At the start of his 2007 biography Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes (University Press of Mississippi, 300 pages, $30), film historian Matthew Kennedy introduces the story of one of Hollywood’s forgotten actresses by posing a phenomenological question: what does it mean to always be gazed upon?
In describing Jack Warner’s golden girl of the 1930s, Kennedy looks to the lineaments of her face and body as the first sign of her success. "The architecture of [Blondell’s] mouth, simultaneously sharp and soft, suggested Cupid," he writes. "She had a radiant smile, straight white teeth, pillowy lips, and easy curls in her gamboge blonde hair…. Her figure was voluptuous, at one time measuring 3721 1/2 36." As for Blondell’s eyes, "they were spellbinding on screen, and apparently more so in person."
Kennedy’s paean to Blondell is reminiscent of Roland Barthes’ poetic 1957 short essay, "The Face of Garbo." But whereas Garbo’s face represents for Barthes an eternal, unforgettable synecdoche of Hollywood, Blondell’s mystique lies mostly in her erasure. What became of this celluloid icon whose image once defined an era but has since been lost in the canister?
"Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda," playing at the Pacific Film Archive, collects some of the actress’ most memorable performances from a 50-year career. A vaudeville performer turned Warner Brothers ingenue lauded by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS) as the most promising performer of her time, Blondell was part of the first generation of talkie actors who blossomed against the moribund backdrop of the Great Depression. After a childhood spent at the mercy of a peripatetic acting family, her endurance and versatility were soon exploited by the Hollywood meat-grinder. Unencumbered by unions, censors, or truculent auteurs, moguls like Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer managed Hollywood like an industrial assembly line, churning out most films in four weeks. By the end of the 1930s, Blondell had completed more than 50 films.
Alongside contemporaries such as Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Judy Garland, Blondell was the face of the Hollywood studio system as it began its ascent to the so-called Golden Age. From the art nouveau musicals of Busby Berkeley (Gold Diggers of 1933) and pre-Code cheap thrills (1931’s Night Nurse and 1932’s Three on a Match) of the Depression to the classic melodramas (1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and noirs (1947’s Nightmare Alley) of the postwar era, Blondell’s putf8um performances regularly stole the spotlight. Her greatest onscreen collaboration came after a serendipitous meeting with promising stage performer Jimmy Cagney at a Broadway audition for playwright George Kelly. They would go on to star together in nearly a dozen Warner films, including The Public Enemy (1931), Blonde Crazy (1931), and Footlight Parade (1933).
Despite her constant, almost Puritan dedication to craft, Blondell’s equal devotion to a home life away from the screen might have contributed to her disappearance from the Hollywood A-list. She reportedly hated the spotlight and refused the preening lifestyle of industry players. Three disastrous marriages to cinematographer George Barnes, actor Dick Powell, and producer Mike Todd as well as work exhaustion and a predilection for domestic seclusion largely devalued her star status by the 1950s. It would not lessen the impact of her performances, however 1951’s The Blue Veil, 1957’s Lizzie, and John Cassavetes’ 1978 dramedy Opening Night confirmed that maturity had not diminished her gift.
Blondell represented "the three-dimensional face on a two-dimensional screen," according to Kennedy, who describes her as "full of surprises, one moment as tough as Joan Crawford, the next as fragile as Margaret Sullivan, the next as saucy as Mae West." Her screen image represents a peak moment of Hollywood radiance. But that same radiant image contained a delicate talent yearning for the darkness of obscurity.
JOAN BLONDELL: THE FIZZ ON THE SODA
Fri/13 through June 29, $9.50 ($13.50 for double bills)
Pacific Film Archive Theater
2575 Bancroft, Berk.