By Heather Babcock (2019)
“I know all the answers and I know what it’s all about. I found out that the only thing worthwhile is dough. And I’m gonna get it, see.” – Blondie Johnson (Joan Blondell)
Move over James Cagney. In 1933, Warner Brothers put a feminine twist on their popular gangster genre with Blondie Johnson, a rags to bullets tale starring the smart and sassy Joan Blondell as the titular Blondie: a tough as nails beauty who – in a rare move for a Pre-Code film – uses her brains rather than her body, rising from impoverishment to wealth and power as the city’s biggest – and smartest – crime boss.
In Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), it was a hunger for power that drove the male protagonists to crime. For Blondie, it’s simply hunger.
Blondie Johnson (1933) opens in a Welfare and Relief Association office where our down-on-her-luck heroine is begging for help for herself and her sick mother, who have just been kicked out of their tenement. (We know at first glance that Blondie is down-on-her-luck because she isn’t wearing any lipstick and her stockings have runs in them – in 1930’s movies, no make-up and torn stockings symbolize destitution.) When the welfare agent curtly asks her to state her case, Blondie explains that she’s been out of work for four months after having to quit her job because of sexual harassment. “He wouldn’t leave me alone,” she says of her former boss. “So you quit,” the agent replies indifferently, his tone soaked with victim blaming. He then rejects her welfare application. Demoralized, Blondie looks hopelessly at the other welfare applicants awaiting their fate. The camera pans over tired, rain drenched souls in broken shoes and threadbare clothing; all the stuffing yanked out of them, their bodies slumped over like Capitalism’s discarded toys. These are the faces of the Great Depression and the images bring to mind the work of photographer Dorothea Lange. This scene alone is a bold move for a popcorn flick that was released during a time when theaters shied away from showing any newsreel footage of breadlines and poverty. Unflinching realism is a staple of Warner Brothers’ Pre-Code movies. You would never see such a scene in an MGM film.
Blondie’s mother dies of pneumonia after being kicked out in the rain by a cruel landlord (in Pre-Code movies, landlords and banks are almost always the villains). After a lawyer informs her that she doesn’t have enough money to sue the landlord, a priest glibly tells Blondie to just “go out and get a job.” Here Blondell rises with fire in her eyes:
“Job? Where do you suppose I can get a job? With hundreds out of work?”
The priest launches into the usual “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” platitudes and tells Blondie that it’s up to her to do something about her circumstances.
“You’re right, Father. It is up to me,” Blondie replies. “I’m going to do something. I’m going to get money and I’m going to get plenty of it!”
“Just a moment my dear,” the priest admonishes. “There are two ways of getting it…”
“Yeah I know,” Blondie interrupts him. “The hard way and the easy way.”
Blondie starts off with small-time criminality, using her feminine wiles in a “taxi cab shakedown”; a racket in which she partners up with a taxi driver named Red (the always wonderful Sterling Holloway), playing the damsel in distress in order to extract exorbitant taxi-fare from gullible men.
“This city’s gonna be my oyster and if you stick with me, you’re gonna help me open it,” she tells Red.
When Red swoons that she’s “got a swell head on [her] shoulders”, Blondie sternly replies “Always see that you just admire my head.”
Blondie soon leaves the taxi-racket behind for bigger fish, joining forces with top gangster Danny (Chester Morris) as the two plan a mob takeover. Danny of course is smitten with Blondie’s beauty but she makes it clear to him that it’s only her brains – not her body – that she’s offering:
“Listen Danny, I’m in this business to get all I can out of it – from you or from anybody. This city’s gonna pay me a livin’ – a good livin’ – and it’s gonna get back from me just as little as I have to give.”
Blondie Johnson (1933) boasts a great cast including Laurel & Hardy alum Mae Busch and Japanese American actress Toshia Mori as Blondie’s friends and fellow gang members. Refreshingly for a 1930’s film, Mori’s character Lulu is involved in an interracial relationship with Joe (played by Donald Kirke).
She may no longer be a household name (although she’s still a pin-up favorite according to my Facebook newsfeed) but Joan Blondell was one of the most popular – and prolific – actresses of the 1930s. She starred in a total of fifty-four films during the decade and thirty-four of those were made during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period. The big-eyed blonde beauty was “born in a trunk” as they used to say; she began her career on vaudeville as a four month old baby and worked steadily until her death at age 73. One of her most notable final roles was that of Vi, the waitress who convinces Frenchy (Didi Conn) to stay in school in Grease (1978). It’s hard to imagine any other actress bringing the sheer fun and punch to the role of Blondie as Joan Blondell does. Just like Blondie, Blondell had plenty of brains, beauty, charm and how!
Bullets fly and blood flows but unfortunately the ending of Blondie Johnson (1933) isn’t anywhere near as explosive or memorable as that of Little Caesar (1931) or The Public Enemy (1931). Even so, Warner Brothers’ self-proclaimed tale of “the rise and fall of a peroxide mobster” is the brightest hidden gem of Pre-Code’s gangster cinema.