Hollywood has had no shortage of blondes over the years. Some are known for their iconic status while others are simply a part of nostalgia. Joan Blondell seemed to fall somewhere in the middle. Her name isn’t usually mentioned alongside Marilyn Monroe or Jean Harlow, but make no mistake, she was far from an unknown. In his new book, Joan Blondell – A Life Between Takes, author Matthew Kennedy offers the portrait of a woman whose strength in the face of struggle is almost unparalleled.
As a child, Joan learned the uncertainty of entertainment life. Her parents, Ed and Katie Blondell, were Vaudevillians who traveled extensively. The stage was a popular canvas in the early 20th century and success could be found with relative ease if the right play was produced. However, if a flop was produced, failure could be experienced just as easily. Joan was the oldest of the three Blondell children, with brother “Junie” closely behind and sister Gloria arriving a few years later. While Joan got in on her parents’ act at the young age of 3, Junie grew to hate their nomadic existence and rebelled quite often. As Joan got older, films (“flickers”) became the primary source of amusement and the Theatre quickly took a back seat. Ed Blondell found work wherever he could. Times were difficult, but the Blondells were a close-knit troupe and managed to trudge through life’s inconsistencies. Joan’s wit was evident. On one occasion while traveling through Texas, she entered a beauty contest (which was only open to native Texans) and won. The judges thought her accent was authentic, when in fact; she was putting her stage abilities to work. Soon after, Joan was victimized in a rape attempt and damaged her ankle by leaping from her attacker’s car and tumbling down an embankment. It wouldn’t be the last time she was sexually assaulted. Always the optimist, Joan did a number of plays on her own before slowly finding her way into films. It would be the beginning of relationships, memories and heartache for the budding beauty.
Kennedy’s research, not only of Joan’s early career but also her personal life, is second to none. While the facts are many, the book is not tiresome by any means. In fact, it reads like a tale that could transition into a big screen drama. It’s fitting too; Joan’s life was nothing but drama. Aside from the fact that she felt trapped in the same recycled film roles at Warner Bros., she endured three failed marriages and multiple disappointments. Joan’s first marriage to cinematographer George Barnes caused a great deal of emotional strain. Barnes was against the idea of fatherhood and would whisper “my poor baby” in her ear each time she informed him of a pregnancy. Over the years, he all but forced her to undergo several abortions (which was an extremely taboo and “underground” practice at the time). The result left Joan’s body overwrought and her heart broken. Eventually, Joan became pregnant again and refused to obey George’s demands. She put her hands on her abdomen and said “not this one”. Despite Joan’s resolve, George was uninterested in playing the fatherly role and paid little attention to his son Norman. The marriage was a divorce in waiting.
Joan’s second marriage to actor Dick Powell and third marriage to entrepreneur Mike Todd both ended with Joan citing mental cruelty. She never hated any of her husbands. To the contrary, she loved them until it nearly killed her. These emotional setbacks continued for years and coincided with a roller coaster career that often resulted in financial instability. Kennedy takes us through Joan’s life like a tour guide. His approach is highly effective, in that he skillfully paves the way for surprises (including Joan’s shocking comment to Lucille Ball on the set of The Lucy Show) but never sways toward a mechanical commentary.