Tuesday, February 21, 2012


As Juliet Clark wrote in her introductory program note for the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) retrospective "Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda" (which ran June 13-29, 2008): "With a lush figure, bright, platter-sized eyes that missed nothing, and a mouth equally ready to dish a wisecrack, pull a sneer, or plant a kiss, actress Joan Blondell (1906–1979) was a staple of Hollywood's studio heyday. The fact that she rarely got first billing testifies more to the wealth of star power in her era than to any shortage of talent or hard work on her part: she made close to a hundred films over half a century, and brought freshness and spirit to every role."

Blondell is featured as a pre-Code staple in two "nasty-ass" films from Warner Brothers programmed into Elliot Lavine's "Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films For a Nasty-Ass World!", upcoming at the Roxie Theater (March 2-8, 2012); both films in B&W HQ Digital.

Lavine synopsizes the first, Three on a Match (1932), screening on opening night, Friday, March 2: "Three young women, friends since childhood, reunite after years of separation. But the random hand of fate has determined that at least one of them will descend into the depths of drugs, depravity and death before the breathless pace of this tragically exciting sixty-three minute pre-code melodrama has exhausted itself." That "random hand of fate"—later avoided by Sydney Greenstreet in
Three Strangers (1946)—is the WWI superstition that if three people lit their cigarettes off the same match, the third was doomed to die.

Juliet Clark synopsizes in her PFA capsule: "Compressing thirteen years into sixty-three minutes of screaming headlines and sordid melodrama,
Three on a Match draws a triangle of types—bad girl, good girl, rich girl—only to tweak the social-determinist schematic with bitter irony. A chance meeting in a beauty parlor reunites a trio of childhood classmates: Blondell the reform-school graduate, pegged in girlhood as 'just not serious enough'; Bette Davis, the serious one; and Ann Dvorak, the snobbish striver who, ambitions fulfilled, finds adult life 'tiresome and pointless.' As the scenario rapidly descends into an underworld of drugs and crime, it becomes clear that there are worse things to be than a bad girl. The film showcases Blondell's knack for combining charming vulgarity with basic decency, and Dvorak's alarming talent for depravity; only Davis's character is underdeveloped (although her full physical development is on frequent display). Watch for an early appearance by Humphrey Bogart."

In his biography Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes (University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2007), film historian Matthew Kennedy adds: "In early 1932 [Joan Blondell] made the trenchant
Three on a Match, all about the divergent fortunes of school friends who meet ten years later. Vivian (Ann Dvorak) has married a wealthy lawyer. Ruth (Bette Davis) is a secretary, and Mary (Blondell) has taken to the stage after a stint in reform school. With its attention on violence, drugs, and kidnapping, Three on a Match was judged by the New York Times to be 'tedious and distasteful,' but it has become a minor pre-Code classic. It is a wonder of economic film making, as a fully realized story covering thirteen years is contained in sixty-three minutes. The plot hinges on Dvorak's character, who squanders loveless, conventional respectability and winds up ensnared in the underworld. The idiom-filled dialogue had forward momentum and gutter-inspired realism. With its uncompromising conclusion, Three on a Match became a primal scream against the injustices visited upon women." (Supra, p. 48)

When I spoke to Matthew Kennedy during the PFA "Fizz on the Soda" retrospective, he said of
Three on a Match: "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."

According to a positive review of the film in the November 17, 1932 issue of
The Spokane Spokesman, Three on a Match depicted the passage of time through "a brand new approach and treatment... The parade of time is cleverly portrayed through news headlines down the years, popular song sheets, reproduced on screen, and excerpts from the news weeklies from 1919 and 1932." Within these montages, Three on a Match made clever use of its titular superstition by including a graphic of a "Believe it or Not" newspaper clip explaining Swedish match tycoon Ivar Kreuger's attempt to get people to use more matches by exploiting the WWI superstition.

The second Blondell film in the "Nasty-Ass" lineup, screening on Tuesday, March 6, is Blondie Johnson (1933). Lavine writes: "Against a graphically depicted Depression-era backdrop, the story of a wise-cracking gal who rises to the top in the male-dominated crime rackets is played out with enough gusto and sexually charged ammo to load a dozen tommy guns. A rapid-fire exercise in economy and excitement, this is first-class pre-code entertainment of the highest order!"

In my conversation with film historian Matthew Kennedy referenced earlier, I asked him to profile a Blondell film not included in the PFA series that he would want audiences to catch and his prompt suggestion was
Blondie Johnson. "It's one of the few times," Kennedy told me, "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."

Kennedy wrote about the film in his Blondell biography: "Joan finally had her chance at a solo turn with
Blondie Johnson. This was her movie outright; she worked every day of its four week schedule. Conceived as a female Little Caesar, Blondie undergoes an extreme transformation at the hands of an indifferent society. As a Depression victim, she appears before a magistrate begging for assistance so that she may care for her sick mother. She gets no sympathy, then goes home to find her mother dead. She hardens quickly. 'This city's going to pay me a living, a good living, and it's going to get back from me just as little as I have to give,' she says with bitter certainty.

Blondie Johnson gently twisted movie storytelling and sexual stereotypes. This time Joan was not a gangster's female sidekick, she was the gangster. She became that way by the malfunctions of government, not because of a predisposition to be bad as was often the case in roles played by Cagney and Robinson. There is humor and authenticity in Blondie Johnson, and Joan enjoyed a personal success. She showed a new command on screen, occupying the space with full, confident strides and persuasively shifting from charity case to tough Mafiosa to vulnerable woman in love. It was a tidy hit at the box-office, grossing $325,000, more than twice its negative costs." (Supra, pp. 50-51)

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