Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Forgotten Star Worth Remembering

Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda
A career retrospective at the Pacific Film Archives
Friday June 13th-Sunday June 29th
*denotes available on DVD.

Joan Blondell: Naughty but Nice

Joan Blondell's career stretched from the risque Pre-Code films of the 1930s to the radical independent films of the 1970s. Along the way, she worked with legendary directors Bill Wellman, Michael Curtiz, Howard Hawks, Busby Berkley, Roy Del Ruth, Mervyn LeRoy, Victor Fleming, Elia Kazan, Robert Wise and Norman Jewison. She was James Cagney's most frequent co-star, seven times in total, and also costarred with friends Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis. She continually chose personal commitments over career advancement, and, so, never achieved superstardom as many of her co-stars did. However, she always kept working and gave a series of sparkling and heartfelt performances. The Pacific Film Archive has programmed a twelve film salute to Blondell's diverse body of work that reflects both Blondell's changing image and the simultaneously changing film industry.

The first weekend, June 13th and 14th, focuses on her pre-code Warners' days. On Friday, Blonde Crazy (1931) and Night Nurse (1931)* will be screened. The first co-stars James Cagney and tells the tale of two small time con artists trying to break into the big time with disastrous results. The second film is a pot-boiler about night nurses, bootlegging, bad parenting and kidnapping. This doozie co-stars Barbara Stanwyck and features numerous, and gratuitous, scenes of both ladies undressing. A young and rather virile Clark Gable spices up the film as a shady chauffer. On Saturday, Busby Berkley's Footlight Parade (1933)* screens, a Depression musical featuring Blondell, Cagney and future husband, Dick Powell, and was photographed by her then current husband, George Barnes. The production number Honeymoon Hotel has to be seen to be believed. I've seen it numerous times, and I still can't believe it. No one goes over the top like Busby Berkley.
Joan Blondell with frequent co-star James Cagney in a scene from Blonde Crazy.
On Friday June 20th, the Pre-Code focus continues with screenings of Three on a Match (1932)* and The King and the Chorus Girl (1937). The first co-stars Bette Davis and Ann Dvorak. Three childhood friends encounter each other by chance and disaster follows in the form of divorce, drugs and kidnapping. Blondell plays the tough but golden hearted reform school graduate. The film also features Humphrey Bogart, who like Cagney and Davis started his film career in the Warner's stable, as a particularly nasty type. The second film of the night features Joan in a typical role, a snappy talking chorine, but this time, she gets to display a smarter and more moral side. Her no-nonsense working class character supplies a much needed tonic for a debauched and exiled king by bringing romance and meaning into his life. The first five films in the series reflect the more liberal depression era values that the Production Code later repudiated. Times were hard and audiences were more sympathetic towards the screen characters morally equivocal conduct in the pursuit of money, good times and happiness.
On Sunday June 22nd, the programming jumps forward a decade. Blondell has moved from ingenue to a woman of a certain age. Instead of fighting aging and the accompanying change in roles, she embraced the opportunity to grow as an actress. Director Elia Kazan captures this deepening of her abilities in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)*. She plays the oft married black sheep of the family, Aunt Sissy. Unfortunately, many of her best scenes were cut due to the production code. The quality of her performance still shines through the truncated role, however, and she received some of her best reviews.
Wednesday June 25th brings us back to the late 30s and early 40s for another double feature. First up, There's Always a Woman (1938) features Blondell as the wife to private detective, Melvyn Douglas in a comedy mystery produced to capitalize on the tremendous success of MGM's Thin Man series*. (Interestingly MGM itself produce its own knock-off, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) and even want as far as casting Thin Man star William Powell in the lead.). The second feature on the bill is Three Girls about Town (1941). Blondell plays a "hostess" in a madcap comedy set in a hotel during a wild convention weekend. World War Two America's concerns and mores are revealed in the film's combination of character, three liberated and independent sisters making their own way in the world, and plot, a strike threatens the defense industries.
Joan Blondell tries to read Tyrone Power's future in Nightmare Alley
The darkening of post World War Two American cinema and society is clearly mirrored in the film noir master piece, Nightmare Alley (1947)*, screening on June 26th. In this not to be missed classic, Blondell plays Zeena the Miracle Woman, a sideshow carnival psychic. Tyrone Power's Stan seduces the lonely Zeena, who's married to an alcoholic carnie, in hopes of persuading her to teach him the code she and her husband had used, in more prosperous times, for their successful mentalist acts. Blondell's performance is particularly compelling because Zeena is too wise and experienced not to know what Stan is really after but also too alone not to grasp at fleeting happiness. Stan pursues his desire for wealth and glory with soul killing results.
In Lizzie (1957), screening Friday June 27th, Blondell plays a distinctly unglamorous but meaty supporting role typical of this stage of her career. Once again the film reflects the times, the 1950s obsession with psychological disorders, a repeating theme in many films of the period. Blondell plays the alcoholic aunt of the title character, portrayed by Eleanor Parker who suffers from multiple disorder personality. Blondell considered it her best performance since A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The final film of the series screens on Sunday June 29th. Blondell plays an established and aging playwright in John Cassavetes' Opening Night (1978)*, a film shot in Cassavetes' hallmark improvisational and character focused style. Blondell gives an amazing performance, doubly so considering she was thrown into a completely different working method. Her ability to continue to reinvent herself and adapt artistically at the age of seventy-two epitomizes both her professionalism and talent.
The opening weekend programs will be introduced by Matthew Kennedy, author of Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes. This fascinating biography covers Blondell's life from her childhood spent on the road with her Vaudevillian parents through her diverse film and television career: covering both her artistic journey from star to character actor but also her struggle to find personal happiness through three failed marriages and the joys and tribulations of motherhood. Kennedy sums her life up perfectly when he quotes Blondell, "There is nothing in my life I would change if I could. The mistakes I made were made out of love. And who escapes heartaches?"

1 comment:

  1. I have always felt A Tree Grows in Brooklyn reveals an emerging master. Its a beautiful little film (Kazan's feature debut) that is often overlooked.
    Anyone that grew up in the sixties (especially with teenage sisters) should remember Joan Blondell starring as tough but loveable Lottie the saloon keeper/town madame, opposite Bobby Sherman and David Soul in the short-lived ABC TV series Here Come the Brides.