Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes

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Rose Joan Blondell learned many things growing up as a child of vaudeville.  She learned to make friends easily, to fit in, and to adapt to ever changing surroundings and circumstances. She learned how to tend to a crew, learn her lines and enhance the performances of others. She learned to smile on cue and to place the act before everything else.  Most importantly she learned discipline, hard work and perseverance.  The one thing she wasn’t taught was how to value herself, her gifts, and her own feelings.  And that is a lesson lost that cost her much personal happiness.

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Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes gives us a chronological accounting of the actor’s life.  Beautifully researched, it benefits tremendously from the full cooperation of her surviving relatives, including her children.  It was her son who suggested that such a book be considered.  He approached author Matthew Kennedy as the two were working on another project.  It is a gift that he did so.

As expected the most compelling section is the first third when Blondell is working frantically and furiously at Warner Brothers.  Her swift climb towards being an invaluable player in the studio’s talented stable make for heady reading.  She arrives in Hollywood almost simultaneously with the advent of talking pictures with a young Jimmy Cagney, both fresh off a Broadway play that lands on the screen with the racy title of Sinner’s Holiday.  While compelling in their debuts, Cagney’s magnetism is undeniable.  The studio recognizes their hot property for what he is and quickly places him in starring vehicles with compensation to match.  Cagney achieves this with some savvy and negotiation.  Blondell’s compensation doesn’t achieve his, nor is she given those starring roles; her negotiation skill and representation is weaker and she is frequently used to bolster others’ work or enliven sagging pictures. Nevertheless, her presence in tight, rapid-fire pre-Code films is almost unmatched.  It is only those women that truly reached the upper tier, such as Barbara Stanwyck, a friend of Blondell’s, that have greater presence.  Some of the most memorable films of the era such as Night Nurse, Three on a Match, Blonde Crazy and the Busby Berkley musicals Dames and Gold Diggers of 1933 would be unrecognizable without Blondell’s presence.  The latter’s finale number, Remember My Forgotten Man, with Blondell as its centerpiece, is arguably the most significant musical sequence of the Great Depression.  The actress herself was taken aback by the critical and public response to its social significance.  She was working so fast its impact had eluded her.

In a life filled with contradictions, Blondell frequently referred to herself as a workhorse, many times denigrating her own accomplishments while struggling for the recognition and roles she rightfully deserved.  Toddling onto the stage at fourteen months, she entered vaudeville as a regular in her parent’s act at the age of three.  The Blondell’s travelled the globe, rarely stopping to establish roots, a pattern Blondell found difficult to break. She longed for a house and home yet this was sometimes as elusive as the roles she sought.  When Blondell found personal stability, she used this security to bolster her career, seeking and taking risks that then undermined her domestic happiness. This strategy of zig-zagging from coast to coast, seeking substantial roles, was ill-tolerated by the men in her life who married a people-pleasing petite blonde and somehow ended up with a real woman with needs.  Husbands George Barnes, Dick Powell and Mike Todd ranged from distant and controlling to financially irresponsible and emotionally and physically abusive.  Blondell only achieved marital bliss intermittently and fleetingly.  Professional success similarly had its rich yet transient moments.  Her finances followed her marriages and her performances, rising and falling with their shifting fates.

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As Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with Peggy Ann Garner

Blondell was nominated for an Academy Award for The Blue Veil, however one of her most memorable performances of her post-Warner years was that of Aunt Sissy in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the best-selling novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  It was her favorite role. Yet some of her best moments were left on the cutting room floor due to their adult nature and the restrictions of the Production Code, an editorial necessity she found upsetting.  If she is remembered by some as the matronly former star who cameos in Grease it may be because she is only one of a handful of women whose career lasted her entire adult life; she worked almost continually. And while she tended to scoff and discount her own artistic needs, her drive to pursue roles appears to have been motivated by more than money.  Blondell trusted her talents to provide for her but ached for more; she craved fulfillment on a personal and professional level.  She ultimately gave up dating but continued to work, even while seriously ill, until the age of 73, when she succumbed to leukemia.

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Joan Blondell with husband Dick Powell

This well-researched biography covers all phases of this actor’s busy and tumultuous life, almost so much so that the larger arcs are elusive.  Her marriage to Dick Powell lasts eight years but the ups and downs and moves are so frequent, and the intermingling of professional and personal so complex, that the longevity is almost lost.  This is the most significant intimate relationship in Blondell’s life.  Powell is the father of her two children, with her eldest being adopted by him in the early happy years.  Yet this aspect of the book is a minor quibble and perhaps unavoidable given its sweep. It is enriched by numerous interviews, archival research, family memories and haunting recollections.

Blondell’s story spans much of the twentieth century and carries within it the tremendously complex changes occurring in the entertainment industry. Blondell adapts and sashays these changes with skill and sacrifice, working in not only vaudeville and movies, but theater, radio, summer stock and television. Consequently, she is sometimes missing from home for months at a time yet is a devoted mother; many times her children travel with her. More often, her struggles and heartaches, both professional and personal, are due to male attitudes than her own choices; as a woman I ached for her.  When she died I cried.  Through it all she retained the generosity of spirit that made her an audience favorite.

I knew Joan Blondell was something special when I was a small child.  Sitting on the floor staring up at the television screen, watching Here Come the Brides, I took notice when she was introduced in the opening credits with her own solo title card, “and Joan Blondell as Lottie”.  She was charming and warm, still beautiful but comfortingly maternal.  She was the proverbial heart of gold in that series but she was more.  She radiated something unmistakable, the charisma of a movie star, a Hollywood survivor.  When Blondell appeared, she owned the screen.  I tuned in week after week not just for teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman but for her.  Her warmth was something I sorely needed in my life and I adored her for it.  Imbued with the same spirit, this rendering of Blondell’s life is highly recommended.

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This post is the fifth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!!

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Sophia Loren: Movie Star Italian Style

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“Sophia Loren, aside from being extremely beautiful physically, is one of the most exciting, witty women on this planet.”

Tippi Hendren, costar in A Countess from Hong Kong

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Sophia Loren did two notorious things in her life.  The first was to have a romance with Cary Grant, one that elicited a proposal of marriage.  She declined, leaving him in despair.  The second scandal is more significant.  Loren carried on a long-time affair with married producer Carlo Ponti, one that led to an eventual marriage with admirable longevity but was nonetheless quite shocking in its time.  Loren met Ponti when she was only fourteen years old.  He was twenty-two years her senior. Initially he provided her with professional advice and friendship but it didn’t take long for their relationship to blossom into romance.  Divorce was not yet legal in Italy and Rome was having none of their liaison.  Hollywood provided a welcome refuge and Mexico a ‘legal’ means of marrying,yet one that branded Ponti a bigamist in his home country.  The couple opted to become French citizens, with the Italian producer finally obtaining an elusive divorce, allowing for their longed-for marriage.  The addition of children, and later grandchildren, only made it that much sweeter.

If Loren had any further dalliances with her co-stars, a stunning array of men that included Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, William Holden, Peter Sellers and Richard Burton, among others, she hasn’t breathed a word of it. However such speculation seems doubtful.  Her lifelong love affair with Ponti appears to be one of several constants in her life, the others being her creativity, her love of family, and the simple joi de vivre of being Sophia Loren.

Sophia Loren: Movie Star Italian Style by Cindy De La Hoz conveys this joy for living nicely.  A photographic journey through the actor’s life and movies, it stuns with literally hundreds of gorgeous photos, the majority in the glorious technicolor of many of her films.  A breezy biography fills in the specifics of Loren’s life beginning with childhood struggles of living in war-torn Italy and continuing to the present day.  Almost two-thirds of this coffee table worthy book consists of a synopsis of each of her films, providing the Loren aficionado with a comprehensive compendium of her work.  This is especially helpful as many of her films, even those that have been translated from the original Italian, remain in limited distribution.  Her most familiar Hollywood successes are highlighted too including Houseboat, It Happened in Naples, Arabesque and The Millionairess.

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Two Women (1960)

Yet Loren differs from many of her Hollywood peers due to her significant contribution to Italian cinema.  For her portrayal of a mother trapped in WWII Italy in a gritty, heartbreaking turn in Two Women (1960), she became the first actor to win an Oscar for a foreign language performance.  She has won five special Golden Globes, mostly for World Film Favorite. Her partnership with fellow countryman Marcello Mastroianni was the kind of rare collaboration that is seen only with the likes of Tracy and Hepburn, Powell and Loy, and Allen and Keaton.  The duo made an impressive seventeen movies together, working with Italian luminaries such as director Vittorio de Sica and producer Ponti, lifting Italian filmmaking to new heights of popularity and artistry. She is considered Italy’s most celebrated female actor of all time.

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With Mastroianni in Sunflower (1970)

Truly an international movie star, Loren is known for her staggering beauty, yet she has an acting legacy that spans over six decades.  That this is not widely known in not the fault of the star but rather the overwhelming seductiveness of her presentation and the breadth of her film catalogue, one that crosses continents.  Loren is an iconic sex symbol, an actor whose curvaceous presence signifies sexual nuance and allure the moment she enters a scene. Her statuesque beauty perfectly fit her debut era, one marked by swing dresses that celebrated the female form.  Just as America was tiring of the blonde bombshell, along came Loren, with an exotic mystique enhanced by big brown almond eyes and voluptuous lips and hips.

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Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

If there is one quibble with the book it is that it ends too soon.  Loren is described as possessing incredible warmth, vitality and an enduring presence that is rare among female performers who too often are not permitted to age gracefully or choose to bow out of their own accord. One hungers for more of Sophia the woman, the survivor. What is clear is that her apparent pragmatism, emotional stability and business acumen are additional assets that have contributed to her longevity and her mystique.

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Loren remains riveting when attending red carpet events. She has shown a remarkable ability to retain her beauty and to age with stunning grace.  The many quotes from Sophia regarding her life philosophies, experiences in filmmaker and from those who have worked with her are a treat in this new work.  The book ends with a final quote from Loren speaking to a belief that has served her well:

“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love.  When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”

She may yet gift us with future endeavors springing from her own overflowing creative spirit.

De La Hoz’s new pictorial biography is a glorious introduction for newcomers to Loren’s life and career that should also prove satisfying to devoted fans due to its respectful treatment and multitude of photographs.  It is a worthy addition to the field and to any film lover’s collection. I am quite pleased to add it to mine.

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Thank you to Running Press/Turner Classic Movies for providing me with an advance review copy of this lovely book. It is available for Pre-Order through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Shop TCM or your favorite bookseller.  This book will be available on September 26, 2017 in Hardcover or E-Book.

This post is the fourth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!!

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Loren in her teens and turning heads

 

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Gentleman: The William Powell Story

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William Powell in a publicity photo from My Man Godfrey

Few of the legendary movies stars of the first half of this century were personally capable of equaling the glittering images they projected with the help of studio publicists and the roles they played on the silver screen. William Powell was a notable exception to that rule.

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William Powell was a private man.  He was a public figure and yet a complex, private man.  Therefore the task before biographer Charles Francisco was a challenging one.  Certainly there were plenty of stories in popular Hollywood magazines of the era, tabloid features and interviews, but views into his private life were limited.  He married three times and fathered one child, a son, who tragically committed suicide in 1968.  Aside from his third wife, these significant figures had long departed and there is no indication that wife Diana Lewis chose to reveal the private man. His closest friends, who included Richard Barthelmess and Ronald Colman, had long departed; he outlived almost all of them but Myrna Loy.  In fact Powell himself died during Francisco’s research.  Yet the author has done a remarkable job in giving us a solid sense of William Powell, the essence of the man and of his life; it was one filled with satisfying successes, occasional frustrations and sometimes all too public tragedies.

 

 

 

 

Famously, Powell married and divorced Carole Lombard, then became engaged to Jean Harlow, remaining so until her death at age twenty-six.  He grieved openly at her funeral, flanked by his mother and a studio attaché for support.  Her death ushered in a period of struggle for Powell.  Shortly after this profoundly difficult loss he was faced with another crisis, rectal cancer.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer softened the blow for the public, citing his long absence from the screen as due to colon cancer, relating few details; the actor was one of the first patients to undergo treatment with implanted radium.  This combination of blows – the death of Harlow, two surgeries and a lengthy recovery – perhaps deprived us of additional films that might have added to his legacy.  His absence took him into middle-age and some unfortunate type-casting.

 

 

 

Powell became a comedic success with The Thin Man, the role for which he is perhaps best remembered.  Its popularity led to further Thin Man films, six in total, and while he certainly enjoyed the role, and was surely grateful for its gifts, he knew he was capable of much more.  Happily he was later able to show his range in several highly successful and still memorable films, namely Life with Father, How to Marry a Millionaire and finally Mister Roberts.  Portraying the wise and weary ‘Doc’ in the latter put Powell among a new generation of actors and before new audiences.  Yet the on-location shoot tired him and he chose to bow out, departing from the screen at the age of 62.  He eventually left this world for good thirty years later. In doing so he left behind a sweeping body of work that starts in the silent era, polishes many pre-Codes and ultimately enchants in some of the most enduring romantic comedies of the thirties and forties.

 

 

If you are a fan of Powell’s, as I am, this book is one to search out and find. The tone is warm and measured, never salacious or engaging in sordid speculation, despite Powell’s romancing and co-starring with some of the most beautiful and sought after women of the early days of Hollywood. Francisco treats his subject, and the numerous Hollywood luminaries and fellow players he encounters, with respect and admiration, pulling from available files, newspaper and magazine articles, archives and Powell’s own writings. In doing so he constructs a portrait of a man who was far from perfect but generally well-intended and truly the gentleman that he hoped to be.  Known as a movie star, he was first an actor and an absolute master of his craft.

I was sad to reach this book’s end for to do so was to leave behind a life well-lived.  Powell is painted as a man who didn’t always have the answers but who sure as hell tried to find them.  This was a lovely, satisfying and moving book. I highly recommend it.

Gentleman: The William Powell Story includes a filmography and two sections of black and white photographs. It is book-ended by a prologue and epilogue, with the first and last paragraphs shared here, suitably opening and closing this review.

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Perhaps Myrna Loy, who co-starred with most of the movie legends, described Bill Powell best.  She said, “There’s just nobody like him, and there’s never been anybody quite like him.”  Unfortunately, in the course of contemporary film, we may never see his like again.

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This post is the third in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer! This book is available through Amazon and other used and vintage booksellers.

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