SPOTLIGHT: Brassy Pre-Code Blondell (VII)

Welcome to a new Film Friday, and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Joan Blondell (1906-1979), an iconic Warner dame known for her snappy speech and straight-shooting style. We’ve covered Illicit (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Night Nurse (1931), but haven’t even yet scratched the surface of her miraculous Pre-Code career. We’re making up for lost time, and so far we’ve featured Blonde Crazy (1931), Union Depot (1932), The Greeks Had A Word For Them [a.k.a. Three Broadway Girls] (1932), Miss Pinkerton (1932), and Three On A Match (1932), and Lawyer Man (1932). Today…

 

Blondie Johnson (1933)

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A female crook fights her way from poverty to the top of the underworld. Starring Joan Blondell, Chester Morris, and Allen Jenkins. Story and screenplay by Earl Baldwin. Directed by Ray Enright.

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“When poverty kills Blondie Johnson’s mother, Blondie vows that she will never be poor again. Convinced that virtue doesn’t pay, she travels to the city and immediately invents a con with the help of taxi driver Red Charley. Later that evening, after splitting the take with Red, one of her marks, Danny Jones, spots her and invites her home with him for a talk. When she hesitates, he tells her that he is the right hand man of Max Wagner, the head racketeer in town. With Blondie’s brains and Danny’s connections, they move to take over Max’s territory. Danny falls in love with Blondie, but she prefers to keep their arrangement strictly business. Max tries to eliminate the competition by running over Danny with a car, but Danny lives.

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“Thus, Max must be killed, and Louis, one of the gang, has him shot. Now that they are in power, Danny and Blondie fight over his excessive spending, and Blondie vows to ruin him. She takes over the gang and is extremely successful. When Louis is arrested for Max’s murder, the gang believes that Danny talked. Reluctantly, Blondie approves Danny’s murder, but when she finds out that he had nothing to do with Louis’ arrest, she rushes off to stop the shooting. She is too late, but Danny is not dead. After he recovers, they are both tried and sentenced to jail, but agree that they lived the wrong way and that after they pay their dues, they will marry and try to go straight.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TC

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The story is prime Pre-Code fodder, as a lady crook teams up with a fella who plans to overthrow his gangland boss. When they succeed, taking over his turf and achieving the power denied to them in their impoverished youths, the corruption proves corruptive, and the pair finds themselves at odds. The rest of the film, and its primary conflict, stems from the dissolution of their partnership and a misunderstanding that nearly proves fatal. Those who initially lack economic freedom make for solid protagonists, and this era’s frequent spin on the characters, as is the case here, has them turning to criminal, or at the very least, unsavory, activity as a means of attaining what they’ve long wanted. And with the transitory nature of good and evil that these films explore, we always end up rooting for these people, even though their turn to the dark side would be unacceptable and egregious behavior for a hero. (Yes, the Pre-Code era was mastering the anti-hero concept way before cable television!) Blondie Johnson enlivens this principle perfectly, and while the consequences faced by these types of characters, like the duo here, always seem deserved and yield a vicarious satisfaction, we are nevertheless pleased to see them rewarded with a happy ending (albeit with some slight repentance). Yet through it all, our definitions of right and wrong subtly change.

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The premise is unwaveringly Pre-Code and therefore sets the film up as an enjoyable viewing, but the performers contribute to its worth and authenticity with immeasurable finesse. Joan Blondell has her best role yet (and Pre-Code expert Mick LaSalle argues that this is her best performance ever), for she’s a modern woman in control. She’s not good, but she’s not bad. She’s a character, but she’s not a caricature. Everything she does makes sense, and everything she says works on two levels: the character’s and the performer’s. Thus, everything about gangland boss Blondie Johnson and quippy Joan Blondell is fuzed together and sublimated into a fulfilling presentation that gives the audience what it wants without insulting our intelligence by being simple-minded or overtly obvious. This is the Joan Blondell of the Pre-Code years, and if you want to see her in action (the moment where she decides to have her man bumped off is coolly heartbreaking), Blondie Johnson is one to watch.

As for Chester Morris, he’s ripe with his usual mediocrity, and although he and Blondell don’t sizzle when on screen together, their chemistry is not noticeably disconnected, and because the characters’ relationship is so central to the story, the scenes they share are the most memorable. And, because this is a Warners film from ’33, you can expect appearances by character players like Claire Dodd, Sterling Holloway, and Mae Busch. (My only complaint about the production is the sentimental music, which sometimes acts counterintuitively to the drama.) But it’s, as always, a hoot to watch, and with a marvelous lead and a premise emblematic of her entire Pre-Code career, Blondie Johnson is a “B” picture that’s recommended . . . with the enthusiasm typically reserved for an “A”.

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