Review by Heather Babcock, 2021
“My first awareness was the sound of laughter and applause, the scent of powder, perfume, greasepaint; and as the months passed, my world became a kaleidoscope of music, colors, and lights, the rhythm of train wheels pressing the tracks, the wail of a whistle, the exquisite harmony of the orchestra playing, the exquisite discord of the orchestra tuning up, the cadence of that familiar call, ‘Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack!'” – Joan Blondell, Centre Door Fancy (1972)
Curvaceous and quick witted, Joan Blondell was the quintessential sassy dame of the Pre-Code era. One of the hardest working actors in Hollywood – she starred in a total of fifty-four films during the 1930s alone – Blondell was “born in a trunk” and began her lifelong career in show business at the age of four-months on the stages of Vaudeville.
In 1972, Blondell published her novel Centre Door Fancy, described by her publisher as “a fascinating (story) of the world of Vaudeville and the world of Hollywood by a woman who was born into one and became a star in the other.”
In other words, this ain’t exactly fiction.
In a peanut shell, Centre Door Fancy is kind of like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn meets Gypsy Rose Lee. I’m completely obsessed with Pre-Code movies so I was surprised to find myself much more engaged with the first two halves of Blondell’s novel, which focus on her protagonist Nora’s childhood in Vaudeville, than I was on the the third part of the book, which takes place in 1930’s Hollywood. While the chapters detailing “Nora’s” childhood are rich in detail, the novel loses steam by the time she “makes it” as a movie star. Perhaps Blondell didn’t really want to write about her film career and was pressured to do so by the publishers; part three feels rushed but also heavy with sadness, as though belonging to a different novel altogether. That being said, the first two parts of Centre Door Fancy are filled with joy and poignancy, as well as a love for family and an excitement for Vaudeville that truly jumps off the page.
There’s plenty of famous name-dropping here but it’s usually used for atmosphere only, although Bette Davis and John Gilbert do make lovely cameos. The chapters devoted to “Nora’s” marriage to “Jim” (a very thinly veiled Dick Powell) will probably satisfy those readers digging for gossip but the dirt to be found here is more depressing than juicy, particularly if, like me, you adored the cute couple’s on-screen chemistry in Gold Diggers of 1937. The most you need to know about their sex life is that “Nora” took a copy of Gone With the Wind with her on her honeymoon and finished reading the damn thing before she returned home.
Just like her screen presence, Blondell’s writing style is down to earth and unpretentious. She may not be Hemingway but she isn’t trying to be. Centre Door Fancy might not be a perfect book but it’s a perfectly delightful read – particularly during a pandemic.
Thanks to my partner Neil for the lovely Christmas gift!