Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, Joan Blondell had no trouble getting a foothold in Hollywood, but despite her looks and talent she could never quite reach the top of the marquee. Still, the perky blonde with the big blue eyes managed to parlay her assets into a successful career.
Born on August 30th, 1906 in New York City, Rose Joan Blondell was the daughter of vaudeville stage comic Eddie Blondell. Having been born into the entertainment world, she made her stage debut at the tender age of three and then went on to attend the Professional Children’s School. She toured the vaudeville circuit for years with her parents and eventually joined a stock company when she was just 17.
Already a seasoned performer, she made her professional debut with the Ziegfeld Follies and appeared in several Broadway productions until, in 1929, she found herself starring opposite James Cagney in Penny Arcade. When Warner Brothers Studios decided to make a film adaptation of the play, they immediately cast Cagney and Blondell in the leads. The result, 1930’s Sinners’ Holiday, was a success and began the Hollywood careers of both stars.
Joan Blondell and James Cagney would go on to make a total of six films together, including The Public Enemy (1931) and Blonde Crazy (1931). Though the two had tremendous chemistry and their films together, particularly The Public Enemy, would help to launch Cagney’s career as one of Warner Brother’s biggest stars, Blondell could never seem to move above second billing status. Despite being overlooked by the studio when it came to lead roles, she earned raves from her co-stars. In fact, Cagney was once quoted as saying that Joan Blondell was the only woman he loved besides his wife.
Audiences loved the gregarious blonde as well and she went on to make a string of films throughout the 1930’s, including Colleen (1936) and The King and The Chorus Girl (1937), cast mostly as the best friend or gangster’s girl.
She would also marry and divorce twice during the decade, and had a child with each husband. Her second husband, Dick Powell, would become her next great screen partner as well, filming a total of ten musicals with her during a marriage which lasted until 1944.
By the time the 30’s came to a close, Joan moved on from Warner Brothers, hoping to find more work. Unfortunately, by this time Hollywood had entered the film noir era and rolls for blondes were going to the likes of Veronica Lake. Still, Joan soldiered on and she managed to have notable turns in several films including Topper Returns (1941), Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945).
Divorced from Dick Powell, she married for a third time in 1947, to theatrical impresario Michael Todd, but that union was destined for divorce as well, just three years later.
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In 1951, Joan had her biggest success yet, earning a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for her role in The Blue Veil with Jane Wyman and Charles Laughton. She continued to veer between stage and screen throughout the fifties, including a successful turn in the musical stage production of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In 1957 she had two notable film performances, as a drunk in Lizzie and opposite blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
She was once again recognized for her work when she garnered a Tony nomination for best supporting actress for her role in 1958’s The Rope Dancers. The 50’s also saw Joan make the cross-over into television work. She appeared on a number of shows in the 50’s and 60’s, including a regular role on The Real McCoys. She continued to work in films as well and though her dramatic role in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) was well received, most of her remaining work would be in comedies, including Waterhole #3 (1967) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971).
She appeared on both the big and small screens throughout the 70’s, with roles on such popular television shows as Starsky and Hutch and Police Story and in films including 1978’s Grease, in which she played the lovable waitress Vi. By 1979 she had been diagnosed with leukemia, yet she kept on working. Her final film roll would be in The Woman Inside, as Aunt Coll, but sadly it would not reach the screen until just after her death, on Christmas Day, 1979.
Over a career which spanned five decades, Joan Blondell managed to make herself into one of the most familiar and likable faces in Hollywood, yet top billing always seemed to elude her. But no matter where her credit was listed, her presence brought fun and flair to stage and screen and left an indelible impression on her many fans. For them, as for her co-star James Cagney, there was no-one who could compare to Joan Blondell.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.