A wonderful essay by The Self-Styled Siren about the irreplaceable Joan Blondell. I went through a pretty big Blondell phase last year, although she has always been on my radar. My first encounter with Blondell, strangely enough, was not through any of her brilliant pre-Code performances, but as the playwright in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. I just love that she would live long enough to do that part. And then, of course, there is her performance opposite Elvis Presley in Stay Away, Joe, and while the majority of that film features her as a rifle-toting scorned woman, the real takeaway from that film is one scene in particular, oozing with sexual tension, between Presley and Blondell, when he visits her little bar, and they banter, and flirt, and it is apparent, in every moment, that they have had a long long relationship. Friends with benefits, perhaps, although I see something else in that scene. I think that “Joe”, Presley’s character, lost his virginity to Blondell’s character. And ever since then, ever since she “made him a man”, they have had this on again-off again thing. I interpret the scene this way because the dynamic in the scene is not just sexy. It’s loaded with a past. It’s loaded, on both sides, with unspoken memories that fill the space between them with sex, remembered sex, the afterimage of their previous encounters.
It shows, yet again, how good Presley was when his co-star was strong. You can sense how much fun he is having in that scene. And Blondell is terrific, with her complicated keychain around her neck, her bedroom eyes staring up at Presley, and her willingness to throw herself into the sexual implications of that scene. The scene is so good that it almost makes me wish that the entire film had been about a May-December romance between Presley and Blondell. One scene isn’t enough to explore the possibilities in their dynamic.
Blondell’s career is one of those miracles of 20th century Hollywood. It spans decades. From pre-Code to Elvis Presley. From Depression-era films to 1970s independents.
God bless her.
This is one of my favorite Blondell anecdotes. As the daughter of a librarian, as someone whose first job was as a page in a library, as someone who grew up hanging around in libraries, this story really hits the sweet spot for me.
The Siren’s anecdote about Blondell loving improv is fantastic. And yes, I believe it.
The closing number of Gold Diggers of 1933 (clip above) ends with a gesture from Blondell, seen in long shot, that sums up the entirety of not only the film, but the entire era in which she lived. Watch how she puts her arms up in the air. Yes, it’s choreography. Yes, it’s a “typical” gesture that comes at the end of a song. But not how Blondell does it. It almost seems like she has to push her arms up into the air. They don’t just easily launch themselves up there. Of course they don’t. Not in the bleak context of that production number. The hope in her final gesture does not come cheap. It does not come easy. Those arms don’t just fly up into the air with no resistance. She has to push them up. She has to force herself to complete the gesture. All around her is despair. And yet she continues to plead … to plead with us to “remember”, “remember my forgotten man”. That final gesture, then, is not a triumph. It is a moment of pleading. And it crosses the century to us now, and still catches at my heart.