The following piece originally appeared in the November/December 2012 special year-end giant issue of The Dark Pages newsletter. Featuring 40 pages packed exclusively with Nightmare Alley centric articles it is available for purchase now. My entire contribution follows below but I recommend making the purchase for the other incredible 38-1/2 ad-free pages ... all Nightmare Alley! More about this special issue below.
Sassy Pre-Code Star Ages into Carny Doomsayer
Far more reliable than any “two dollar cornet,” Joan Blondell is most fondly recalled as an early ‘30s Warner Brothers workhorse. Blondell was born to show biz parents in 1906 and grew up performing. She made her way to Broadway in the late ‘20s and soon after Hollywood thanks to a boost from Al Jolson.
Jolson owned the film rights to Penny Arcade and tied co-stars Blondell and James Cagney to the production when he sold it to Warner Brothers in 1930. While Joan and Cagney aren’t the leads in the film, retitled Sinner’s Holiday, they are the stand-outs and were each rewarded with long-term contracts off the effort.
Blondell worked her way up from little sisters and best friends to feminine leads and the occasional starring role. The relaxed rules of the pre-code era worked to her advantage and Joan emerged as consistently sexy and saucy in several top titles of the period.
You wanted more in The Public Enemy and Night Nurse (both 1931) and got it in Blonde Crazy (1931) and Union Depot (1932). She had the lead in mystery Miss Pinkerton (1932) and again as crime boss in Blondie Johnson (1933). In Warner’s famed Depression era musicals she brings down the curtain on Gold Diggers of 1933 and looks out for old pal Cagney’s best interests in Footlight Parade (both 1933). Other popular titles of the period include Three on a Match, Central Park, Lawyer Man (all 1932), Havana Widows and the notorious lost film Convention City (both 1933).
Warner had a way of misusing their contract players and while Blondell still starred in several enjoyable titles, quality declined as the decade progressed.
Nightmare Alley came as part of a career renaissance for Blondell as a top supporting actress in the mid to late 1940s. Her second marriage to Dick Powell was on the rocks at the time of MGM’s Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943), a fascinating look at a group of Army nurses on Bataan starring Margaret Sullavan and featuring Joan as a wisecracking former burlesque dancer. She’s still beloved by audiences as oft married Aunt Sissy in Twentieth Century-Fox’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). She’s generally credited with stealing Adventure (1945) from co-stars Clark Gable and Greer Garson.
Joan married for the third time, to stage and screen producer Mike Todd, in 1947 and soon began work as Zeena in Nightmare Alley. It would be the last great film role for Blondell during this mini-40s roll as she’d spend the remainder of the decade riding out her tempestuous marriage which ended in 1950. Blondell returned to work with a vengeance after that, never remarrying and working right up until the time of her death in 1979. But it’s time to pull her story back to Zeena.
“I’m about as reliable as a two dollar cornet,” she tells Stan (Tyrone Power) in explaining where it all went wrong for her husband and partner, Pete (Ian Keith). She looks back at Pete sucking booze from a bottle and smiles, holding the expression as her gaze returns to Stan. She’s done with Pete and ready to move on to Stan, but she will not give up on him: “It’s the least I can do.”
Blondell’s Zeena the Seeress is the first character that we see amongst the carny hub-bub of Nightmare Alley’s opening. She gazes out at this crowd with hand on hip looking positively bored until she spots Stan moving amongst the yokels. There’s a definite interest.
Stan has an interest in Zeena too, but it is entirely a self-interest. He knows that Pete is finished and holds out hope of gaining the secret of the code that he used to work with Zeena in the big time. Zeena is torn between guilt and loyalty towards Pete and passion for Stan, who is using all he can to gain access to what he wants.
Zeena lets the tarot deck decide her path. Stan is dismayed when the reading turns poor. The cards predict doom for Pete and “I can’t go against the cards,” Zeena says. “Maybe it’s silly, maybe it isn’t,” but you can read her as easily as she does the cards—it’s certainly not silly to Zeena.
Zeena’s tarot deck figures again later when her cards reveal to the ever ambitious and fast rising Stan the same fortune that had doomed Pete. Zeena, tossed over by Stan for much younger Molly (Coleen Gray) by this time, takes a very definite delight in telling Stan that his big plans can only bring misfortune.
“Wasn’t that Pete’s card?” Stan asks of the hangman.
“Sure, now it’s yours,” Zeena replies with a vicious glee outlining her face.
“They were right for Pete, weren’t they,” she adds in response to Stan’s scolding.
We won’t see Blondell’s Zeena again, but she has set Stan’s fate.
Zeena wasn’t vindictive enough to wish Pete’s ultimate fate upon Stan, but she took her cards seriously enough to gain a measure of satisfaction out of their spoiling Stan’s grand plans. Even better, Zeena knew that Stan put more stock into those cards than he ever claimed he did. Stan knows it too. He drives Zeena and Bruno (Mike Mazurki) from his hotel room because he’s terrified by the fortune.
Despite Nightmare Alley being the darkest film in which Blondell had appeared Zeena still manages to very definitely be a Joan Blondell character. She was 41 at the time of Nightmare Alley, her pre-code era baby face sporting an overall sharper look and a good many lines around her eyes and creasing her forehead. Yet you could easily imagine Zeena being the resulting product of any of Blondell’s good-natured early ‘30s characters straying a bit too far off the beaten track.
Nightmare Alley comes to a satisfying conclusion though there is a part of me that wishes Zeena had been at Molly’s side during its final scene. What would Zeena have thought of what she saw? Horror? Satisfaction? Or, her expectations met, would she have shown no emotion at all?
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Links and images included above are original to the post as it appears on this site.
Once more, you can pick up this special issue or become a regular subscriber to The Dark Pages HERE. Thanks much to The Dark Pages Editor-in-Chief Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for having me aboard and special thanks to Senior Writer Kristina Dijan for keeping me in the loop throughout.
If you read a number of classic film blogs you'll likely recognize several contributors to this issue, but I did want to call special attention to Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings who had the scoop of the issue with her phone interview with Nightmare Alley's own Coleen Gray.
We chatted about this briefly on Twitter, but wanted to say once more I really enjoyed this and thank you so much for the link and the kind words!
My dad is reading Matthew Kennedy’s bio of Blondell right now and will be sending it to me soon. 🙂
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks, Laura. And I loved your interview with Miss Gray.
I opened up Kennedy’s Blondell bio again while I was writing this and I admit I enjoyed it more this time than when I originally read it. I made the mistake of reading it right after Blondell’s own novel, Center Door Fancy, and I guess it was just too repetitive that first time.
PS: How do you like the commenting? I removed Disqus and returned to WordPress’ own commenting system, which seems to have advanced quite a bit since I last had it installed.
Cliff, this is hands down, the best article I’ve read on Joan’s evolution as an actress. She still had that classic beauty even in the 1940’s. I’ll keep my personal fantasies to myself, but needless to say, I wish I had a time machine. What year was that last picture from? It’s great
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks, Doug, I appreciate the kind words about the article. The last one, with the bow and arrow, is from a late 1930s set of cards (circa ’38 or ’39), but I suspect the images from that set are from a few years earlier.