“In the 20s, you were a face. And that was enough. In the 30s, you also had to be a voice. And your voice had to match your face, if you can imagine that.” — Joan Blondell

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: ut that is the radical and compassionate point of the last number of Gold Diggers: In the midst of your own struggle, don’t forget to take care of those in need. That “hobo” on the street could be a war hero. He fought for you. Do not forget him. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. I volunteer with a local veterans’ group. Every time I see “Remember my Forgotten Man,” it is a reminder why. Gold Diggers, made during the first breathlessly terrible years of the Great Depression, is still innovative today. I watch it and still find myself thinking, “Who DOES this?? Who has the balls to DO this?”

In my final post for Dennis Cozzalio’s 2011 Movie Critic Tree-House, I wrote:

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″).

“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, a wail of shared anguish from above, and finally, the cast of hundreds (all men) pour forth from every corner. 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. “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,” he said. “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.”

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.

Personal favorite moment in a musical number filled with great moments: Watch for her gesture at the very final moment of the song. She doesn’t just put her arms up into the air. She pushes them up. There is resistance to the gesture, the air is heavy, she has to push those arms up. The gesture is only seen in long-shot and she is surrounded by a cast of hundreds. But my God does that gesture carry. It reaches the cheap seats and beyond. The pain of the masses, the hope for a better future, the human condition is in that gesture.

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

It’s still electrifying today. And the way she PUSHES her arms into the air … it’s the struggle we all face. Or should.

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15 Responses to “In the 20s, you were a face. And that was enough. In the 30s, you also had to be a voice. And your voice had to match your face, if you can imagine that.” — 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?

  9. I love her character in Nightmare Alley. If that film has a moral center (arguable), then it’s her.

  10. Sheila, this link doesn’t work: Remember My Forgotten Women: The Dire Worlds of “Sucker Punch” and “Gold Diggers of 1933″

    Can we access this another way?

  11. Jim Reding says:

    I just saw that Criterion Channel will be featuring a lot of her pre-code stuff next month! Exciting, because the only titles I’ve definitely seen are The Public Enemy and Night Nurse.
    I feel like I may have seen Hawks’ The Crowd Roars, but I don’t remember it. Back when I had cable and a VCR, I’d constantly tape movies off TCM that I never got around to watching. That may have easily been one of them.
    Love her in Opening Night.

  12. Lesley says:

    Couple of thoughts re Joanie the great. Interesting Berkeley lets Joan anchor “Remember My Forgotten Man,” since she was neither singer nor dancer, but he knew she’d sell it with her acting, which none of his Toby Wings (delightful though she was) could do.

    Also regarding that absolutely stunning finale for a musical in an era that understandably prized escapism—it could only have happened at Warner Bros, and beg pardon if you know this, but saw no ref to it in your piece or these comments…is the specific historical context of the number. I wrote about this years ago when I was teaching a pre-Code class, but it got wiped out in a data disaster at my website. Anyway, you know about the Bonus Marchers? The WWI soldiers had been promised a cash bonus, I think 25 years after the armistice. But when they were starving as the Depression worsened, they petitioned Congress to release their bonuses then. They traveled from all over to D.C. and set up an encampment on the river, and kept pressuring Congress and Hoover to pony up. Which did not happen. Things began to get tense, finally Hoover ordered McArthur to clear out the tent city (“Hooverville,” I guess), and McArthur of course went much further, **burning down the encampment** of these WWI veterans. The nation was shocked and horrified, and it further tanked Hoover’s hopes of surviving the election; there was newsreel footage of some of the attack and fire, so people really got an idea of how brutal and what a betrayal it was. I think that was the summer of ‘32. The other important thing is, Berkeley was of course a WWI veteran. It was in the war that he was assigned to stage big parades, so that’s where he developed his genius for organizing vast groups into fascinating constellations and tableaux. Anyway, as a vet, I assume he had very strong feelings about the Bonus Marchers, as they were known. And that passion, coupled with Harry Warren’s dirge/march/anthem, resulted in this extraordinary number.

    Lastly, gotta say Blondell is one of my household goddesses. She belongs to a special class of actress who had everything it takes to be a huge star but apparently lacked the singleminded focus on career required to become a diva and icon. Astor is another. Some of that is just temperament—having tons of talent and all the charm in the world don’t matter if you don’t have that laserlike fixation on creating yourself as persona. And I think it didn’t help that Blondell had been traumatized by being raped by that cop in the bookstore she worked and lived in, in my old nabe. Astor’s psychological wounds were so massive it’s amazing she worked as productively as she did for those decades. Both of them made every movie, no matter how bad, better. They always brought their game, were total pros, and had great instincts and intelligence.

  13. Bill Wolfe says:

    I hope you had a chance to see some of the movies featured recently on TCM’s day dedicated to Joan during their Summer Under the Stars month. I taped a whole bunch and am working my way through them. So far, Union Depot has been a nice surprise. The opening shot, using a high crane that lowers slowly and enters the depot’s doors, following several patrons, lasts an amazing one minute, 43 seconds without a cut. And this was in 1931! So much for the “the camera never moved in early talkies” argument. I won’t spoil the ending, if you haven’t seen it, but suffice to say that no studio would agree to it today.

    She’s definitely one of my favorite actresses. As someone noted above, she and Mary Astor always made their movies better.

    • sheila says:

      I haven’t seen Union Depot – I really must! LOVE those old long takes – it’s even more amazing when you consider how HUGE the cameras were back then! Basically telephone booths on wheels!

      and yes, Joan is always good!

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