“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. Jimmy Cagney and Eddie Robinson had voices that were as important as the characters they played. You knew what you were getting even before you paid for the ticket.” –Joan Blondell
When thinking of the many stars of pre-Code cinema, Joan Blondell’s star shines especially bright. An actress from a theatrical family, Blondell would also make her mark upon the entertainment industry as a beloved film actress—especially during the 1930s.
Rose Joan Blondell was born on August 30, 1906, in New York City to Levi Bluestein and Kathryn Caine. The couple had two children in addition to Rose—a boy named Ed Blondell, Jr. and a girl named Gloria Blondell. Bluestein worked as a vaudeville comedian under the stage name of Ed Blondell and toured as part of the stage version of The Katzenjammer Kids. As a result, Rose grew up in close proximity to the stage, with her cradle being a travel trunk, and was part of “The Bouncing Blondells.”
Rose would make her stage debut at the age of four months old when she was carried onto the set of the play, The Greatest Love. Shortly afterwards, she and her family toured internationally. The family visited Honolulu for a year but then spent six years in Australia. By the time Rose was in her teenage years, her family had planted their roots in Dallas, Texas, where she would win the 1926 Miss Dallas pageant as Rosebud Blondell. She would later secure fourth place for Miss America 1926.
Later, Blondell’s family moved to California, where Blondell attended Santa Monica High School. She was active in extracurricular activities, which included participation in school plays and editing the school yearbook. After graduation, she briefly continued her education at what would become the University of North Texas.
In the following year, she returned to her home state of New York and worked a variety of odd jobs. She spent time as a model, circus hand, and store clerk until eventually joining up with a stock acting company to perform on Broadway. By 1930, she starred alongside James Cagney in Penny Arcade on the Broadway stage. Though the show had a short run, it crucially caught the eye of Al Jolson. Jolson purchased the rights to the play and sold them to Warner Brothers under the stipulation that Blondell and Cagney appear in the film version. As a result, Blondell was placed under contract with the studio.
Initially, the studio head wanted Blondell to change her name from Rosebud Blondell to Inez Holmes but Blondell did not agree. She instead dropped “Rosebud” and worked under her middle name, “Joan,” and took on the stage name of Joan Blondell. After working in a string of short subjects, she was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1931.
As her career continued, she went on to appear in films with Cagney, including Sinners’ Holiday (1930)—the screen version of Penny Arcade—and The Public Enemy (1931). She also appeared in several films with Glenda Farrell but the height of her career was during the Great Depression. Blondell appeared in a variety of Busby Berkeley productions, including Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), and Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936). Early on, she proved to be capable of carrying off dramatic and comedic performances with ease in addition to emotive musical numbers and energetic dance routines. In fact, once the decade ended, she had appeared in almost 50 films.
In 1933, Blondell married cinematographer Geroge Barnes, with whom she had a son named Norman Scott Barnes. The couple divorced in 1936. Following this marriage, Blondell wed another top Warner Bros. star—Dick Powell—with whom she had a daughter named Ellen. The couple divorced in 1944. Though Blondell and Powell’s next wife, June Allyson, were far from friendly with one another, both Blondell and Allyson would appear in The Opposite Sex (1956) together in later years.
In the 1940s, Blondell made a return to Broadway but quickly returned to films. Though she typically appeared in supporting roles and was being billed below other stars, she continued to receive positive reviews. She would spend the latter half of the 1940s splitting her time between stage and screen performances. In 1947, she married her final husband, producer Mike Todd. The couple divorced in 1950.
By 1950, however, Blondell received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work in The Blue Veil (1951). She would go on to carry out other supporting roles in The Opposite Sex (1956), Desk Set (1957), and many more. While actively working on stage or in films, Blondell also made the transition to television and carried out several guest appearances. Today, audiences may remember her for her appearance as a server in Grease (1978). Off-camera, Blondell wrote a novel called Center Door Fancy which functioned as an autobiography of sorts and referenced characters symbolizing both Powell and Allyson.
Blondell passed away on Christmas Day in 1979 from leukemia. She was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, just feet away from Powell. She was 73.
Today, there are some locations in existence that relate to Blondell’s early career. While the Blondell home from 1920 at 3976 Eagle in New York no longer exists, there are other locations of relevance to Blondell. Blondell and Powell shared a residence at 7919 Selma Ave. in Los Angeles, California. The site remains a residential location.
Blondell is honored with a Hollywood Walk of Fame star located at 6311 Hollywood Boulevard.
While there are a few physical tributes to Blondell, the best way to remember her is to enjoy her delightful filmography.