As a big fan of Joan Blondell, I feel the need to spread the word. Subsequently, I am listing what I consider her most essential films, at least the ones I have seen, of which she made more than ninety.
Born into a vaudevillian family Joan was in Show Business her whole life. She got her first big break when she was picked for a role in the Broadway play “Penny Arcade.” Also, in the play was another unknown by the name of James Cagney, The play only lasted about three weeks but both Blondell and Cagney were signed to be in the film version retitled “Sinner’s Holiday.” This was the first of seven times the two would appear in a film together.
With her big olive shaped eyes, luscious full figure and a wise cracking sassy sexy style, Joan was perfect for both drama and comedy, at which she excelled, usually, in a supporting role. She never made it to the stratosphere of contemporaries like Stanwyck or Crawford, yet she sparkled and many times outshined the leads. Joan appeared in more Warner Brother’s film than any other actress did.
Sinner’s Holiday – as previously mentioned this is the first screen pairing of Blondell and Cagney, so if for no other reason that makes it worth seeing. The stars are Grant Withers and Evelyn Knapp. Cagney is third billed while Joan who plays his trampy girlfriend is further down on the bill. No classic, but Cagney’s magnetism already shines. Joan’s character Myrtle displays some of the sass that would become her trademark. In a scene where the police are looking for Harry (Cagney) she claims to have been with him all night at the beach. Her father tells her to “think of your reputation.” She responds, “You think of it, you worry about it more than I do.”
The Public Enemy – One the of the classic gangster films of the early 1930’s that made Cagney a star. Joan is the most overlooked of the female stars in this movie. She play’s Mamie who marries Matt (Edward Wood), Tom Powers (Cagney) childhood friend and partner in bootlegging. Jean Harlow has the actual leading female role of floozy Gwen Allen who has”known dozens of men” and of course it was an unbilled Mae Clarke whose face met with a grapefruit thanks to Jimmy Cagney. Most of Joan’s scenes are with Wood.
Night Nurse – One of the best known and raciest of the pre-code films. Barbara Stanwyck and Joan are tough as nails nurses who confronts what seems to be a contagiously sick evil medical profession and a plot to murder two children for their inheritance. A young Clark Gable, without his mustache, is also on hand as a menacing chauffeur in on the plot to starve the two kids to death. Unbelievable, but Blondell and Stanwyck talk tough, fast and undress a lot. William Wellman directed.
Union Depot – Joan has the lead in this entertaining and somewhat unusual pre-code film. Most of the film takes place at a big city railroad terminal. Joan is an out of work showgirl trying to get out of town. First, to get a way from a strange man who has been forcing her to read strange stories to him and second, to get a job out in Denver, She meets up with two guys just released from jail who through a series of incidents come into contact with counterfeit money. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has the male lead who mistakenly takes Joan for a prostitute and takes her to a hotel across the way from the train station. Actually, Joan leads him to believe this since she has no money and it is hinted that she is willing to sell herself for a meal. When he sees she is stalling to “put out”, Doug thinks he is being played for a sap and slugs her. She breaks down crying because she can’t go through with it. Being deep down a good guy, he decides to help her by buying a train ticket with the unknowing counterfeit money. This is no major classic but it is good to see Joan in a lead role and looking so great. Check out the unexpected ending.
The Crowd Roars – Joan plays the girlfriend of James Cagney’s younger brother (Eric
Linden) who wants to be a racecar driver like big brother Jimmy. Ann Dorvak in Cagney’s main squeeze and Joan again is regulated to the second female lead in this early Howard Hawks racecar drama. While the film is dated in many ways Blondell’s sarcastic “race track” broad is still fun to watch.
Three on a Match– the story of three girls who grew up together and the different paths their lives take. Blondell’s character starts off bad going to jail but she straightens herself out as time goes by with just the opposite happening to Ann Dorvak’s character. Joan’s part is the largest though; I must admit Ann Dorvak steals the show. Another forbidden Hollywood gem loaded with code breaking scenes involving drugs, sex, child neglect and booze. Unlike postcode films, there is no redemption here.
Gold Diggers of 1933 – Probably, the greatest depression musical of all time and certainly one of the most risqué. Four showgirls, Joan, Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler and Aline McMahon are looking for their big break and the right man. Ginger Rogers and the chorus do “We’re in the Money” covered only in large coins of which Ginger has one ripped off her and is practically naked. Three of the girls live together and are always in various stages of undress. Not to mention the naked silhouettes during the Pettin’ in the Park” number and the midget (Billy Barty) looking under the girls dresses, but it’s not just about the skin. This all leads up to the final production number, the remarkable “Remember My Forgotten Man” sung by Blondell. An epic portrayal of forgotten war veterans marching, breadlines, and old tenements integrated into a candid political statement of the times. Busby Berkeley at his best.
Footlights Parade – Teams Cagney and Blondell in their only musical together. Joan is terrific in the role of Cagney’s wise cracking secretary and the real one with the brains. They are wonderful together. Another great Berkeley musical production. Blondell looks great, not surprising because the cinematographer was her first husband George Barnes.
The Cincinnati Kid – Joan is a professional dealer known as Lady Fingers in this Steve McQueen classic of the mid 1960’s. Especially importantly since she reteamed with former, Warner Brother’s co-star Edward G. Robinson. This was only their second and last film together.
I have not seen these films but from all I have read or heard they deserve the right to be considered essential:
Blondie Johnson – A pre-code film with Joan as the leader of a criminal gang.
The Blue Veil – Joan was nominated by a supporting actress award for this film, as was its leading lady Jane Wyman. The film is apparently tied up in litigation and is not available for showing.
Cry Havoc – In this World Word II drama Joan is a volunteer Army nurse on Bataan. The film has a great female cast including, Margaret Sullivan, Ann Southern, Ella Raines, Fay Bainter and Marsha Hunt.
He Was Her Man – Again with Cagney, which pretty much in itself, makes it essential. Cagney is a safe cracker on the run. He meets Joan who is also on the run trying to get away from her own life.
Films for Further Research
These are Joan Blondell films that are hard to find and have generally received good reviews or just sound interesting. Most, if not all, have never been released on home video or rarely, if ever, shown on TV. I could be wrong here and they may have popped up on TCM or somewhere else. If anyone knows where these films can be accessed please let me know.
Convention City – if it even exists. This pre-code film was supposedly so raunchy and Warners received so many complaints that Jack Warner ordered the negative and all copies burned. Yet there is always hope a copy exist somewhere buried in someone’s basement of junk or in some country in Europe. “Lost” films are sometimes found in the strangest places so we can always hope.
Goodbye Again – Directed by Michael Curtiz, in this comedy Joan co-stars with Warren Williams. Of the three comments in IMDB all were favorable and it sounds like a pre-code gem.
Central Park – Another pre-code rarity made in 1932.
Big City Blues – Still another pre-code film. This ones a depression drama where Joan co-stars with Eric Linden, who played James Cagney’s kid brother in The Crowd Roars.
Humphrey Bogart has a minor role.
Back in Circulation – Co-stars with Pat O’Brien and Margaret Lindsay in this comedy-mystery.
There’s Always a Woman – According to a contributor on IMDB this film has played on TCM so be on the lookup. Joan is a Detective. Her co-star is Melvyn Douglas in this comedy-mystery. Mary Astor is also on hand.
After “Nightmare Alley” Joan had roles in minor films like “Christmas Eve” and “For Heaven’s Sake.” Her career was shifting to smaller character roles and with the advent of television she dived right in including a co-starring role in “Here Comes the Brides.” A couple of prominent films from the 1950’s include “The Desk Set,” “This Could Be the Night,” “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” and “Lizzie.” In the 1960’s she appeared in “Angel Baby,” “Advance to the Rear,” “Waterhole 3,” and “Stay Away, Joe.” The 1970’s saw a nice turn as a madam in “Support Your Local Gunfighter” also “Grease,” John Cassavettes “Opening Night” and “The Champ.”