This week’s installment of Old Hollywood Book Reviews looks at a biography everyone should go out and read! I’ve given a few books unanimous praise but this one gets a pass all the way around. Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy is a must-read for fans of Blondell (obviously) but also lovers of the old Hollywood of yesteryear. Kennedy not only weaves the tale of Joan Blondell’s rootless life and movie career but also the way women were viewed throughout Hollywood, the changes the studios went through as well as what it was like to be an aging star who never truly got the appreciation deserved. The book is in University of Mississippi Press’ Hollywood Legends Series (I’ve reviewed two here so far) and I’d say this is the BEST of the bunch! Joan Blondell is working her way up to my Hall of Fame and after reading this I felt sad it took me so long to discover her as it has for many people. The book is frank and honest about Blondell’s life leaving nothing out but at the same time presenting a woman who felt continually ignored and disrespected by studios and her own family at times.
The book opens by labeling Blondell as a woman of contradictions, “just short of major stardom, yet always in some degree of demand” (Kennedy 3). I’ve seen Blondell in three movies so far and was completely unaware of her diverse and prolific output, nor was I aware of her three disastrous marriages or her issues with her children. Blondell is the picture of drama and her life is worthy of an E! True Hollywood story. While her life was a mess you wouldn’t know that from the way Kennedy details it. The book is exceedingly well-written and while being open about Blondell there’s a respect and dignity to it. Even when Kennedy is writing about how her father gave first husband George Barnes a letter explaining how Joan broke her hymen at age eight but was still a virgin (that’s actually not the most shocking statement made in the book if you can believe it) its not luridly written or said with a raised eyebrow, it’s factual and to the point. A Life Between Takes blends biography with historical analysis with zeal and without getting bogged down in plot summary of Blondell’s work.
Let’s explore some of what is presented in the book, particularly the life of Blondell’s parents which is worthy of a book itself thus why it takes up such a lengthy section of the first half. Joan’s father Ed Blondell led a life you’d see in the movies, originally joining the circus and seeing his trapeze partner killed! Joan led a life on stage, starting in vaudeville and visiting numerous foreign countries but constantly moving, something that would continue as she grew older. Her education was limited to “playbills and marquees” but Joan’s comments and interviews used in the book all read as extremely well-read and knowledge despite her limited education (15). In an ironic twist, the one time Joan did go to a public school she caught scarlet fever and diphtheria. Her mother was a devout Christian Scientist much like Jean Harlow‘s mother oddly enough. The connections between stars in this time period borderline on more than coincidence in my opinion.
A running theme throughout the book is the countless missed opportunities Joan passed on that could have changed her career path. As a girl she passed on an opportunity to attend the John Murray Anderson Drama School, the same one Lucille Ball and Bette Davis attended (the coincidences keep on coming since Joan would have a terrible time filming with Ball on The Lucy Show leading to her firing). Later in life Blondell would turn down the role of Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind. Blondell had to support her family which she would do until her parents death. All her money in her early career went to them and she desperately tried to keep everyone together.
Blondell herself comes off as a real smart aleck which left me laughing at many of the statements she makes throughout the book. They’re hilarious and just insane enough to make you question whether they’re true. One story has her detailing how she could only get out of taking piano lessons if the piano teacher died…which he did. Another story, with a pretty tongue-in-cheek joke discusses why one of her plays flopped. Her response, “No one was going to the theater. Too busy jumping out windows” (30)! You’ll be chuckling several times and all of these moments showcase Blondell’s personality, something that might not have always been apparent in her film work. For the majority of her early career Blondell was relegated to roles like “sister, floozie, girlfriend, and gold digger” with little change (36). The studios just didn’t know what to do with her, at one point wanting to change her name to Inez Holmes. The studio system is explored concurrently with Blondell’s life discussing in detail how actresses were viewed during the time period, even forced to have their menstrual cycles charted. If anything A Life Between Takes explores how actresses during the 30s and 40s were viewed as chattel. One memo from Jack Warner goes so far as to tell Blondell to tone down her breasts for fear of the Hays Office. It is funny but sad that a woman like Blondell wasn’t given memos praising her acting.
Blondell’s personal life is treated with respect despite the sadness in it. Her rape by a police officer is the first shocking admission you’ll read in this book as well as homeless lifestyle during her 20s. The seedy underbelly of Hollywood is depicted from the back-alley abortionists that Joan was forced to frequent because of first husband George Barnes and even her sex life is discussed. What’s interesting is that none of this is presented with a slimy angle nor is it the key focal point of the chapter. These are events that happened in her life, that shaped her, plain and simple. Blondell is first and foremost a woman not afraid of unsavory topics and Kennedy highlights that.
Her marriages are where some of the most shocking stories are from George Barnes’ disinterest in his son with Blondell to Mike Todd‘s poisoning of the family dog! Todd comes off like the worst person on the planet and you feel for Blondell as Todd is cited as the man who awakened her sexually. Their volatile marriage is filled with suspense and sadness despite Todd’s cruelty. Her marriage to Dick Powell, the only one that didn’t end in violence or neglect, is just plain sad. The book does demonize June Allyson in a way, discussing how she tried to prevent Blondell from seeing Powell as he was dying. Their marriage seemed to be the only one Blondell regretted and Powell does come off as a good man despite how their marriage ended.
The saddest parts of the book are the final chapters as Blondell tries to make a name in the new Hollywood of low-budgets and television. As her health declined she became increasingly dependent on her children who were going through their own struggles. Blondell’s loneliness becomes a theme and it is sad that such a beautiful star found solace with animals and couldn’t seem to get a project to truly showcase her (many of her later films cut her scenes down). By the time the book looks at Grease, a film I remember her from, it becomes apparent Blondell was literally sick and tired of being second banana.
Through all the sadness it’s great that a respectful book like this is furthering Blondell’s career. Blondell feared being forgotten by audiences but this book keeps her name out there and hopefully new fans (like me) will continue to discover her work. A Life Between Takes is informative, well-written and provides some of the best pictures for a biography I’ve seen! You should buy the book to look at the pictures of Blondell as a child, during the war, her wedding photos and pictures of her children (baby Ellen is darling) and grandchildren. The back of the book has an epilogue discussing where her children are and I was surprised to read that niece Kathy Blondell is a hairdresser whose worked on films like Mommie Dearest and The Aviator and that daughter Ellen lives in my neck of the woods, Northern California!
Go out and support Joan Blondell by reading A Life Between Takes. Blondell’s life is fascinating to say the least and I’ve really only skimmed the surface of what’s in these pages. It’s a favorite book of mine that I’ll be recommending to everyone! Thanks to University of Mississippi Press for granting my request for a review copy!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.