Joan Blondell: From Greasepaint to “Grease”


Joan Blondell was one of those vaudevillians whose career spanned so long those of us growing up in the 1970s knew her entirely from contemporary entertainment, little dreaming of the four distinguished decades that preceded. She was a regular on Here Come the Brides, and a guest star on shows like Starsky and Hutch, Fantasy IslandBonanza and many others, and in films like Grease (1978) and The Champ (1978). It never occurred to me to realize that my grandmother probably watched her in first run movies too – in 1930.

Rose Joan Blondell (born 1906) was a second generation vaudevillian. Her father, Eddie was a vaudeville comedian and was in the 1903 stage play adaptation of the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids. Her mother was also an actress. As with Buster Keaton, its rumored that Joan’s cradle was literally a steamer trunk. She made her stage debut in her infancy. She traveled the world with her performing family throughout her childhood, finally settling in Dallas, where she won the Miss Dallas pageant in 1926 (placing fourth for Miss America). The next year, she moved to New York to become an actress. The breakthrough was Penny Arcade, which with Al Jolson’s support, became the Warner Brothers film Sinner’s Holiday, which put both her and James Cagney on the map. She was in a zillion movies through the 30s, including classics like Public Enemy, Three on a Match, and Gold Diggers of 1933. By the next decade the pace slowed down, but she never stopped working, and her presence is memorable in films as diverse as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and The Cincinnati Kid (1965). Her stock in trade was the wisecrack, delivered with a sly smirk and a twinkle in those huge baby blue eyes. But she could handle drama, too, and won a Golden Globe Award for her work in The Cincinnati Kid.

Her marital career was just as interesting as her professional one. Husbands included her sometime co-star, the multi-careered Dick Powell and controversial stage and screen producer Mike Todd, whom she  claimed once hung her outside a window by her ankles. Her younger sister, also in show business, was married to Cubby Broccoli, producer of the James Bond pictures. She died in 1979.

To learn more about the history of vaudeville and stars like Joan Blondell, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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