Happy Birthday, Joan Blondell

Busby Berkeley’s The Gold Diggers of 1933 stands alone as an example of what a movie musical can do, and accomplish, and be. It breaks all the rules. Topical to the extreme (the actual year being in the actual title), it combines capitalistic fantasies of gold coins and glimmering girls and luxury with the brutal realities of what was going on in 1933, not to mention the struggles of the returning WWI veterans to integrate back into society, especially at a time when things like shell-shock and depression or drug addiction (the result of war-time morphine use) were not understood or even accepted (a topic also taken on in the wonderful angry film Heroes For Sale, of the same year – my review here). It’s not a popular topic, then or now, when so-called patriotism sometimes requires we turn a blind eye to such struggles, but in Gold Diggers, especially in the phenomenal last number “Remember My Forgotten Man”, the gloves come off. There are those who still consider even addressing such issues as being somehow unpatriotic. However, that attitude abandons those who honestly struggle, telling them “You’re on your own with this one, kid”, an ungrateful and hostile attitude to take towards those who risk their lives in combat for our freedom back home. By admitting the struggle, and admitting our part in it, we honor them even more deeply. Granted, all Americans struggled during the Depression, not just the returning veterans. But that is the point of the last number of Gold Diggers: We all struggle, but in your own struggle, remember the “forgotten men”. That hobo on the street could be a war hero. Do not abandon him. Do not forget him. Gold Diggers, made during the first breathlessly terrible years of the Great Depression, has it all, and is still innovative today. What a transcendent film. It is honest. It says exactly what it means.

Kim Morgan writes:

Amazing for its ability to be complex, yet light, a little dirty and a little innocent, socially relevant and then, fantastically inventive in terms of set design and costuming, Goldiggers proves that musicals were never mere escapism. And this is New York City — New York City imagined in the state of show, and on the sound stages of Burbank, California, but weirdly, pure New York. The girls, or gold diggers, live in an unglamorous apartment, seeking glitzy lives, which was deemed a bit sinful by censorship boards, becoming one of the first American movies released with alternate footage. Even the rather innocent “Pettin’ in the Park” was considered racy. But there’s more meat on the bones. The great Joan Blondell ends the film with the haunting “Remember My Forgotten Man,” in which WWI soldiers are shown trudging through bread lines. Very sad. You’ll again remember that even the oldest of musicals had something to say. And this one is absolutely sublime.

Joan Blondell is one of my favorite actresses, and my introduction to her came through her memorable performance as the fur-coat-clad annoyed and harassed playwright in Cassavetes’ Opening Night, when she was an old woman, beauty mark finally allowed to show.

But her career was vast, stretching from the earliest days to the independent scene of the 70s (not to mention co-starring with Elvis Presley in Stay Away, Joe, where the two of them have a delightful scene full of sexual innuendo and flirtation, the possibilities of which hover over that entire film).

She was a worker. She rarely saw her own movies. She was too busy. She cranked them out. She was the tough-talking realistic dame of the 1930s. Often paired with James Cagney, she was a representation of the good working girls of the time, who did what they had to do to survive, keeping their sense of humor and morality intact (not an easy prospect). When she got to play damaged, she was off the charts. (Check out her drunk scene in William Wellman’s Other Men’s Women (1931). It is worthy of Gena Rowlands’ drunk scenes in Opening Night.) A major talent who often flew somewhat under the radar, Joan Blondell is my favorite kind of actress. Once the 30s ended, her career shifted, but she never stopped working. Not just because she was a workhorse, but because she had to. It was her trade. She needed to make a living. Such practical concerns informed her acting, gave it a reality and a depth that other more illustrious and famous movie stars sometimes lack. The Self-Styled Siren has a terrific post up about Blondell, with an anecdote about Blondell’s gift for and love of improv. Blondell sounds like such a DAME!

In my final post for Dennis Cozzalio’s 2011 Movie Critic Tree-House, I wrote, after talking about some of the movies I had loved that year:

There were many wonderful performances by actresses in 2010 (and looks like I need to see Easy A as soon as I possibly can, Dennis!), and I certainly don’t think that Then is necessarily better than Now, although my personal preference is Then. However, Joan Blondell flinging both of her arms up in the air at the very end of the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number in Gold Diggers of 1933 is the most exhilarating moment I have seen all year; exhilarating as in: I have goose bumps merely typing this sentence.

Peter Bogdanovich interviewed John Wayne and asked him, “Your gestures in pictures are often daring — large — and show the kind of freedom and lack of inhibition you have. Did you get that from Ford, or did you always have that?” Wayne replied: “No, I think that’s the first lesson you learn in a high school play — that if you’re going to make a gesture, make it.” Blondell is, at that moment in Gold Diggers, being obedient to Busby Berkeley’s choreography, and she MAKES the gesture. I will remind you that it is in long shot, not a close-up, but that is what is so extraordinary about it in today’s world when so many actors hold back on any “heavy-lifting” until they are in close-up: she fills the screen in long shot with the desolation and hope present in the entire film, present in the entire country at that time, and present, especially, in returning WWI veterans who fell on such hard times. Busby Berkeley said:

“It was a spectacle type of number and a good one to use in those dark days of the Depression when many people had forgotten about the guys who had gone to war for our country. I did something extraordinary in that number, too, when I had Joan Blondell sing the song because Joan Blondell can’t sing. But I knew she could act it. I knew she could ‘talk it’ and put over the drama for me.”

And boy, does she.

The final number, “Remember My Forgotten Man”, starts simply and introspectively, with a pained Joan Blondell, by herself, speaking out her anxiety about the “forgotten men”. Etta Moten joins in, in a wail of anguish, and finally, the cast of hundreds (all men) take center stage. In Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes, author Matthew Kennedy writes:

[Busby] Berkeley was one of the few artists at Warner Bros. to be given a virtual blank check after 42nd Street. The swirling, intoxicating kaleidoscope that he achieved with his all-female choruses in Gold Diggers of 1933 confirmed the studio’s judgment. [Ginger] Rogers and chorus open with “We’re In the Money”, festooned with giant coins fulfilling the sartorial duties of bikinis, boas, and hats. It is a lavish ode to American optimism, punctuated by the arrival of the sheriff and his posse to close the show for lack of funds. In Gold Diggers of 1933, the Depression is literally waiting just outside the stage door.

The movie’s last production, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” stood apart. Gone are the rows of alabaster lovelies singing lilting melodies of love. Instead, there are 150 male extras as soldiers or hobos. It may seem that the downbeat “Remember My Forgotten Man” came out of nowhere to put a damper on all the fun that preceded it, but Gold Diggers of 1933 has frequent references to the harsh realities of the time. The number was simply the culmination of an anger and anxiety that had been treated more lightly in the movie’s earlier reels.

Joan [Blondell] was not the most musical of stars. Her dancing was passable, but she was wanting vocally. Her singing voice was, in fact, everything her speaking voice was not – flat, limited in range, and uninteresting. Berkeley was not deterred…

Joan is galvanizing in “Remember My Forgotten Man.” In her few moments with the song she is sultry, vulnerable, bitter, and yearning. She is then followed by the magnificent Etta Moten, who provides the song a vocal melody. Later still, the soldiers, then bums, make for a powerful musicalization of politics and history. “Remember My Forgotten Man” is perhaps the most socially urgent song ever conceived for an American musical film.

Though it is specific to the Depression and the treatment of World War I veterans in a nation wanting for food and work, “Remember My Forgotten Man” has never gone out of date. What is government’s responsibility to the dispossessed? What are the effects of war and neglect on women? Joan’s character speaks to an ambivalence of the moment when she looks at a hard-luck veteran and says, “I don’t know if he deserves a bit of sympathy.” As someone reduced to streetwalking, the question could be asked of her as well. In six minutes and forty-five seconds, Berkeley treats us to prostitution, homelessness, veterans marching in the rain, bread lines, and desolate womanhood. The final image is a three-layered design of choreographic genius. In the back is a human canvas of marching soldiers in silhouette on multileveled semicircular pathways. In the middle is Joan, her arms outstretched in V formation for the final tableau. Surrounding her is a mass of hungry men, former vets. They reach out to her in communion, each a victim of society’s betrayal.

Jack Warner did not originally conceive of “Forgotten Man” as the finale of Gold Diggers of 1933, but it was so powerful it could not be inserted anywhere else. Joan was modest about the whole experience and hesitant to admit that she was at the center of an emblematic image of the Depression. Gold Diggers of 1933 cost $433,000 to make and earned a $2 million profit. Those figures placed it alongside 42nd Street as the biggest moneymaker of the year for Warner Bros. and among the top five of the year overall.

She says, “Forgetting him, you see, means you’re forgetting me, like my forgotten man.”

It’s still exhilarating today.

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8 Responses to Happy Birthday, Joan Blondell

  1. rae says:

    I haven’t seen much Joan Blondell, but I loved her in Desk Set, and between that and this post, I want to watch more!

  2. Clementine Moriarty says:

    Hi Sheila……..been knee-deep in Crocs……….and they ain’t very friendly!! Still had the fortitude to check on you and found Joan Blondell!! She was the first real Blond actress to really catch my eye…………..and years later she was still at work………..catching Elvis’ eye in “Stay Away Joe”! Enjoyed!! …………as always. TYVM!

  3. jennchez says:

    I think that Joan Blondell is one of those truly talented actresses whose popularity has fallen by the wayside over the years. She and Irene Dunne unless you are a classic movie fan, are two of the most under rated actresses, in my humble opinon. I will never forget Remember My Fallen Man, the first time I caught it was when my daughter was still an infant and feeding every two hours. At the end I caught the title but it wasnt easy to find nine years ago and when I did find it I remember thinking this cant be the same movie but it was. Like you said when she threw her arms up it was like she was containing the whole Depression in those last moments and I remember my heart just constricting. The only other performance that has affected me that way was when Judy Garland sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic after JFK was assasinated. Once again it was her gestures and body language.
    Thank you Sheila for another wonderful essay on a truly exceptional actress.

  4. v.n. says:

    My goodness, you were not kidding. I got actual chills from that clip…

  5. Kent says:

    She was plain spoken and direct. Often delightfully profane. She liked men and booze and cars and movies. She gave Michael Todd all the money she had saved over 25 years and he blew it in a few months. She had lived in luxury in Hollywood and in a trailer in Malibu after Todd, but she never quit. ALL of her precious moments onscreen are golden, yet few are as great as “My Forgotten Man”. She said that most of her acting was done with her tits, which was far from true, and a comment on her material more than her skill.

  6. Jessica Evans says:

    Happy birthday great Grammy.. We all love you so much!!! Xoxo Jessie

  7. Milt says:

    This isn’t about Joan Blondell, but I just saw a surprising, hidden gem of a movie that made me want to check whether you are aware of it. It’s called The Intruder and was brilliantly directed by (surprise!) Roger Corman in 1961 in a southern town during the early days of the school desegregation period. A young William Shatner is extraordinary as an outside agitator who comes to town to sabotage the integration process at almost any price. This is a powerful, memorable movie that definitely should be more widely known.

  8. dennis T. hickling says:

    What was Miss Blondell’s favourite fragrance?