When she appeared in 1941’s Topper Returns — the second and final sequel in the Topper series — Joan Blondell was at the height of her long career.
At Warner Brothers in the 1930s Joan was a sexpot. The photo above was banned in newspapers of the day. And the photo below is the epitome of the perennial “bathtub shot.”
In fact, she was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s.
She could sing and dance, and lit up the screen in many musicals. She was the personification of the wisecracking working woman who had been around the block a few times, a perfect best friend of many a leading man.
Blondell’s career began a house on fire.
After a brief period on the Broadway stage, she migrated to Hollywood and appeared in literally dozens of movies during the 1930’s. The pace slowed considerably in the following decade, but her career clicked into a robust second act later on thanks in good part to some plummy roles in solid films and the many tv roles she played.
Blondell remains the embodiment of the saucy, blowsy, salty, independent woman onscreen. She was at least some of that offscreen as well, compiling an interesting personal and marital life.
She was a workhorse at Warners in the 1930s — making 10 films in 1932 alone — who went on to B-minus (in terms of stardom not talent) status for most of a 50-year career in movies and television. From 1930 to 1939, Blondell made 53 movies. Joan made only 13 movies in the Forties, a real career slowdown.
She was sexy, naughty but always good-spirited onscreen, and, one suspects, offscreen as well. She costarred in James Cagney’s earliest movies in the 1930’s as well as the later efforts of Steve McQueen (1965’s The Cincinnati Kid) and John Tavolta (1978’s Grease). That’s some career arc!
Cagney and Joan costarred on Broadway in 1929’s Penny Arcade which the actor wrote was for me a sterling success because it became my clear path to the high road — a 31-year movie career. This was the beginning of Hollywood for me, and for Joan too. Cagney referred to Joan as “my new old pal.” Blondell and Cagney made six movies together, and he described her as the only woman he loved other than his wife.
One of her more interesting roles was in 1947’s Nightmare Alley, starring Tyrone Power who plays a down-at-the-heels carnival hustler at the end of his rope. Joan is on hand as a veteran mentalist with whom Power’s character has had an affair. This is a grim thriller — unique among noirs, writes critic Eddie Muller. Joan won plaudits for her gritty yet sympathetic performance.
Both Blondell and June Allyson shared the same husband — Dick Powell. Joan was first to the altar; the marriage lasted from 1936 to 1944 (there’s the happy couple pictured above). Powell and Blondell were teamed in 10 musicals together. No wonder they finally got married. A year after the divorce Powell married Allyson, a union that lasted until his death in 1963.
Joan and Elizabeth Taylor also shared a husband — producer Michael Todd. He and Blondell were married for three years beginning in 1947. It didn’t work out well.
Joan got around both offscreen and on. Quite a woman, quite a star.