Grave Spotlight

Joan Blondell

(Aug. 30, 1906 - Dec. 25, 1979)

March 19, 2010 -- Joan Blondell was the "go-to gal" at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, appearing in dozens of comedies, musicals and gritty crime dramas. With her blonde hair, big blue eyes and sparking smile, she was typically cast as the tough-talking, wise-cracking working girl, or the star's cynical best friend.

Blondell was born into a show business family. Her father, Edward, was a vaudeville comedian who toured the country for many years starring in a stage version of "The Katzenjammer Kids," based on the popular comic strip. Edward and his wife, Kathryn, better known as Katie, performed in theaters across the country, accompanied by their young children, Joan, Ed Jr. and Gloria. When her mother took ill, 8-year-old Joan replaced her in the act. When all the children finally joined the act, it was known as "Ed Blondell and Company."

The Blondell family eventually settled in Dallas, Texas, where Joan (competing as "Rosebud Blondell") won the 1926 Miss Dallas pageant, and later that year finished fourth in the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. The following year, she went to New York and began appearing in plays on Broadway, including "Penny Arcade," which co-starred James Cagney. Although the play only lasted a few weeks, Al Jolson saw it and bought the rights, then sold them to Warner Bros., with the requirement that Cagney and Blondell star in the film version, which was titled "Sinners' Holiday" (1930).

In 1931, Blondell was named a "WAMPAS Baby Star," an annual promotional campaign sponsored by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers from 1922 to 1934 to identify 13 actresses the group believed was on the threshold of movie stardom.

After the success of "Sinners' Holiday," Cagney and Blondell co-starred in six more films together, including "The Public Enemy" (1931), "Other Men's Women" (1931), "Blonde Crazy" (1931), "The Crowd Roars" (1932), "Footlight Parade" (1933) and "He Was Her Man" (1934). She co-starred with Cagney more often than any other actress.

Blondell was the busiest actress at Warner Bros. during the 1930s, appearing in "Night Nurse" (1931), with Barbara Stanwyck and Clark Gable; "Union Depot" (1932), with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; "Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933), with Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell; and "The Perfect Specimen" (1937), with Errol Flynn; and dozens of other films.

Though primarily known for her comedy roles, Blondell added a note of national melodrama at the end of "Gold Diggers of 1933," when she sang "Remember My Forgotten Man," a mournful tribute to the soldiers who fought in World War I, but were now victims of the Great Depression. Although the film started with the upbeat "We're in the Money," the ending reminded viewers that, although some people were "in the money," the national unemployment rate was at 25 percent and hundreds of thousands of people, including many who had served their country, were now homeless and standing in breadlines.

One of Blondell's most notable films, however, hasn't been seen in nearly 75 years, and is thought to be lost forever, a victim -- and perhaps one of the causes -- of Hollywood's Production Code of the early 1930s -- "Convention City" (1933).

"Convention City" was a comedy featuring Blondell, Adolphe Menjou, Dick Powell, Mary Astor, Guy Kibbee, Frank McHugh and Hugh Herbert. Reading the advertising copy for the film in its original release might give some clues as to its content: "Why do a million men leave home every year? Join in the daffy doings of one of those convulsing conventions where big business makes hey-hey -- and farmer's daughters make hey! Make the rounds with the boys -- make whoopie with those dazzling convention sweeties!"

The film included plenty of scenes of illegal drinking (1933 was the final year of Prohibition in the United States), conventioneers associating with women who were not their wives, sexual innuendo, and women in skimpy and revealing clothing. (In its original 1933 review of the film, the New York Times said, "Several of the jokes need a subterranean mind to be correctly understood.") After studio chief Jack Warner watched some early scenes while the film was still in production, he sent a memo to director Archie Mayo, warning him, "We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord's sake, don't let those bulbs stick out."

"Convention City" was released in late 1933, but the Production Code office refused to certify a reissue of the film in 1936, due to its objectionable content. The Production Code Authority described the film as "a pretty rowdy picture, dealing very largely with drunkenness, blackmail, and lechery, and without any particularly sympathetic characters or elements." The studio also received numerous complaints about "Convention City" -- including some from businessmen who didn't want their wives to know what really went on at those business conventions -- and Jack Warner personally ordered the film negative and all copies burned. There is still hope, however, that among all the copies which were sent out to theaters across the country and around the world, perhaps they might not have all been returned, and a copy might still exist somewhere in a long-forgotten film vault. Although the film is believed lost, a few promotional photographs from the film survive.

Blondell left Warner Bros. in 1939, but continued to work, typically in supporting roles in films, including "Cry Havoc" (1943), "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945), "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (1957), "Desk Set" (1957) and "The Cincinnati Kid" (1965). She also made guest appearances in a long list of TV comedies and dramas through the 1960s and 1970s, including "The Untouchables," "Death Valley Days," "The Virginian," "Wagon Train," "The Twilight Zone," "Burke's Law," "Bonanza," "Dr. Kildare," "The Lucy Show," "My Three Sons," "Slattery's People," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," "The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.," "Family Affair," "The Guns of Will Sonnett," "Petticoat Junction," "That Girl," "The Name of the Game," "McCloud," "Banyon," "Love, American Style," "The Rookies," "Medical Center," "The New Dick Van Dyke Show," "Police Story," "Starsky and Hutch," "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island." In 1968, she starred in the TV series, "Here Comes the Brides." Blondell also appeared in two films released shortly before her death -- "Grease" (1978) and "The Champ" (1979).

Blondell was nominated twice for an Emmy Award, twice for a Golden Globe, and once for an Oscar, as Best Supporting Actress in "The Blue Veil" (1951), but never won.

Although Blondell was a popular and successful actress with a nearly 50-year career, her real dream was to have a happy and stable home life, but she was never able to realize that dream. Her first marriage, to cinematographer George Barnes, lasted from 1933 to 1936. Her marriage to actor and singer Dick Powell lasted from 1936 to 1944. In 1947, Blondell married producer Michael Todd, which turned into an emotional and financial disaster for Blondell. Todd had filed for bankruptcy for a second time, primarily due to his huge gambling debts and excessive spending, but he continued to live the lavish lifestyle by burning through most of Blondell's money -- which may have been one of the main reasons why Blondell continued to work until just before her death. Blondell divorced him in 1950. In 1957, Todd married actress Elizabeth Taylor, and he died in a plane crash the following year.

After Blondell's divorce from Todd, Clark Gable reportedly proposed to her, saying that she reminded him of his late wife, Carole Lombard, and that she was the only woman who could ever replace Lombard in his life. Blondell refused his proposal, however, saying that she didn't want to replace Lombard, and doubted that she could.

In 1973, Blondell published her life story in the form of a thinly veiled novel titled, "Center Door Fancy," telling of her early years in vaudeville and Hollywood. All of the characters from her life are there, including her three ex-husbands and many of her co-stars, just with different names. The first comprehensive biography of Blondell, "Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes" by Matthew Kennedy, was published in 2007.

Blondell died of leukemia on Christmas Day, 1979, in Santa Monica, and is buried in a private garden at Forest Lawn Glendale -- not far from her second husband, Dick Powell, who died in 1963.

Blondell's parents, Edward and Katie, are also both buried at Forest Lawn Glendale, on top of the hill close to the main entrance of the cemetery.

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