UCLA Film Archives Celebrate Joan Blondell, Golden Globe Nominee

by Yoram Kahana November 4, 2016
Actress oan Blondell, Golden Globe nominee

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Joan Blondell, two times Golden Globe nominee, will be celebrated in a five-week series of screenings, with 14 of her movies being shown at the Billy Wilder Theater of the Hammer Museum in Westwood, Los Angeles, starting om Friday, November 4.  The movies were restored by the University of California Los Angeles Film Archives, one of the leading film restoration institutions in the world, and a frequent recipient of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's restoration grants.

Blondell was born in 1906 to a vaudeville family, became a part of their act at age one, traveled the world with them, and joined a stock company at age 17.  Broadway came next, when she was hired by producer Ziegfeld for his Follies. Hollywood beckoned, and over more than half a century she appeared in dozens of movies. She co-starred in no less than 28 movies in a three-year span (1931-1933). Most of the UCLA series offerings come from that period, starting with Blonde Crazy (1931), one of six movies Blondell made with James Cagney. One of her very last movies, Opening Night (1977) will close the retrospective, on December 10, 2016.

Blondell received one of her Golden Globe nominations for that movie, supporting the lead actress Gena Rowlands, who was also nominated for a Golden Globe, one of her eight nominations and two wins. The director was Rowlands's husband and frequent collaborator John Cassavetes (four Golden Globe nominations). Blondell, 71 at the time, shone as a tart playwright, under the improvisational direction of Cassavetes, a testimony to her talent and versatility: most of her career she performed in typical Hollywood studio productions, and they make the bulk of the retrospective. Blondell's other Golden Globe nomination, also for a supporting acting role, was in thrice nominated director Norman Jewison's The Cincinnati Kid (1965).

 

Blondell's shining moments: (top, from left) Blonde Crazy, Footlight Parade (with James Cagney);(bottom) Opening Night.

 

Blondell got her big break when she starred on Broadway opposite another little known actor, James Cagney in Penny Arcade (1929). Warner Brothers put the play on the screen as Sinners Holiday (1930), and brought Blondell and Cagney to star in the film version. It was a success, and the pair will go on to make five more movies together. Their Blonde Crazy (1931) is one of three opening night movies of the series: Cagney is a cynical hotel bellhop, who is a bootlegger and a crook on the side, with Blondell as his partner in petty crime.

Another Cagney-Blondell collaboration shown in the series is Footlight Parade (1932) with surreal choreography by the brilliant Busby Berkeley. The Los Angeles Times said: "Musical numbers like "Honeymoon Hotel," "By A Waterfall" and the concluding "Shanghai Lil" still have to be seen to be believed."  Cagney is a harried director, Blondell is his unflappable assistant, and in a typical Hollywood tangle, Blondell's future husband, Dick Powell, is also in it. Another Blondell-Powell vehicle, Dames (1932) is also on the schedule.

Blondell did not achieve the success of Cagney or Powell, and never rose to the level of female Hollywood stars such as Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck. She was mostly cast as a supporting lead, and her winning smile, wide blue eyes and a bob of blonde hair became familiar to audiences in the 1930s, in the early days of sound movies, before the Code tempered Hollywood, as she wise cracked, sang and danced through musicals and gangster movies. The UCLA tribute showcases her talent and introduces Blondell to old fans and new audiences.