Star Television, after cheating on and divorcing Joan, while Mike Todd acquired his multi-millions after the end of his physically and mentally abusive marriage to Joan.
It really speaks to Joan’s amazing character that she didn’t get bitter over Mike never paying her back all the money she lent him during their marriage (upwards of $80,000! And this was the 1940s!) once he had more money than he knew what to do with. (Well, ok, Mike knew what to do with all that money—he bought beautiful Liz an endless array of furs and jewels!) And, no Elizabeth did not take Mike away from Joan. Mike and Liz got together five years after he and Joan divorced. Joan was always quick to defend Elizabeth on this point, probably because Joan knew what is was really like to have your husband leave you for another woman.
She Was an Excellent Cook!
Yes! How cool is that?!! Joan was known to bring homemade coffee cakes and sandwiches to her film and television sets. Her homemade cheesecake was legendary, and in 1950, Joan demonstrated her cooking skills on television when she made a casserole on the New York variety show, Penthouse Party.
Clark Gable Proposed to Her
Joan and Clark Gable met at Warner Brothers while filming Night Nurse (1931) with Barbara Stanwyck, before Clark was a star. When Joan and Barbara first saw Gable on set, Joan said both of them had to sit down, such was his magnificence!
Joan and Gable became good friends while filming 1945’s Adventure, enjoying steak dinners with makeup artist Dorothy Ponedel. Joan shared that Clark would
“go get some steaks, make them himself, and eat with us in the kitchen wearing a towel apron.”
Ummmm, don’t you just love that imagery?!! How adorable!
Though Joan and Clark were never more than friends, it wasn’t for Gable’s lack of trying. He actually proposed to Joan! And the fool turned him down!!!!
I think Joan astutely summed up Gable’s eternal appeal, which, Gable fan that I am, I just have to include:
“When he grinned, you’d have to melt. If you didn’t want him as a lover, you’d want to give him a bear hug. He affected all females, unless they were dead.”
Well said Joan!
She Made the Character Actress Transition
Joan said that in 1951, she looked in the mirror and realized that
“…my cute little glamour girl days were over. I quickly went into character roles and beat them [the rest of Hollywood] to the punch.”
I love that. Joan didn’t make a fool of herself by seeking young roles. Rather, when the time was right, she gracefully transitioned to character actress parts. Joan would remain in demand as a character actress for the rest of her life. Listen to Joan’s admirable attitude about aging in Hollywood:
“Who says it’s tough for an actress to grow older? Not me! I may have lost my girlish slimness—let’s face it, I’m plump—and I’m getting to the bags under the eyes stage, but the parts keep getting better and better, so here’s to the onslaught of age!”
Oh my gosh I LOVE her!
She Had a Fabulous Sense of Humor
Everyone who knew Joan, from friends and family to casual acquaintances and film set crews, all agreed that Joan had a delicious sense of humor! There are too many examples to share here, so I’ll try to keep it quick with my favorite little piece of Blondell humor. Here is an excerpt from a note Joan wrote to her daughter, Ellen, containing marriage advice just before Ellen’s wedding. Read it and tell me if it doesn’t make you just adore this woman!
“A wife must smile through menstrual pain and develop thick skin when her husband does not notice how pretty she is. Do not be jealous and do cultivate feminine mystique. Laugh until you pee. Remember that he will always want a comfortable chair…Do not forget to praise his looks…and, above all, do not fart before the third year.”
She was a Published Author
Seriously, is there anything Joan Blondell couldn’t do? In 1972, Joan became a published author with her book, Center Door Fancy [aff. link]. There were autobiographical aspects to the book, but it was a novel. And it was quite successful, selling well and becoming a Literary Guild selection!
She was in Grease!
This is probably where you’ve seen Joan! Grease (1978) was one of her last screen appearances. Joan is at her adorable best in the film, despite the fact that she had recently suffered a stroke and been diagnosed with leukemia. Talk about a pro. Joan is noticeably frail in Grease, yet that Blondell magic is still there. And her character in the film, Vi, is the diner waitress that everybody loves. Not so different from Joan herself!