Pre-Code Confidential #29: Joan Blondell is BLONDIE JOHNSON (Warner Bros 1933)

There are many contenders for the crown Queen of Pre-Code – Jean Harlow, Miriam Hopkins, Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West, and a slew of other dames – but there’s only one Joan Blondell! Rose Joan Blondell was “born in a trunk” (as they say) to vaudevillian parents on August 30, 1906, and made her stage debut at the tender age of four months. Little Joanie took to show biz like a duck to water, and worked her way up to Broadway, costarring with a young actor named James Cagney in 1930’s PENNY ARCADE; the pair went to Hollywood for the film version, retitled SINNERS’ HOLIDAY, their first of seven screen teamings.

Our Girl Joanie struck a chord with Depression Era audiences: she was a tough, wisecracking, fast-talking, been-around-the-block tomato whose tough-as-leather veneer cloaked a heart of gold. Joan and Glenda Farrell had ’em rolling in the aisles as a pair of Gold Digging Dames in nine movies, and she more than held her own with screen tough guys Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and their ilk. In BLONDIE JOHNSON, Joan plays no mere gangster’s moll, but a full-fledged Queen of the Rackets in a fast-paced outing directed by Warner workhorse Ray Enright , opposite another movie tough guy, Chester Morris.

We meet Blondie at the Welfare and Relief Office looking for help. It’s the midst of the Depression, and she hasn’t worked in four months (“The boss wouldn’t let me alone”). Blondie and her sick mom are living in the back of a drug store, and when the old lady dies of pneumonia, Blondie vows not to go down to poverty: “I’m gonna get money and I’m gonna get plenty of it!”. She works up a sob-story racket with cabbie friend Red (Sterling Holloway), and her first victim is the somewhat dimwitted, gum chomping Danny (Morris), right hand man to racket boss Maxie (Arthur Vinton).

Danny gets wise, but Blondie comes up with a scheme to get fellow hood Louie (Allen Jenkins) off on charges – by pretending to be his pregnant fiance, playing on the jury’s sympathy! She then uses Danny to move up in rank, and when Maxie’s rubbed out in a rat-a-tat hail of machine gun fire, Blondie’s in charge. Danny tries to get Blondie out of the way so he can marry rich actress Gladys (Calire Dodd), but Blondie’s way too smart for him, and Danny finds himself outside looking in. Later, the boys think Danny’s turned squealer and decide to pay him a visit without Blondie’s okay…

Joan is dynamite as Blondie, and Depression audiences must’ve sympathized with her portrayal of a woman who, abused and abandoned by the system, strikes out on her own to take what she needs… and then some! Blondie’s all business, no time for cut-rate romances, and she concentrates on stealing everything in sight… including the movie! Joan and Chester have some pretty good chemistry here, with some crackling hard-boiled dialog by screenwriter Earl Baldwin (DOCTOR X, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, BROTHER ORCHID). The supporting cast is top-shelf, and besides those Familiar Faces I’ve already mentioned, you’ll spot Mae Busch (who’a a real hoot as a gangland gal), Joseph Cawthorn, Earle Foxe, Olin Howland, Eddie Kane, Tom Kennedy, Charles Lane, Sam McDaniel, and Toshia Mori (fresh off her success in THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN).

Joan Blondell’s a lot of fun to watch in BLONDIE JOHNSON, and she continued to be for another 46 years of screen and TV appearances. Always brassy, always sassy, and never bashful, Joan torched the screen in whatever era she acted in, but it’s her Pre-Code catalog we’ll forever cherish. Whenever this tough-talking dame comes into the picture, film lover’s know they’ll be getting their money’s worth!

A Pair of Aces: Laurel & Hardy in SONS OF THE DESERT (MGM 1933)

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Laurel and Hardy are still beloved by film fans today for their marvelous contributions to movie comedy. Rooted firmly in the knockabout visual style of the silent screen, the team adapted to talking pictures with ease, and won the Best Short Subject Oscar for 1932’s THE MUSIC BOX. The next year the duo made what’s undoubtably their best feature film SONS OF THE DESERT, a perfect blend of slapstick, verbal humor, and situation comedy benefitting from a fine supporting cast and the undeniable chemistry between Stan and Ollie .

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The boys are at a meeting of their lodge The Sons of the Desert when it’s announced all members must swear a sacred oath to attend the annual convention in Chicago. Timid Stanley is afraid his wife won’t let him go, but blustery Ollie insists, boasting about who wears the pants in his family. Of course, Ollie’s just as henpecked as Stan, and his wife laughs in his face, not to mention crowning him with a vase! Ollie concocts a scheme to trick the wives by feigning a “nervous breakdown”, and gets Stan to have a lodge brother pose as a doctor (Stan gets a veterinarian!). The bogus doc claims the only cure for Ollie is a cruise to Honolulu (!), and Stan is designated to accompany his friend.

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The ‘subterfuge’ (a word that baffles Stan) works, and soon the boys are living it up in Chicago, with lots of drinking, dancing-girls, and tomfoolery going on. They meet up with an obnoxious practical joker from Texas who calls his sister in Los Angeles as a gag. Ollie begins to flirt with her over the phone, that is until he realizes he’s talking to his own wife! Looks like the joke’s on him!

Headlines in the newspaper back home state the Honolulu ocean liner the boys are allegedly on is sinking in a typhoon, and the panic-stricken wives, thinking their husbands are heading for Davy Jones’s Locker, hightail it to the docks. The boys return home after the girls leave for the docks, and are even more panic-stricken when they read the news of their imminent demise! They hide out in the attic, while the wives go to a picture show to calm their nerves. You know it, they see a newsreel featuring their spouses prominently cavorting in Chicago. Stan and Ollie end up on the roof in a rainstorm (after being struck by lightning!!), and a cop, catching them shimmying down the drainpipe (where Ollie gets stuck in the rainbarrel), marches them to their wives. Ollie comes up with a wild tale about being shipwrecked and having to “ship-hike” home. Stan breaks down and confesses (even after Ollie threatens to tell his wife he smoked a cigarette in Chi-town!), and is rewarded for his honesty with chocolates and TLC. As for Ollie… well, after his wife pummels him with every dish and piece of crockery in the house, Stan comes over and tells him, “Honesty is the best politics”. Ollie beans him with a remaining pot for his ill-timed advice!

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All this allows Stan and Ollie to indulge in some of their wackiest bits; I especially love the slapstick silliness involving Stan, Ollie. Mae Busch, and a tub of hot water when Ollie’s playing sick. Then there’s Stan innocently munching on wax fruit in the Hardy’s living room. Laurel’s malaprops (calling their lodge leader “the exhausted ruler” for example) are always welcome, but it’s his big-worded soliloquy in the attic (and Ollie’s reaction) that got me laughing. Hardy’s bullying of his little pal is offset by his cowering before his wife, and it wouldn’t be a Laurel & Hardy film without Ollie getting the chance to tell Stanley, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”.

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“The ever-popular Mae Busch” (to quote Jackie Gleason) is Ollie’s wife, and she’s at her shrewish best here. In fact, you can see a lot of Ralph and Alice Kramden in the relationship between Mae and Ollie. Dorothy Christy plays Stan’s gun-toting, duck hunting wife, and she holds her own in her only film with the boys. Comedian Charley Chase is the raucous conventioneer from Texas, and he’s a hoot. Chase starred in his own two-reelers and features for Hal Roach , and after moving to Columbia, he directed some of the Three Stooges best 30’s efforts. If you’ve never seen any of Chase’s solo work, do so immediately; you’re in for a treat!

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Familiar Faces in the cast include Lucien Littlefield as the ersatz doctor, and if you look close you’ll find Stanley Blystone, Ellen Corby, young Robert Cummings , Charlie Hall, and producer Hal Roach himself. Actor Frank Craven wrote the story, embellished by Laurel and Hardy and five others, including director William A. Seiter, a Mack Sennett vet who also worked with comedy teams Wheeler & Woolsey, Abbott & Costello, and the Marx Brothers. SONS OF THE DESERT is by far my favorite Laurel & Hardy feature, a timeless classic that gets better every time I view it. There’s an international Laurel & Hardy fan club called “Sons of the Desert” that’s still active,  with thousands of members in the U.S. and abroad. I wish there was a chapter near me, I’d sign up today!