Sunday, June 08, 2008

JOAN BLONDELL: THE FIZZ ON THE SODA—The Evening Class Interview With Matthew Kennedy, Part Two

Part One of my conversation with film historian Matthew Kennedy can be found here.

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Guillén: In the upcoming Pacific Film Archive retrospective Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda, they've included Edmund Goulding's film Nightmare Alley (1947), which I've never seen. In your chapter on the making of that film in your biography of Goulding [Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004], you emphasized his facility with actors and how he elicited incredible performances out of both his female and his male actors. Can you talk about Nightmare Alley?

Kennedy: I love Nightmare Alley. It's such an odd movie. As I write about it in the book, it's a movie that should never have been made. Its excellence is something of a happy accident, because of the odd and seemingly incongruous elements that came together to make that movie. It came from a really tawdry novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham and it's about a carny, a guy who works at these rundown Midwestern carnivals. The lesser end of the carnival hierarchy involves people who are known as circus "geeks." A geek then doesn't mean what it does today. Back then it involved biting the heads off live chickens basically as a carnival act, a "geek show." This is the kind of degradation we're talking about in these different performances. This book becomes a fascinating look at the absolute underbelly and low end aspects of show business and fame and putting yourself out there in a dark and fatalistic way.

So I read the book and I was thinking, "There's nobody in 1947 that would touch this. It's positively radioactive, given what the Code would say and what it would impose on the content of the film, if they were to try to turn it into that." But, of course, somebody did decide to do that and it was none other than George Jessel, who had produced some very accessible and light and entertaining film musicals. He went to Darryl Zanuck with the novel and said, "I want to turn this into a movie." Zanuck took one look at the book and said, "This is pure filth and it's not going to happen." But somehow Jessel was able to convince him and—even further, as a miracle of persuasion—he was able to convince Zanuck to allow Tyrone Power to star in it. Tyrone Power was, at the time, Fox's number one matinee idol and was doing swashbucklers and great romances in full exploitation of his fantastic good looks. Now he's going to play a carnival heel who is degraded to the status of a geek?! The meetings where Zanuck was persuaded to do that must have been amazing.

Guillén: Wasn't Power hungry for the challenge?

Kennedy: Yes. That was probably a major factor. Power said, "Look. You're giving me the same stuff over and over again. I want to be challenged as an actor." He was very keen on doing it. I'm wondering if Jessel and Power didn't do a one-two attack on Zanuck until Zanuck's resolve was surrendered?

Guillén: I'm always intrigued by actors who get caught up in what I call the Liza-Minnelli-imitating-Dustin-Hoffman school of acting. After Dustin Hoffman did Ratso, every "serious" actor (Minnelli?) wanted to put a scar on their face and do something gutter theatrical. But there is a value in allowing an actor to escape their own good looks to test their chops. In Jungian parlance I guess it would be called enantiodromia. You go so far in one direction—you're a box office matinee idol forever—that you have to break through that image to its less attractive opposite.

Kennedy: You have to break out or you will die of boredom or a broken heart from sheer redundancy.

Guillén: Let's talk about Joan Blondell. Tell me about her performance in Nightmare Alley.

Kennedy: Blondell is one of three females who come in and out of Tyrone Power's life. She's dominant in the first part of the movie as someone who's working in the carnival with him but her husband is a late-stage alcoholic. Power uses the still-attractive Blondell to extract the secret code of how to do this act within the carnival that appears to be mind reading; but, in fact it's not. It's a code. It's how these two people interact with one another so that they can convince the audience that they are, in fact, practicing telepathy.

Guillén: How interesting. Many years ago I was fooling around with Teller of Penn and Teller fame, back before they headed out to New York to seek their fortune. I met him just when they were finishing up their act "Asparagus Valley Cultural Society" at San Francisco's Phoenix Theatre. He did a trick in the act—the Indian pin trick—where he would swallow 100 needles and then pull them out all threaded on a string. I begged him to tell me how he did it but he insisted he couldn't reveal his secrets. I know both of them were very influenced by the carnival circuit and I grew up with a lot of that as well. We were poor and lived on the outskirts of town where the traveling carnivals would pitch their geek and freak tents. I loved them! I remember a man who was half crocodile and a woman who was half horse, all done with mirrors, complete sham, but thoroughly intoxicating to a young child. I actually pulled a real sword out of sword swallower's mouth! I'll never forget the fearful thrill of that!

Kennedy: You would love Nightmare Alley! This is your milieu. You can't miss Nightmare Alley. You have to see it, if you're telling me this.

Guillén: As with Dressler, was there a movie of Blondell's that caught your imagination and enthused you to write a biography about her?

Kennedy: A couple of things brought me to Blondell. Actually, the idea to do this book in particular came to me through her son. I was interviewed about Goulding for a documentary on old Hollywood. I hadn't yet finished the Goulding book but the producer of the documentary was Norman Powell, who was Joan Blondell's son by—technically, biologically, by George Barnes, the great cinematographer—but, he's the adopted son of Dick Powell, who was Joan Blondell's second husband; George Barnes being her first.

We were talking about Goulding all day long for this documentary and at the end of the day—after having much fun taping—Norman said, "Well, maybe you should do a book on my mother?" I knew that his mother was Joan Blondell and when an offer like that drops in your lap—her son suggesting it—well, my biographer brain started to churn, thinking, "Access to wonderful letters. Family stories. Family friends. Photos. This is great. I'll have more opportunity for greater intimacy in writing Blondell's story than I had for Dressler or Goulding; neither of them had kids and there are few people alive who remember them."

I contacted Norman about a year later—I hadn't yet finished the Goulding book—but I said, "Were you serious about my writing a biography of your mom? Because I would really like to do that." I had admired her for a very long time. How I came to her personally is because I am of a certain age that—when I was in junior high—what was on television but Here Come the Brides. It was a short-lived series—only on for two seasons—but, many people in my age range fondly remember that show.

Guillén: It triggered every matrimonial dream you ever had, eh?

Kennedy: [Laughter.] Exactly. They came and went pretty quickly, those dreams. Bobby Sherman was in that show and he was a big bubblegum star. I was attracted to this salty, older character actress, this larger-than-life saloon keeper in the series and—once again—my mother said, "Oh, that's Joan Blondell and she was a regular, really hardworking, reliable, terrific actress at Warner Brothers in the '30s." Again, subliminally or without any great conscious effort my mother educated me on yet another actress. So that's how I first became aware of Joan Blondell and then, of course, later I filled in the gaps with her earlier career.

Guillén: I vaguely remember that television show but probably more for Sherman than Blondell. Admittedly, I'm not that familiar with the body of Blondell's work. I guess I dismissed her for being a supporting actress who tended to play "good" girls.

Kennedy: That's another reason to see Nightmare Alley.

Guillén: She's not a good girl in Nightmare Alley?

Kennedy: Not so good in Nightmare Alley. Also, what amazed me when I actually studied her career is that she wasn't always a supporting actress. She had a leading lady status for 15 years; but, the films were generally B-list films at Warner Brothers, and then even later when she left Warner Brothers and was freelancing at Columbia and MGM and so forth. Even then she was given star billing. It wasn't until after WWII that she became a supporting player.

Guillén: Many of those B-list films have ended up holding up better than their A-list counterparts, having more allure as the years go by, popping up in revival screenings at repertory houses and festivals. Why do you think that is? What's changed in our culture to make these films that were once considered minor more interesting?

Kennedy: I wonder if it's because they feel like they're closer to the real thing? For example, Warner Brothers was great at making movies that were literally pulled from the headlines. In fact, one explanation I was given for that is because they were cheaper. Warner Brothers was very budget-minded as a studio and it cost a lot less to get a story off the headlines as opposed to hiring a writer to draft an adaptation of a novel. Part of the pleasure I get in watching B-list Warner Brothers gangster movies, or Depression-era prohibition dramas of the early '30s, is because I feel I am in touch with the morality of the time, the aesthetics of the time, what was entertaining, what passed for good or at least passable film acting. I get a feeling these movies were probably made in six days and—in some cases—that's true. It's the immediacy of those films, maybe, their unpretentiousness, that makes them attractive today.

Guillén: Interesting. And now the same cheap budget rationale is why we have so many so-called reality TV dramas. No one needs to write a script. Just throw a bunch of ghost hunters in a haunted house one week after the next and call it entertainment. Entertainment has been ratcheted down year after year to approximate a "reality" audiences can relate to. When we look at these B-features of the '30s and '40s, they seem much more accomplished by comparison. As gritty and realistic as they purported to be, they're still somehow romanticized.

Kennedy: That's why black and white is so effective and why I love black and white. That era in particular, the '30s and '40s, had some of the greatest black and white cinematographers. In those film noirs and detective stories there is a realism but—at the same time—an escapism, precisely because there's an absence of color. A lot of female film stars of that era have said they preferred black and white because they looked better. The flaws weren't so obvious. The lighting could be less realistic. But there's a full range of black and white, isn't there? From the gauzy lens to the harsh full-focus sharpness that can actually be pretty unflattering in film noir. But there's always a level of escapism that's not always there with color. Color is what most of us see every day. Even with black and white films that are attempting to be highly realistic, you can always pull yourself out of it ever so slightly by saying, "Oh yeah, it's black and white. It's a movie." I don't see that choice as a fault or a shortcoming. In fact, it's a reminder of the magic of movies.

Guillén: I agree. There's a remove. In terms of the lineup for the Blondell retrospective, did you choose these movies? How did they get chosen?

Kennedy: The programming was ultimately PFA's decision; but, I worked with Charles Silver at MOMA in putting together last December's 13-film retrospective. My suggestions offered something from each part of her career as a good cross-section of comedies and dramas so that—you want to know about Joan Blondell?—see these movies and you'll get a good glimpse from the beginning to the end of her career. Because of availability, PFA is showing nearly every film that was shown at MOMA. So, indirectly, I was part of the programming.

Guillén: You'll be introducing the first two nights of the series: Blonde Crazy (1931) and Night Nurse (1931) on Friday, June 13 and then Footlight Parade (1933) on Sunday, June 15. Perhaps I could ask you to briefly synopsize the films in the series you will not be introducing?

Kennedy: Three On A Match (1932)—if you want gritty pre-Code, they don't come any grittier than Three On A Match. It's part of volume two of TCM's Forbidden Hollywood series and it involves three women who were friends in grade school and then it catches up with them several years later and the different paths their lives have taken. One in particular—played by the shamefully neglected Ann Dvorak—burns a hole through the screen. The three women are Dvorak, Blondell and Bette Davis and, interestingly, of the three the one who makes the least impression is Bette Davis. Her role is quite underwritten. What's also interesting about Three On A Match is that it's only 63 minutes long and it covers something like 15 years. It is the most tight, economical, without-feeling-rushed movie you will ever see. It's a text book lesson in filmmaking efficiency and storytelling; it's absolutely amazing that way.

The King and the Chorus Girl (1937) is a delightful comedy that's been compared to Lubitsch and—as Juliet Clark writes in the PFA notes—it was supposed that Blondell would have probably been great in Lubitsch movies and Blondell herself said her performance in The King and the Chorus Girl was one of her very best, maybe her best, and her favorite. It's not a typical comedy. Basically, she—as the chorus girl—helps this king come down off of his pompous high horse. She's not impressed with his station in life.

Guillén: She's a "so what?" girl?

Kennedy: She's a "so what?" girl, exactly. "You don't impress me." A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945), of course, is Elia Kazan's first movie based on the great Betty Smith novel about tenement life at turn-of-the-century Brooklyn and the coming of age of a young impressionable girl who is showing talent as a writer; it's Betty Smith's story. Joan Blondell was fond of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and she has a meaty role that was, again, one of her very best. In fact, people I've talked to have consistently wondered why she wasn't nominated for an Oscar for the wonderful, full-bodied character that she plays. The answer is: I don't know. I do know that her character—because she had led a promiscuous life and been married many times—really had to be sanitized by the Code, which probably cut into the effectiveness that her character could have had. But she certainly makes everything of it that she can as an actress.

Juliet Clark's notes are truly superb and I don't know how much more I can add to them. There's Always A Woman (1938) was one of the first movies Blondell made after she left Warner Brothers. It was one of a handful of movies she made in partnership with Melvyn Douglas at Columbia. There's Always A Woman shows off Blondell's comic skills very well. You can see that they're roughly trying to imitate A Thin Man with Douglas and Blondell mimicking the roles of Nick and Nora Charles, sophisticates out to solve murders who also have a clear erotic attraction to each other; the forensics-as-sexy trope.

Three Girls About Town (1941) is another Columbia comedy. This is one of those B-list movies that—when I first saw it—I was so enchanted. I was laughing outloud. It's so fast and witty and has great characters and great set-ups. Basically, Blondell's the hostess at a convention—which is, of course, a euphemism perhaps—and she and her sisters, they're named Hope, Faith and Charity, they're working in this particular hotel where a convention's going on. Somebody dies at this convention but the body keeps popping up. It somewhat presages Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry; but, it's much more overtly comic in terms of how they deal with the body. There's one scene that's become somewhat famous where the dead person is playing poker. How they managed to convey this idea is pretty darn funny.

Lizzie (1957) is one of the supporting performances Blondell gave in the '50s after her film career went into hibernation (due to her damaging marriage to Mike Todd). The overwhelming evidence suggests Todd was abusive and, as a result, Blondell was not on the screen for several years. When she came back, she was older, had gained weight, and could no longer command the leading roles. She had transitioned into being a character actress. Film work was not that forthcoming; but, she did land a job in Lizzie. She plays the aunt of a woman with split personalities, specifically Eleanor Parker. Lizzie came out the same year that The Three Faces of Eve came out. There were other films as well dealing with psychiatry and schizophrenia. Lizzie got much less air time and notoriety than The Three Faces of Eve and when you see it, it's clear it was a movie with a shoestring budget. Blondell's character of the aunt is instrumental in why and how Lizzie is the way she is. There are flashbacks that explain how she came to be mentally damaged and, again, Blondell's character figures into that. She plays a very unsympathetic person and does so magnificently.

Opening Night (1978) is provocative. It's a movie I absolutely love; but, I recognize that—because it's John Cassavetes—there are a lot of people who don't care for his movies and find them long and boring.

Guillén: The span of Blondell's career is amazingly represented in this series.

Kennedy: This is why these movies work so well as a set. Not only are you spanning a huge amount of time—the first movie of the series is 1931; the last one is 1978—but her first movie was made one year before Blonde Crazy and her last movie was made one year after Opening Night so this series pretty much covers the entire span of her career. The idea that she started as a contract player at Warner Brothers and finished in a semi-improvisational independent Cassavetes movie is a testament to Blondell's endurance and versatility. Opening Night's a fantastic movie exploring age and regret, being a woman and making art.

Guillén: With the knowledge of the body of Blondell's work—which you clearly possess—can you name one film that is not in this series that you would want people to see?

Kennedy: That's a tough question.

Guillén: It can only be one. [Laughter.]

Kennedy: That's dirty pool! My absolute first reaction is Gold Diggers of 1933 because of the finale "Remember My Forgotten Man"—which is not only the most famous production number or scene of Blondell's career—but, is also an emblematic moment of the Depression. However, the answer I'm going to give is a movie that's much less known and was actually part of the MOMA series. I was sorry it wasn't included at PFA. It's a Warner Brothers movie called Blondie Johnson (1933). It's one of the few times where Warner Brothers said to Blondell, "You are in no uncertain terms the name above the title and you're not co-starring with a man, not supporting somebody, it's a movie about you." She's in every scene. It's a fantastic, low-budget gangster movie where Blondell plays the gangster. She's not the gangster's moll; she's the gangster.

Guillén: Is Blondie Johnson available on DVD?

Kennedy: It's not, unfortunately.

Guillén: I'm quite respectful of how you managed to get two films into that answer.

Kennedy: I did sneak two films in there, didn't I? [Laughter.]

Guillén: Finally, are you a fan of any contemporary films?

Kennedy: Some. I have to say that I don't concentrate on contemporary film as much as I do on older film. I have a friend who teases me that my idea of a new film is anything that came out after 1950 and he's not far off the mark on that!

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Once again I heartily recommend Matthew Kennedy's conversation with Andre Soares at Alternative Film Guide for additional information on Blondell.


Brian Darr said...

Wonderful interview! Thanks for delving into this series for us. I've seen some of the titles before but am excited for an opportunity to review Three on a Match and Footlight Parade on the big screen. And though I'd been salivating for a big-screen shot to see Opening Night for the first time, I'm now pumped for a bunch of other Blondell films, too! It'll be good to get back in the PFA swing again; it's been a while since I visited.

Anonymous said...

I think that the Liza Minnelli film being referred to by Kennedy is Tell Me that You Love Me, Junie Moon in which Minnelli played a woman whose face was disfigured by battery acid.

Michael Guillen said...

That's exactly the film I was referencing, Peter. I recall reading an interview with Minnelli at the time where she credited Hoffman's performance of Ratso as the inspiration for her accepting a disfigured role.

Brian, thanks for stopping by. The Blondell series will be, of course, competing with about a hundred other festivals going on in SF at the same time. Yes, I'm exaggerating but that's what it feels like. I won't be able to see as many of the films in the series as I had hoped to. Especially Nightmare Alley, which screens on the same evening as Apichatpong's shorts. I figure Nightmare Alley has more of a chance of cycling back around than Joe's shorts.

Brian Darr said...

It may have a stronger chance (though I wouldn't put it past the PFA to bring Joe's shorts back) but it also is Nightmare Alley's third cycle through town in about four years. It played with a Guy Maddin film at the PFA in 2004, and at Noir City 2006. Hopefully every two years or so someone will decide the Bay Area needs another Goulding fix, because like you I'm picking YBCA over PFA that particular night.