Joan Blondell wasn't your average movie starlet, for the plain and simple reason that she always presented herself as totally average woman-- albeit with a slightly above-average figure. Joan didn't exude pretension nor indulge in any self-important celebrity posturing, yet she gelled with Hollywood like a breath of fresh air. Her natural attitude easily fit any character or story she was given, because she was "easy"-- easy to get along with, easy to love, no muss, no fuss, and most importantly, easy to trust, even if her character was flirting with you purely so she could steal your wallet.
She wasn't glamorous nor hoity-toity. She was an earthy straight-shooter. She was "all woman," and she didn't apologize for it, yet she held her own against the cast of men-- on the screen and off-- who crossed her path, pounding her chest. It turned her on but not on her ear. Her onscreen characterizations showcased a woman with incredible street savvy and sharp common sense. She may not have thought much of herself or the world in general-- her girls were always cynical-- but she seemed to accept the flaws in life, take its lumps, and even have some fun. She was a realist who didn't fear reality but instead rolled her eyes at it and, in doing so, ably played the role of the sarcastic best friend to a world of very grateful, often jaded moviegoers.
As is generally the case, this defiant, outward zest did not totally mirror the inner woman. She housed many private pains and heartbreaks along the road of life. Joan grew up quickly, getting an early start in vaudeville by the age of three and working steadily thereafter. As such, her performances, while not overly hammy, belonged to the school of stage craft and not screen etiquette, which perhaps held her back from being a bona fide movie star. Relegated to supporting, wisecracking, and working girl roles, she was the gal who gave a story a little edge, a little humor, and generally kept things grounded when they started drifting into melodrama.
|Joan with Barbara Stanwyck and an unnamed skeleton in Night Nurse.|
This aura is projected is partly the result of her early introduction into the world of work and also tragedy. She was raped by a police officer in her late teens, which infused if not wholly tarnished her impression of men and the dangers of the world. There was no fooling her after that. Starry eyed, she was not. However, while she was tough, she was not cruel. She was fun-loving, but not gullible; shrewd but warm. Her smart-mouthed movie dames learned from and triumphed over her private lessons, and while they didn't win out in the lottery of life, they generally enjoyed it more.
Not as popular as many of her contemporaries, Joan's career remains impressive. From her early stage work opposite James Cagney, which brought her to Hollywood, to her cameo in Grease as one of the waitresses at the popular diner the T-Birds and Pink Ladies' patronized-- remember the beauty school drop out number?-- she has appeared in over 150 films and television shows/specials, earning a little more credit in her later years due to impressive performances in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and an Academy Award nomination for The Blue Veil. Some of her best contributions remain: The Public Enemy, Night Nurse, Blonde Crazy, Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, Topper Returns, Cry 'Havoc' and Desk Set.
Always entertaining and sturdy in a world that is full of chaos, she made life easier on her fans simply by brushing off the absurdity and sauntering off to the beat of her own drummer. She made survival look easy, which is probably why so many of the films she participated in have indeed survived the passage of time. It's refreshing, every once and awhile, to encounter someone who gives it to you straight.