By JEFF BENZIGER
Featured in Autograph April 2009
Those amazing big blue eyes could melt any man quickly. They may have done more to launch Joan Blondell’s career than anything else up until her death in 1979 at age 73. Of course, there was more to Blondell than just the eyes or even those long legs that made for wonderful cheesecake poses after she made the jump from vaudeville to Hollywood films in the 1930s. She was a good actress and not afraid to work hard.
When Blondell was asked why some actresses like herself had staying power, Joan noted: “It’s more than talent and beauty. Maybe it’s the audience seeing itself in you.”
Blondell was a ready signer who had a vertical handwriting almost as light and feathery as her eyelashes. She often inscribed photos to each fan with the phrase, “All that’s good, Joan Blondell.”
Autograph collectors shouldn’t have much difficulty securing signed images of an older and plumper Blondell for such photos have sold on eBay for around $60. A tougher find is a signed vintage cheesecake portrait from her early career as a major pin-up star.
Born Rose Joan Blondell on August 30, 1906 to a traveling New York City vaudevillian family, Blondell ended up in Dallas, Texas, where she won the 1926 Miss Dallas pageant. A year later, she was off to Broadway, where in 1930 she was cast in Penny Arcade with James Cagney. Although that play only ran for three weeks, it launched her career when Al Jolson bought the rights and packaged it with Cagney and Blondell for the Warner Brothers movie, Sinners’ Holiday.
The studio put the wise-cracking blonde into a long parade of films over a nine-year period and capitalized on her looks for publicity photos. Blondell was one of Warner’s most valuable properties at a time when the studio was cranking out pictures at a maddening pace. She once quipped that she was “Warner’s workhorse,” but she was also one of the highest earning stars during the Depression. By the time Blondell left Warner Brothers in 1939, she had appeared in nearly 50 films. Her beautiful face was used in magazine ads to sell products like beauty soap.
Blondell’s personal life was less than idyllic. She was sexually assaulted at age 23 while working as a library clerk, a job she took after vaudeville’s popularity waned and before her Broadway break. Joan was married three times, her second to actor Dick Powell, with whom she made 10 musicals. Her third marriage to producer Mike Todd was marred by his gambling addiction and violent streak. Todd once hung Joan outside a hotel window by her ankles.
Her more than 100 films included the 1937 The Perfect Specimen with Errol Flynn and Lady for A Night with John Wayne. She received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress nomination for her 1951 role in The Blue Veil. She was also featured prominently in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Nightmare Alley (1947), Desk Set (1957), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965).
Joan never retired because she needed the money after her last failed marriage. No longer the sex-pot she once was, Joan played character roles and no longer commanded top dollars. From 1968 to 1970 Blondell was the spunky saloon gal Lottie Hatfield in the Pacific Northwest based western TV series Here Comes the Brides with Robert Brown and teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman. She had minor roles in Grease (1978) and The Champ (1979) with Jon Voight and Rick Schroder.
Blondell died of leukemia on Christmas day, 1979 surrounded by her children and her sister.