Ninety years since her first screen performance, it’s hard to name a more likeable actress than Joan Blondell. With her big blue eyes and kewpie doll looks, she played tough as nails with a heart of gold women — the ultimate dishy dame who always had a snappy comeback.
Born Rose Joan Blondell on August 30, 1906 to a vaudeville family, she toured the world, joining them on stage as Baby Rosebud. After winning the 1926 Miss Dallas pageant and earning fourth place in the Miss America pageant, she starred on Broadway with a then unknown James Cagney in Penny Arcade. When Warner Brothers made the play into a movie, both she and Cagney were brought to Hollywood. Starting in 1931, Joan would go on to star in more films (nearly 40) for that studio than any other actress in the pre-code era. A versatile talent, she starred in comedies, gangster films, and Busby Berkeley musicals.
Sisterhood was a frequent theme of pre-code Depression era films featuring women who formed strong, long-lasting bonds because they identified with one another in a time of crisis and uncertainty. This alliance helped them get through an unjust world that stripped them of their illusions about how the world operated and what it had to offer them. These women were willing to do whatever it took to survive and go as far as life could take them. Gold Diggers of 1933 is an example of a sisterhood film and the quintessential musical of the Depression era, mixing social commentary, saucy innuendo, and spectacular production numbers into a perfect blend of drama, fantasy, and humor.
Joan plays Carol, a chorus girl trying to make a living on Broadway. She and her fellow dancers (Ruby Keeler, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers) are a close-knit group jaded by the Depression, watching the shows they’ve worked so hard to be in closed by creditors before they even open. It’s the four of them against the world. One of the girls, Polly (Keeler), has a songwriter boyfriend, Brad (Dick Powell), who turns out to be a rich kid whose family won’t tolerate his relationship with a “gold digging chorus girl.” Brad’s brother and the family lawyer turn up at the girls’ apartment. The brother assumes Carol (Blondell) is Polly and insults her by proclaiming, “showgirls are parasites, chiselers, and gold diggers.” He offers her money to end her engagement with Brad. Carol, no longer bothering to explain she isn’t Polly says, “No price on me!” She’s about to show them the door when she and Trixie (MacMahon) decide to have some fun and take these two saps for a ride! Joan is hilarious in this scene; unleashing whip-smart put downs on the two men who are clearly out of their league with these strong, street-smart women. These kinds of sisterhood films let women be the heroes, while the men took a backseat.
In the film’s final number, The Forgotten Man, Joan plays the “spirit of the Depression.”
It’s important to understand that Warner Brothers made both entertaining and socially conscious films. Forgotten Man refers to two specific events of 1932. Roosevelt made a speech on the campaign trail where he drew a connection between World War I and what he called “the forgotten man” at the bottom of the economic tier. Then, during the summer of 1932, a group of 17,000 World War I veterans marched on Washington. They wanted jobs and bonus money the government had promised them when they returned from the war but failed to deliver. Hoover turned the army on the protesting veterans and burned their camps — a move that sealed his fate at the polls in November when he lost to FDR. In The Forgotten Man number, Joan plays a prostitute dressed in rags watching with sorrow and frustration as cops harass homeless men. The climax of the song has Blondell singing with arms outstretched, surrounded by soldiers and homeless men and women in a passionate plea for dignity. This number is a pointed critique of the actions of the Hoover administration, and a bold move on the part of Warner Brothers as no studio up to this period in time had so openly made a political statement. Here Blondell is front and center in an iconic piece of Hollywood history.
The Depression left women vulnerable. Economically, they had to rely on men as primary breadwinners. Blondell always played a capable straight shooter, and Depression era women saw her as a reassuring image of can-do womanhood.
After leaving Warners in 1939, Joan continued to work as a respected character actress for five decades. One of her last roles was Vi, the waitress who counsels "beauty school dropout" Frenchy in 1978’s Grease.
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Next month - Jean Harlow