Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: Joan Blondell at PFA

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 11:23:00 AM
Joan Blondell
Joan Blondell

It’s hard to believe, but Joan Blondell never had a starring role. Hard to believe not only because it seems like a gross oversight, but also because she so often provided her films with their most memorable character.  

Pacific Film Archive is screening a retrospective of Blondell’s career through June 29. Titled “The Fizz on the Soda” after Blondell’s own description of her place in the Hollywood hierarchy, the series is just a small sampling of the more than 100 films in which the actress appeared, but it provides a solid portrait of her range and talent.  

Blondell was in many ways the quintessential pre-Code woman: strong, forthright, bold and brassy. In countless films, from the Busby Berkeley musicals to racier fare like Night Nurse and Three on a Match, she provided a durable and witty sidekick and a fantastic foil, bringing out the personalities of the lead actors and lending them much of her charm, humor and earthy nobility. She made the films and the actors around her better.  

Blondell didn’t fit into the studio system’s narrow vision of a lead actress. She was too sensual and knowing to play the innocent waif roles that went to Ruby Keeler; too girl-next-door to take the hard-edged dame roles that went to Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford; too fun to play the villainous vamp; too soulful to play the floozy. What to do with all this personality and versatility? Thus an idiosyncratic niche was created, consisting of substantive and often scene-stealing supporting roles. It was a long, dedicated, worker-like career—one that may not be the stuff of legend, but one more than worthy of a second look.