She wasn't nominated (this year, at least), but how do you talk about the films of 1931-32 without talking about Joan Blondell, she of the bright yellow hair, sardonic wit, and big doe eyes?
She was born to a vaudeville family, traveled the world, participated in beauty pageants (fourth place for Miss America 1926!) before settling in New York City, where she did everything from circus work to Broadway. She and James Cagney did Penny Arcade together; Al Jolson convinced Hollywood to make it a movie with the two of them. Blonde Crazy, premiering in November 1931, was their fourth collaboration.
In Blonde Crazy, Blondell plays a woman looking for work at a hotel. Hotshot bellhop James Cagney sees her, likes her, vouches for her, gets her hired, and the two eventually become partners in crime. Turns out the bellhop is a scammer and a schemer, and before you know it, they're traveling city to city, flimflamming folks every which way. Cagney's boyish good looks and mischievous twinkle are sex personified; it's no wonder Blondell falls for him. Tougher to figure out is why he's not falling for her, his equal in everything except criminal ambition (she knows when to get out). A fun conman film that boasts two double-crosses that make your stomach drop, with villainy provided by Louis Calhern (GREAT!) and Ray Milland. Cagney and Blondell have an easy chemistry, naturally.
The two are re-teamed for 1932's The Crowd Roars, though their relationship here is more antagonistic. Cagney is a race car driver, his brother is a race car driver, Ann Dvorak is Cagney's girlfriend, Blondell is Dvorak's bestie who schemes to use her feminine wiles to divide the brothers, only to fall for little bro. An accident drives Cagney to despair, drink, and ruin; Dvorak is heartbroken, all she wanted was for him to appreciate her. Blondell and Cagney barely interact, save one electric scene where he shoves her legs from their perch and calls her a whore. Such electricity only serves to underscore how little there is between Cagney and Dvorak, or between Blondell and whatsisname. The main selling point of this film are the race scenes, utilizing real race car drivers and very little stock footage, dust flying, flames flaming, crowd roaring... The love stories may not be much, but the action is sublime.
Blondell also pulls best friend duties in The Greeks Had a Word for Them, where she's one of a trio of gold-diggers. The main plot concerns Ina Claire's romance with rich boy David Manners, the real thing for once, and how it's all endangered by the unsubtle manipulations of money-hungry Madge Evans. A funny and frustrating movie about big city sex politics, but you never believe any of these people are friends. Given the most delectable role to play, Evans runs circles around everyone else, though the under-utilized Blondell does get to participate in a car chase in a race for the truth. A charming distraction.
Putting her comedic skills to better use is Miss Pinkerton, the only title here where Blondell is the star, the protagonist. Here, she plays a nurse assigned to take charge of an woman whose son just died under mysterious circumstances: was it suicide, or murder? The police recruit her to play sleuth for them, and so the classic old dark house mystery commences, with Blondell sneaking through various passageways and backstairs armed only with her wits and a flashlight. Does the solution make much sense? I certainly don't think so. Is it odd that she gets a romance with the police detective who confidently bungles the investigation from the first minute to the last? Very, but the whole thing is playful enough that you don't care. It's a great showcase for Blondell, letting her be beautiful, plucky, funny, heroic, and loud: a movie star performance.
A more literal movie star performance is that of Hollywood actress Flips Montague, her role in the comedy Make Me a Star. She's not so much a love interest as she is shoulder-to-cry-on for the film's protagonist, Merton Gill (a layered, wonderful performance by Stuart Erwin), a small-town guy who comes to Hollywood to pursue his dreams of movie stardom. He's dangerously naive, frustratingly self-serious, laughably slow on the uptake, but he's sincere and means well, so Flips takes pity and convinces a director to cast him as the hero in a western parody...while making Merton believe he's making a serious drama. It's a surprisingly funny, bittersweet film with an ending that's maybe cynical, perhaps hopeful, but definitely heartbreaking. This is Erwin's movie more than it is Blondell's - the film, after, is the second of three adaptations of the novel and stage play Merton of the Movies - but the two share a magnificent, not necessarily romantic, chemistry.
Finally, there's Union Depot, which sees her as a down-on-her-luck chorus girl waiting to board a train to Salt Lake City for a job - and an escape from the dirty old man who lives in her boarding house. She meets the out-of-work Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., recently released from jail under a vagrancy charge, able to pass as a gentleman after picking up a stray wallet and swiping a lush's luggage. Sparks fly between them, first flirtatious, then hostile, then romantic, then actual sparks as they find themselves caught in the middle of a sting operation involving a big-time counterfeiter. Interspersed throughout are mini-portraits of other travelers and in-betweeners using Union Depot, from a man seeing his family off so he can enjoy a solo fishing trip to a woman who bids her man adieu only to meet up with her other boyfriend. Immigrants, tourists, prostitutes, Hollywood stars, everyone comes through a train station, and you get the feeling that everyone's story would be just as fascinating as this one. Of the six, this is both the best film and the best Blondell: used to playing tender toughs, her Ruth Collins manages to be hopeful despite the undercurrent of disappointment. It helps, too, that Fairbanks matches her charm and pathos.
The Criterion Channel has a great selection of Joan Blondell's films in their Pre-Code Joan Blondell collection, including at least three of these titles. Check them out!
Saturday we take a rest, but come Sunday, our look at the 1931-32 film year for the studio that won for Best Sound Recording: Paramount!
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