Film critic Kenneth Turan previews this retrospective in the Los Angeles Times.
A vaudeville trouper who joined the family act in 1909 at the age of three, Joan Blondell found her way to Hollywood in the early 1930s via Broadway among a new generation of performers seemingly custom-built for the sound era. James Cagney, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck were among her aspiring cohort at Warner Bros. and she played alongside each of them while making 40 features for the studio between 1930 and 1935 alone. Although Blondell never achieved their stardom—or salaries—the screen persona she established in supporting and featured roles across a steady run of pre-Code quickies remains essential to our historical imagination of Depression-era America. Whether as chorus girl or working girl, Blondell exudes a confident eroticism while bringing to her characters’ hard-won knowledge of the modern world, a breezy humanity that transformed hard-boiled caricatures into recognizable women. With every scene-stealing cynical rejoinder, she projected a personal history honed to a cutting edge. As Variety assessed her appeal in 1932, “Nobody can touch Miss Blondell in getting sympathy for a dame who’s a little bit smarter than a girl’s supposed to be.” As iconic roles congealed into typecasting, Blondell left Warners in 1938 but her career continued another five decades with memorable roles in each. This career survey traces Blondell’s career from the Broadway of pre-Code Warner Bros. to her turn as a Broadway playwright in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977) and includes rare footage selected from the home movies deposited with UCLA Film & Television Archive by the family of Dick Powell, Blondell’s second husband and frequent co-star.
Special thanks: Norman Powell, Ellen Levine.