It’s Joan Blondell’s birthday today.
I am sure I saw Joan Blondell in her 1930s movies when I was a kid, although maybe not the Pre-Codes. That would come later. My real introduction to her, though, came through her performance as the fur-coat-clad annoyed playwright, in John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, which I saw when I was 18 or something like that. By that point, she was an old woman, distinctive beauty mark finally allowed to show. I didn’t put it together who she was until a little later.
Her career was vast, stretching from the Wild West of Pre-Code to the independent film scene of the 70s. She got her start making a series of movies with James Cagney, crazy movies, fun movies, and they are terrific together. Kindred spirits. There are moments where they almost look the same. They’re the same height, same coloring, they play off each other beautifully. They get a real kick out of each other’s presence and it reads onscreen.
Let’s never forget that she also co-starred with Elvis Presley in 1968’s 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. Because I have nothing better to do with my time, I’ve created a backstory for the relationship, that he lost his virginity to her back in the day.
Blondell rarely saw her own movies. She was too busy. There were too damn many of them. Warner Brothers was a relentless treadmill in the 30s. It kept everyone working around the clock.
She was the tough-talking realistic dame of the 1930s. 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 intact, if not their morality. In tough times, morality is a luxury. When she got to play damaged and brutalized, she really went there. (Check out her drunk scene in William Wellman’s Other Men’s Women (1931). It’s worthy to be compared with Gena Rowlands’ drunk scenes in Opening Night.)
A major talent who often flew under the radar, despite an Oscar nomination in 1952, Joan Blondell is my favorite kind of actress. In it for the long haul. No pretensions. Hard worker. Once the 30s ended, her career shifted, but she never stopped working, not just because she was a workhorse, but because she had to. She needed to make a living. Such practical concerns informed her acting, gave it reality and depth. She never floats above the real world. She is in and on the earth.
Here she is with Bette Davis, in the terrific and hard-hitting Three on a Match, one of the best of the Pre-Codes with a titanic performance from Ann Dvorak, although Blondell – as she often did – held the moral center:
Busby Berkeley’s The Gold Diggers of 1933 breaks all the rules. Ripped from the headlines (declared in its title), it contrasts capitalistic show biz fantasies of gold coins, glimmering girls and luxury with the brutal realities of American life in 1933, and added on top of that an indictment of the country’s neglect of returning WWI veterans, many of whom were traumatized, shell-shocked, incapacitated by depression or opoid addiction (from wartime use). Taking care of veterans is – to our eternal shame, then and now – not a popular topic: so-called patriotism sometimes requires we turn a blind eye once the heroic struggle is over. But in Gold Diggers, particularly in the closing number – “Remember My Forgotten Man” – performed by Joan Blondell (and a cast of hundreds) the gloves come off.
There are still those who consider even addressing the issues spotlighted in “Remember My Forgotten Man” as being somehow unpatriotic. Of course all Americans struggled during the Depression, not just returning veterans. But that is the point of the last number of Gold Diggers: In your own struggle, remember the “forgotten men”. That hobo on the street could be a war hero. Do not forget him. He sacrificed everything to protect you. Gold Diggers, made during the first harrowing years of the Great Depression, is still radical today.
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.
(I wrote about this number, and the movie in general, in a piece I had been wanting to write for 6 damn years: Remember My Forgotten Women: The Dire Worlds of “Sucker Punch” and “Gold Diggers of 1933″).
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 with a wail of anguish in counterpoint, 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 sings, “Forgetting him, you see, means you’re forgetting me, like my forgotten man.”
It’s still galvanizing today.