Always a super-trouper, rarely a stand-alone star, Joan Blondell is an unexpected choice to be the focus of a full-dress Barbara Stanwyck/Greta Garbo-style UCLA Film & Television Archive career retrospective.
But here she is front and center in “Blonde Crazy: Joan Blondell,” a five-week, 14-film tribute beginning Friday at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood, big as life, twice as sassy and something of a revelation.
Even in the pre-Code roles that made her famous (she did an astounding 40 features for Warner Bros. between 1930 and 1935) Blondell brought unexpected emotional genuineness to what could have been standard-issue parts.
And, because she had such an extraordinarily long stage and film career — from her 1909 vaudeville debut at age three to her death in 1979 — Blondell had the chance to collaborate with filmmakers such as Elia Kazan and John Cassavettes, whose approaches differed radically from the directors she worked with in those heady pre-Code years.
Even if you can’t immediately place the actress’ name, you’ll recognize Blondell the moment she appears on screen. No one did been-around better than she did, no one made wised-up and level-headed look more richly attractive.
But though her characters could convincingly proclaim, as one does in “Blondie Johnson,” “I know all the answers and I know what it’s all about,” there was more to the Blondell persona than that.
Because somehow, against formidable odds, having seen it all did not sour her on life. Yes, her characters couldn’t be fooled or taken advantage of, but more importantly you could count on them to be on the square with you, to offer support when you needed it most. Which, in these movies, was almost all the time.
“Blondie Johnson” was a rare starring role for the actress, giving her the chance to play the boss of a criminal gang who vows to make the world pay for her impoverished youth. When she proclaims, “This city’s gonna be my oyster,” she is speaking from the heart.
But though Blondell was effective on her own, she was at her best when going toe to toe with a leading man who was her equal, someone who could trade snappy patter with her with rat-a-tat precision. The best of these, and a real-life pal from her pre-Hollywood Broadway days, was James Cagney.
The UCLA series features two Blondell-Cagney face-offs, starting with the nifty “Blonde Crazy,” one of a triple-bill (along with “Blondie Johnson” and “Big City Blues”) on offer on the series’ opening night.
Cagney shines in “Blonde Crazy” as a cynical hotel bellhop, a part-time bootlegger and full-time conniver who feels he is living in “the age of chiselry” and wants to get his while the getting’s good. He and Blondell form a dazzling professional partnership, and watching the two of them learn lessons in larceny and life is pure pleasure.
The other Cagney-Blondell collaboration on view here is “Footlight Parade” one of the series’ two films offering surreal production numbers choreographed by the unstoppable Busby Berkeley.
While the other film, “Dames,” offers a chance to see Blondell acting with one of her husbands (the smooth Dick Powell), “Footlight Parade” has the advantage of casting her as the unflappable assistant to Cagney’s harried director of theatrical prologues. Musical numbers like “Honeymoon Hotel,” “By A Waterfall” and the concluding “Shanghai Lil” still have to be seen to be believed.
Though the connection with Cagney is familiar ground, more surprising is how well Blondell worked with the more ethereal Leslie Howard in “Stand-In,” a little-known inside-Hollywood tale in which she plays, yes, a studio stand-in who shows a know-it-all East Coast financial wizard he has a lot to learn where the movie business is concerned.
Often more appealing than the movies she’s in, Blondell by necessity became adept at making the best of costars who did not have her level of personal magnetism. She makes “Big City Blues” fun as a Manhattan showgirl who falls for a rural innocent, and she considered “The King and the Chorus Girl” and its self-evident plot to be her favorite role, though she overshadowed Fernand Gravey as the monarch in question.
Blondell also did well in the numerous films with titles like “Three On A Match,” “Three Broadway Girls” and “Three Girls About Town” (all showing in the series) where she was cast as the central element in the kind of female-centric stories Hollywood has largely forgotten how to do.
Once you’ve gotten used to Blondell in these 1930s roles, however, its equally fascinating to see her working with different aims in mind in her later pictures.
In 1945’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” for instance, Blondell gives a lively but rounded and modulated performance as uninhibited but caring Aunt Sally in Elia Kazan’s naturalistic feature debut.
Even more of a stretch for Blondell was working in 1977’s “Opening Night” for director John Cassavettes. Used to the structure of studio films, she was initially uncomfortable with Casasavettes’ improvisation-oriented methods, but you wouldn’t know it from her tart, polished performance as a world-weary playwright. Even at age 71, she never lost her ability to hold the screen.
UCLA Joan Blondell schedule
At the Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood. For more information: (310) 206-8013 or www.cinema.ucla.edu.
All screenings at 7:30 p.m..
Nov. 4 — “Blondie Johnson,” “Blonde Crazy,” “Big City Blues”
Nov. 5 — “Three on a Match,” “Three Broadway Girls”
Nov. 12 — “Dames,” “I’ve Got Your Number”.
Nov. 16 — “Stand-In,” “Footlight Parade”
Nov. 21 — “There’s Always a Woman”, “The King and The Chorus Girl:.
Dec. 3 — “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “Three Girls About Town”
Dec. 10 — “Opening Night”