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Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes

Matthew Kennedy
Copyright Date: 2007
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    Joan Blondell
    Book Description:

    Joan Blondell: A Life between Takesis the first major biography of the effervescent, scene-stealing actress (1906-1979) who conquered motion pictures, vaudeville, Broadway, summer stock, television, and radio. Born the child of vaudevillians, she was on stage by age three. With her casual sex appeal, distinctive cello voice, megawatt smile, luminous saucer eyes, and flawless timing, she came into widespread fame in Warner Bros. musicals and comedies of the 1930s, includingBlonde Crazy,Gold Diggers of 1933, andFootlight Parade.

    Frequent co-star to James Cagney, Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart, friend to Judy Garland, Barbara Stanwyck, and Bette Davis, and wife of Dick Powell and Mike Todd, Joan Blondell was a true Hollywood insider. By the time of her death, she had made nearly 100 films in a career that spanned over fifty years.

    Privately, she was unerringly loving and generous, while her life was touched by financial, medical, and emotional upheavals.Joan Blondell: A Life between Takesis meticulously researched, expertly weaving the public and private, and features numerous interviews with family, friends, and colleagues.

    Matthew Kennedy teaches anthropology at the City College of San Francisco and film history at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He is the author ofMarie Dressler: A BiographyandEdmund Goulding\'s Dark Victory: Hollywood\'s Genius Bad Boy. Read more about his work at

    Hear Matthew Kennedy on WNYC!

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-300-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-9)

    Joan Blondell has always been an enigma. As a beloved actress, she was in front of the cameras for five decades, yet was adamant in her priorities to family and home life. She made good money due to an exhausting schedule, yet was never far ahead of the bill collectors. She was one of the most reliably good actresses Hollywood has ever seen, yet she was rarely showcased and never won a major award. She was a most steadfast friend to many, yet her three marriages ended badly.

    Blondell’s multiple contractions drew me to her as an irresistible subject of...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Next Town
    (pp. 10-24)

    When Joan Blondell publishedCenter Door Fancyin 1972, it was labeled a novel, but everyone knew better. She maintained that virtually all events in the book were from her life. No one questioned her; the parallels were too transparent. The names were changed, but it was easy to figure out who was who. She was Nora Marten, vaudeville charmer turned movie star. David Nolan was George Barnes, cinematographer and first husband. Jim Wilson was Dick Powell, her singer-actor-producer husband number two. Jeff Flynn was Mike Todd, her volatile third and last husband, who offered eroticism alongside jealousy, public humiliation,...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Starlight
    (pp. 25-45)

    When the Blondells arrived in New York for an indefinite stay, they were close to destitute. Twenty-year-old Joan and eleven-year-old Gloria took odd jobs, hating every one of them. Junie had a paper route. Father Ed did a solo routine as the live act before picture shows, but he never brought in more than ten dollars for a day’s work. The reduced conditions of vaudeville necessitated his absence for weeks. Joan waitressed a bit, but didn’t keep up with the practical skills she learned at the North Texas State Teachers College. Her tenure as purse salesgirl at one of New...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Hammer and Tongs
    (pp. 46-67)

    Thanks to George Barnes’s connections, Joan was enjoying high-class company, but she remained unostentatious, disliking showy hats, jewelry, and makeup. She went to premieres only when ordered by the studio, as she was whenUnion Depothad a pull-out-the-stops opening at Warner’s Hollywood Theater. It distinguished itself as a sharp, engaging drama that refused to go soft for an artificial happy ending. Joan invested the penniless chorus girl with a waiflike vulnerability that more closely approximated who she was than all those brassy, in-charge dames she usually played.

    Joan, meanwhile, was grappling with her sexual attraction to George. “Here was...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Nearer to Heaven
    (pp. 68-88)

    Christmas 1934 was quiet on Lookout Mountain. Relatives came loaded with gifts, Joan cooked, Norman slept, and George brooded. Preoccupation with the holiday allowed Joan to postpone contemplating why George seemed distant from her and their son. They were happiest when out of town. For New Year’s Eve, they tent camped in the desert. Later in January, Joan went searching for a nanny and found a want ad listing for Gesina Lanke, a woman who once cared for Joan, Junie, and Gloria. She was rehired, but Joan had to confront the growing problem at home. Norman’s birth was a Pyrrhic...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Freelancing
    (pp. 89-103)

    On 31 August 1938, Joan reported back to the studio for her first day of work with director James Flood and costar Pat O’Brien. She was now taking in $2,500 a week, the highest salary she would ever have at Warner Bros. It had been a whopping seven months since she made her last movie,There’s Always a Woman, and Joan was suffering from a mother’s separation anxiety. On the first day of shooting, she called home between scenes.

    “How’s the baby?” she asked Katie, now known by the family as “Nana.” She smiled at the answer, hung up, then...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Interrupted Family
    (pp. 104-129)

    Nineteen forty-two brought on blackout shades, civil air patrols, war bonds, victory gardens, and gas shortages. Tens of thousands of women began riveting, welding, and assembling in defense industries. With husbands gone, children were left without parental supervision. Juvenile delinquency staged a comeback and reform school enrollment increased accordingly. Neither Norman nor Ellen was in need of such intervention, but their parents were preoccupied elsewhere.

    James Cagney loaned his New England farm as barracks for servicemen. James Stewart joined the air force, and Robert Montgomery commanded a PT boat in the Pacific. Dick’s secretary Harold Kinny joined the Coast Guard....

  11. CHAPTER 7 Gulag-on-the-Hudson
    (pp. 130-152)

    Joan began work onAdventurein May of 1945 in an unambiguously supporting role. The production was rushed to capitalize on star Clark Gable’s decorated service as a pilot flying missions over Germany and his return to the screen after a three-year absence. InAdventure, he played a marine as restless as the sea, with Greer Garson as his becalming love interest.

    Gable and Garson never liked each other. She was too regally virtuous for him, and he was too coarse for her. Gable much preferred his women to be earthy and animated, so he gravitated toward Blondell, who had...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Solo Rites
    (pp. 153-178)

    Joan moved quickly toward a premeditated escape. She packed mostly clothes and costumes, then stored the trunks and suitcases in a tarpcovered trailer with her Uncle Ernie and Aunt Mae in Brooklyn. Norman was spending extended time at a friend’s house, but Ellen would be leaving with her mother. The night was animated by fear, as everything had the potential to wake Mike and alert him to Joan’s flight: the firing ignition, rotating tires on gravel, moonlight, and the low tree branch that made a scratching sound on the hood of the Cadillac convertible. Joan did not turn on the...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Love, Matey
    (pp. 179-203)

    Playwright William Inge, who served Joan advantageously withCome Back, Little Sheba, thought she was a brilliant actress and personally selected her for a seven-month, 110-city national tour of hisThe Dark at the Top of the Stairs. The story of a troubled Oklahoma family in the 1920s featured loquacious, slatternly Lottie Lacey, a character perfect for Joan’s colorful theatrics. “It’s the kind of role I love,” she said, “nice and juicy.” When the production managers told Joan she could bring Bridey or Fresh, but not both, she made the wrenching decision to give Fresh to a willing new owner....

  14. CHAPTER 10 I Hear Voices
    (pp. 204-226)

    Soon after finishing season one ofHere Come the Brides, Joan picked up some extra cash doing a brief turn in Warner Bros.’The Phynx. It was a supposed comedy about a rock band rescuing kidnapped “world leaders” Xavier Cugat, Johnny Weismueller, Butterfly McQueen, and Busby Berkeley from imprisonment behind Iron Curtain Albania. Joan played the American-born first lady, living in palatial opulence while being served thighs in a bucket by Colonel Sanders.The Phynxcombined pop culture misdates with “now generation” references to James Bond, the Beatles, the generation gap, racial stereotypes, the draft, Vietnam, and swinging London. But...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Predestiny
    (pp. 227-239)

    In mid-1976, Joan taped a two-hour season premiere of the popular cop seriesStarsky & Hutchwith formerHere Come the Bridesregular David Soul. She played an emasculating drugstore manager whose hankering for he-men figures into both the whodunit and the why-do-it. “You take Clark Gable and Ty Power—those wererealmen,” she said in her familiar timbre. “That’s what’s wrong with the world today—there are no real men around. Just sissy boys and perverts.” Joan’s line is spoken immediately before series costar Paul Michael Glaser inquires about panty hose.

    Joan had a small role in the ABC-TV...

  16. Epilogue
    (pp. 240-244)

    Two services were planned for Joan, one in California and one in New York. Several hundred mourners packed the Forest Lawn Memorial Park’s Wee Kirk O’ the Heather in Glendale. The family arrived in limousines and sat in the front rows of the full chapel, with additional onlookers assembled outside. Family friend Alex Swan conducted the Christian Science Church ceremony. “Those of us here represent a microcosm of the love, respect, and admiration of moviegoers around the world who have been entertained and amused by Joan Blondell for over 65 years,” he said. “The some 100 films in which she...

    (pp. 245-259)
    (pp. 260-260)
    (pp. 261-261)
    (pp. 262-264)
    (pp. 265-283)
    (pp. 284-286)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 287-300)