Blondell, Joan (1906–1979)

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Blondell, Joan (1906–1979)

American actress. Born on August 30, 1906, in New York, New York; died of leukemia on December 25, 1979, in Santa Monica, California; daughter and one of three children of Eddie (a stage comedian, one of the original Katzenjammer Kids) and Kathryn (Cain) Blondell (a vaudeville performer); sister of Gloria Blondell , who also appeared in film and television; attended Venice (California) Grammar School, Erasmus High School, Brooklyn, New York, and Santa Monica High School, California; married George Scott Barnes, in 1933 (divorced 1935); married Dick Powell, in 1936 (divorced 1945); married Mike Todd, in 1947 (divorced 1950): children: (first marriage) Norman Scott Barnes (b. 1934); (second marriage) Ellen Powell (b. 1938).


The Office Wife (1930); Sinners' Holiday (1930); Illicit (1931); Millie (1931); My Past (1931); God's Gift to Women (1931); Other Men's Women (1931); Public Enemy (1931); Big Business Girl (1931); Night Nurse (1931); The Reckless Hour (1931); Blonde Crazy (1931); The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1931); Union Depot (1932); The Crowd Roars (1932); The Famous Ferguson Case (1932); Make Me a Star (1932); Miss Pinkerton (1932); Big City Blues (1932); Three on a Match (1932); Central Park (1932); Lawyer Man (1932); Broadway Fad (1933); Blondie Johnson (1933); Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933); Goodbye Again (1933); Footlight Parade (1933); Havana Widows (1933); Convention City (1933); I've Got Your Number (1934); He Was Her Man (1934); Smarty (1934); Dames (1934); The Kansas City Princess (1934); Traveling Saleslady (1935); Broadway Gondolier (1935); We're in the Money (1935); Miss Pacific Fleet (1935); Colleen (1936); Sons O'Guns (1936); Bullets or Ballots (1936); Stage Struck (1936); Three Men on a Horse (1936); Perfect Specimen (1937); Back in Circulation (1937); The King and the Chorus Girl (1937); There's Always a Woman (1938); The Amazing Mr. Williams

(1939); East Side of Heaven (1939); Good Girls Go to Paris (1939); Kid from Kokomo (1939); Off the Record (1939); I Want a Divorce (1940); Two Girls on Broadway (1940); Lady for a Night (1941); The Nurse's Secret (1941); Model Wife (1941); Three Girls About Town (1941); Topper Returns (1941); Cry Havoc (1943); A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945); Don Juan Quilligan (1945); Adventure (1945); Christmas Eve (1947); The Corpse Came C.O.D. (1947); Nightmare Alley (1947); Without Honor (1949); For Heaven's Sake (1950); The Blue Veil (1951); The Opposite Sex (1956); Desk Set (1957); Lizzie (1957); This Could Be the Night (1957); Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957); Angel Baby (1961); Sunday in New York (1964); Advance to the Rear (1964); The Cincinnati Kid (1964); Paradise Road (1965); Ride Beyond Vengeance (1966); Waterhole No. 3 (1967); Kona Coast (1968); Stay Away, Joe (1968); Big Daddy (1969); Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971); Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976); Opening Night (1978); Grease (1978); The Champ (1979); The Glove (1979); The Woman Inside (1981).

Spanning seven decades, Joan Blondell's career included stage, film, radio, and television. It began when she joined her parents' vaudeville act, "Ed Blondell and Company," at the tender age of three and debuted in Sydney, Australia. The act toured Europe and China before returning to the U.S. when Blondell was five. Joined by her brother and sister in turn, she was part of the act for 15 years, traveling back and forth across the country, and attending school sporadically or, as she put it, "only when the Gerry Society demanded it." At 17, while doing stock with a company in Dallas, Texas, she won a Miss Dallas beauty contest and a prize of $2,000. With the advent of movies, the Blondells were struggling to obtain bookings, and the prize money helped Joan bring the family to New York. She continued to support them, working at odd jobs during the day and acting without pay at night at the Provincetown Theatre in Greenwich Village. It was her hope to get the act on the road again, but it wasn't to be. Blondell finally landed a small part in a Broadway production of Tarnished, which was followed by roles in The Trial of Mary Dugan and the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1929, she was cast in George Kelly's Maggie the Magnificent, playing the sassy, gum-chewing wife of a bootlegger portrayed by a then-unknown James Cagney. Blondell and Cagney were so good that they won a line or two from the critics and were cast together again in the stage melodrama, Penny Arcade. Al Jolson took an option on the movie rights to Penny Arcade and subsequently sold them to Warner Bros. with the suggestion that they use Blondell and Cagney in their original roles. Although Warner Bros. brought them both to Hollywood, the pair was regarded as inexperienced and were cast in much smaller roles. The movie was released in 1930 under the title Sinners' Holiday.

Warners was impressed with Blondell, however, and awarded her a five-year contract which jump-started her film career. Typically playing the cynical, wisecracking blonde with a heart of gold, she became the studio workhorse, making some 20 films between 1931 and 1933. "They'd even pan me going to the ladies' room," she joked. Looking back on these early years, Blondell wished she had fought more with the front office for better roles, but she was grateful at the time—during the depth of the Depression—to be able to support her family. Two films of this period stand out: Public Enemy, in which she played a gangster's moll, and Gold Diggers of 1933, in which she offered a unique, non-singing rendition of "Remember My Forgotten Man."

Of her roles in more than 80 movies, her favorite also proved the most memorable, the part of Aunt Sissy in the 1945 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Later, in 1951, Blondell received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Blue Veil. During the '50s, she left the movies for a period of about five years to concentrate on stage and television. During that time, she toured in productions of Come Back, Little Sheba, The Time of the Cuckoo, Call Me Madame, and Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Of her small role in a 1957 production of The Rope Dancers, critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, "It's small, but it's gold." Blondell was also seen in numerous television roles; most notable among them was her portrayal of the earthy barmaid in the series "Here Comes the Bride," for which she won two Emmy Award nominations.

Blondell's private life was beset by failed marriages. Her first, to cinematographer George Scott Barnes (his third marriage), produced a son, Norman Scott. (Blondell worked until the seventh month of her pregnancy. "They kept shooting me higher and higher," she recalled, "and finally shot me standing behind furniture.") She met Dick Powell while shooting Gold Diggers of 1933, divorced Barnes in 1935, and married Powell in 1936. After their daughter Ellen was born in 1938, the Powells both left Warner Bros. in hopes of finding better parts elsewhere. The best Blondell could land was the role of Powell's wife in Paramount's I Want a Divorce, which offered only a few small comic scenes but led to a successful radio series of the same name. Between the radio work and entertaining for the USO, Blondell did not return to film until 1943. Around that time, she caught the eye of Broadway producer Mike Todd, while her husband Dick Powell fell head over heels for June Allyson , a young dancer cast with him in Meet the People (1944). Blondell and Powell went their separate ways in 1945. Less than three weeks after the divorce, Powell married Allyson. Todd and Blondell carried on a tempestuous courtship and finally married in 1947.

While Blondell continued to make movies, Todd moved his headquarters to California. The couple later moved to an estate in New York where they enjoyed a lavish, if short-lived, lifestyle, financed with a hefty loan from Blondell and income from her stage work. By the time they divorced in 1950, Todd was on the brink of bankruptcy, and Blondell was out some $80,000. Mike Todd went on to a notorious union with actress Elizabeth Taylor and was killed in a plane crash in 1958. Late in life, Blondell had mellow recollections of the men in her life. "Each was totally different," she said, "If you could take a part of each one of them and put them into one man you'd have a helluva husband." She never married again, although she reportedly hated living alone.

During the '60s and '70s, Blondell was reduced to second-rate movie roles. In 1965, however, the National Board of Review, in a belated gesture to her long career, voted her the year's best supporting actress for her minor role in The Cincinnati Kid. At the end of her career, Blondell became discouraged by the quality of scripts that were sent her way, calling them "pointless, rotten and unnecessary." She always retained a down-to-earth outlook on Hollywood and never took herself too seriously. Admitting that she was never terribly comfortable being on display, she spent the last years of her life living in New York City pursuing interests she felt she had finally earned the right to enjoy, including completing a non-biographical novel, Center Door Fancy, published in 1972. Joan Blondell died of leukemia in 1979.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Blondell, Joan (1906–1979)

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