If any one person has come to personify in my mind the glorious excesses of Hollywood's pre-Code era, it's Joan Blondell. She was sexy, she was sassy, and stripped down to her skivvies as she invariably was, she was always on the make. She had big blue eyes that rivaled those of Bette Davis, but unlike Bette's eyes, which always promised a knee to the groin if you got too close, Blondell's eyes promised a good time—if you measured up. And with very few predecessors to point the way, she had a gift for projecting moral ambiguity on the screen that set her work apart from the black-and-white caricatures her peers presented. Her very real talent was too often taken for granted but it really shone during the Early Sound Era when the brakes of censorship were off and if you want to know what film historians mean when they talk about "pre-Code" movies, you need look no further than Joan Blondell.
You know about the Code, don't you?
After a series of scandals in the 1920s, particularly the Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle trial, had inspired charges that Hollywood was a den of iniquity corrupting the morals of American youth, studios put Will Hays, formerly the Postmaster General of the United States, in charge of heading off a call for federal regulation of the movie industry. In 1927, Hays drafted an informal list of topics that typically inspired state censorship of movies (the Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that the First Amendment didn't cover motion pictures which it held was business rather artistic speech, a position long ago reversed) and then in 1930 wrote a more formal list of prohibited topics called "A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures," popularly known as the Hays Code.
It was quite a lengthy document actually and I won't reprint it here (if you're interested, you can read the 1930 version of the Production Code here) but it enumerated three guiding principles which should give you an idea of what the Code was all about:
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
Without any formal authority to enforce the Code, however, filmmakers ignored it and sometimes purposely flouted it for commercial, and even occasionally artistic, purposes, and would continue to do so until June 1934 when the studios bowed to public pressure and began requiring films to earn a certificate of approval before their release. (Imogen Sara Smith has written a fine article about the pre-Code era called "Sinners' Holiday: An Ode To The Pre-Code" at Bright Lights Film Journal.)
In the meantime, though, movie audiences wouldn't see this much explicit behavior on screen again until Hollywood abandoned the Code altogether in 1968 and suffice it to say the Joan Blondell movies I've cited here—Sinners' Holiday, Other Men's Women and Night Nurse—violated just about every aspect of its prohibitions, showing murder, revenge, the use of liquor, undressing scenes, scenes in bedrooms, adultery, impure love, semi-nudity, transparent clothing and God knows what else in ways that made all of those things seem like pretty good ideas. Throw in the cruelty to children and surgical operations that were central to the plot of Night Nurse and you've pretty much covered every aspect of the Code except venereal disease and the ridicule of religion.
No wonder these movies were so much fun to watch.
The first movie on my list, Sinners' Holiday, is typical of Blondell's pre-Code work, showing off both her no-nonsense sex appeal and talent for playing working class women. Set on the Coney Island boardwalk, Blondell here plays a photographer's model who gets mixed up with James Cagney and his penny ante bootleg liquor operation with tragic results. Although playing what are clearly supporting roles, Blondell and Cagney provided the movie's energy, blowing their higher-billed, better-paid co-stars off the screen, and drawing the attention of critics and moviegoers alike. Maybe it was their talent for making stock characters seem like real people—the eye is drawn to that on the screen that reminds you of something real, and both Blondell and Cagney imbue their characters with a reality otherwise sorely lacking in this pedestrian tale.
Sinners' Holiday was based on a stage play, Penny Arcade, that featured both Blondell and Cagney. The play only ran three weeks, but in the audience was Al Jolson (of The Jazz Singer) who was so impressed with the supporting work Blondell and Cagney turned in, he bought the film rights to the play for $20,000 and sold them to Jack Warner on the condition that he cast Blondell and Cagney in their original roles. Jolson had never met either performer, but he had an eye for talent. Sinners' Holiday was Blondell's fifth movie, co-star James Cagney's film debut, and for both performers it proved to be a promise of great things to come.
Blondell and Cagney teamed up again just three months later for Other Men's Women, the story of a love triangle involving a married couple and the husband's best friend. That neither Blondell nor Cagney, again relegated to supporting roles, figure into the affair should tell you all you need to know about the production's chief weakness. But the movie still works as a showcase of both stars' talents and is a prime example of the sort of things a pre-Code movie could get away with that movie audiences wouldn't see again for thirty years.
Blondell is slinging hash behind the counter at a railroad diner in this one, and with her eyes and with her voice, she draws a convincing portrait of a tired, jaded working woman, a real tough cookie. When she asks the customers "Anything else you guys want?" you can feel the slap in her voice and when one of them eyes her as she bends over and answers "Yeah, gimme a big slice of you on toast" she tells him with a look that let's him know she's heard it all before and is immune to his nonsense, "Listen, baby, I'm A.P.O.—Ain't Puttin' Out!"
Blondell's pining for the railroad engineer who's forgotten he's promised to marry her when he gets back into town—pining, that is, without love and without feeling any need to be particularly chaste while she's waiting. She blows him the raspberry and when he later rips her her dress, she gives him a slap he no doubt felt down to his heels; if Blondell pulled her punch, it was the most convincing pulled punch in movie history.
The star of Other Men's Women is a young and beautiful Mary Astor, who just as in Red Dust, can make you believe a guy would throw over a Joan Blondell or a Jean Harlow for her. But Blondell is the most convincing performer in the movie, and that includes Cagney in his last role before he became a star (by the way, what a swell movie this might have been if director Wellman had thought to cast Cagney as the lead). Blondell could play saucy in her sleep and hers is the performance you'll remember from this one.
After the January premiere of Other Men's Women, Blondell made nine more movies in 1931 (she made ten in 1932 and eight the year after that), her best roles coming in Night Nurse and Blonde Crazy, two of the best Code-busting movies ever made. The latter, with Blondell's famous bathtub scene, came out too late in 1931 to be eligible for a Katie here, but Night Nurse and its parade of lingerie just squeezed in with a July premiere in New York.
In Night Nurse, Blondell again has a supporting role, this time to Barbara Stanwyck who plays a nurse trainee paired with a more experienced nurse (Blondell) who specializes primarily in ways to skirt the strict rules against men, booze and late nights boozing with men.
"I'm sure in your heart you love it," says the eager Stanwyck.
"Sez you," sneers Blondell.
The movie is not eight minutes old before the actresses are out of their clothes. Blondell picks out a uniform for Stanwyck then watches as she undresses, sizing up the competition. William A. Wellman—this is the same guy who gave us a quick glimpse of Clara Bow's bare breasts in Wings—directs the scene in his typically leering style. "Oh, don't be embarrassed," says Dr. Smooth-Weasel when he saunters in. "You can't show me a thing. I just came from the delivery room."
Then Stanwyck plants her foot in Blondell's lap so Blondell can help Stanwyck off with her stockings. To their credit, the two actresses handle the scene so casually it almost doesn't occur to you to wonder what director Wellman thought he was up to. Almost. Stanwyck and Blondell spend an awful lot of the movie dressing and undressing, and in the case of Stanwyck, who at this point in her acting career was as green as wet wood, it helps disguise the fact that she didn't quite know what she was doing. In Blondell's case, it just seems a natural aspect of her gum-chewing, hip-swiveling character.
The plot is pure gangster melo- drama. In a part originally written for James Cagney (who, with the unexpected success of The Public Enemy, was now too big for supporting roles) (and yes, Blondell was in that Cagney effort, too; in the first five years of their careers, they made seven movies together), Clark Gable starves the children of his rich society lover so he can get his hands on their trust fund. Stanwyck and Blondell stumble across the scheme when they sign on as night nurses at the rich woman's estate and the rest of the plot concerns the plucky Stanwyck's attempts to thwart Gable, a charismatic brute who doesn't mind knocking a woman cold with a right cross.
Despite the role's size, the best performance in the movie once again belongs to Blondell. What I like most about her, in this movie and elsewhere, is you can't easily read her character. Does she have a heart of gold or a heart of brass? Usually, it's both, with the mix, depending on the role, sliding along the continuum toward one end or the other but never fully arriving—as with most people. This is her strength as a character actress, I think, and maybe her weakness as a lead: Hollywood typically likes its stars to be all one thing, a hero or a villain you can root for or against. With Blondell, well, you're never quite sure.
Take Night Nurse, for example. For Stanwyck, nursing is a calling and she's ready to risk her career to stop Gable. For Blondell—"I don't know a thing, I just work here"—nursing is a job and sticking her neck out is no way to keep the paychecks coming. In other words, Blondell is us the way we really are, Stanwyck as we like to pretend we are, and we go to the movies to pretend.
Joan Blondell worked very hard for a very long time but with a few exceptions—most notably in 1945's A Tree Grows In Brooklyn—she flew under the radar. Like Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur, she excelled at playing working class women. Like Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich, she was genuinely sexy. But after a couple of successful starring roles, she was largely relegated to supporting status.
Between film, stage and television, Blondell worked steadily from 1930 to her death in 1979, receiving a Tony nomination in 1958 for The Rope Dancers and two Emmy nominations for the television series Here Come The Brides. She received her only Oscar nomination, a supporting actress nod, for the 1951 movie The Blue Veil, and won the National Board of Review's award for the best supporting actress of 1965 for her performance as Lady Fingers in The Cincinnati Kid.
"I don't know what the secret to longevity as an actress is," she once said. "It's more than talent and beauty. Maybe it's the audience seeing itself in you."
Trivia: Clark Gable made Night Nurse (which along with A Free Soul turned him from a bit player into a star) while on loan from MGM to Warner Brothers and it's interesting to think about how different Gable's career might have been if he had been under contract to Warner Brothers rather than MGM. Judging from roles like this one, he likely would have been the fourth gangster superstar along with James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart instead of the romantic rogue/superstar he became.
But then who would have played Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind? Mickey Rooney, I guess—and Lewis Stone could have played Scarlett O'Hara! Chew on that for a while.