Last time we reviewed two wonderful brassy blondes, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, each of which had their careers cut short due to early, tragic deaths. This week, our focus is on two gals who happily had much fuller lives, Joan Blondell and Ginger Rogers.
If you’re a fan of the Busby Berkeley “Gold Diggers” movies, you know Joan Blondell as the blonde with the big smile, blue eyes and the heart of gold. Usually playing the role as the leading lady’s best friend, she was cast as streetwise and sexy—the wisecracking dame who was a sucker for love.
Joan was born into show business. Her father was a vaudeville comic and Joan was on the stage from the time she was three-years-old. She traveled the circuit with her parents and joined up with a stock company when she was 17.
She was in several Broadway shows and was starring with James Cagney in “Penny Arcade” when she was signed by Warner Brothers to reprise her role in the movie version, “Sinners’ Holiday” (1930). Cagney and Blondell were given the leads and the film was a success. The two went on to make several more pictures together including “Public Enemy,” the film that made Cagney a major star. Throughout their long careers, Cagney and Blondell would remain fast friends.
Joan never quite rose to that same star level that Cagney enjoyed during her time at Warner’s, generally relegated to playing second leads in the gangster and musical pictures of the ‘30s. She was teamed with singing star Dick Powell in ten musicals alone. I guess they hit it off off-screen as well because the two were married during that time.
By 1939, Joan had left Warner Brothers to become an independent actress and, although her workload slowed considerably, she was able to find a wider variety of screen roles in straight comedy and drama. Three of her better roles were in “Topper Returns,” “Cry Havoc” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” In 1951, Joan received an Academy Award® nomination for “The Blue Veil,” co-starring with Jane Wyman. Her work in “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965) opposite longtime pal from the Warner days, Edward G. Robinson, was one of her best latter day parts.
She had tremendous success on the stage, including a musical version of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and did quite a lot of television work throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. She was twice nominated for an Emmy for her role as ‘Lottie’ in the TV sitcom “Here Come the Brides.” Whether it was comedy or drama, large part or small, Joan Blondell was a hard-working gal who took whatever role was offered and made it her own. She was a one-of-a-kind and indeed a show business “trooper.” Joan Blondell died in 1979.
It’s impossible not to think Ginger Rogers when you think Fred Astaire. The two were the most famous dance partners in all of movie history—maybe of all history, period. Astaire and Rogers indeed go together like bread and butter, ham and eggs or Proctor and Gamble. But Ginger all by herself is pretty terrific and one of the true Brassy Blondes of the movies.
Born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Missouri on July 16, 1911 to a hard-driving stage mother known as Lelee. It was Lelee who pushed her daughter into show business and guided her career for much of her life. Ginger won a Charleston dance contest in 1925 (age 14) and a 4-week contract on the Interstate circuit. She was in various vaudeville acts until she was 17, with her mother by her side to guide her. By the late ‘20s, she acquired an agent and she did several short films. She went to New York where she appeared on Broadway. Her first film was in 1929 in “A Night in a Dormitory” (1930).
Her breakout picture was “Gold Diggers of 1933.” Movie audiences loved her blonde beauty, brassy personality and her cute voice, and wanted more. Her solo of the tune “We’re in the Money,” sung partly in pig Latin, was a huge hit. She starred with Dick Powell in “Twenty Million Sweethearts” but once she was teamed with Fred Astaire in 1933, magic happened and her stardom skyrocketed. Astaire and Rogers proved to be one of the best movie couples ever to hit the silver screen, making a total of 10 musicals together, all but one (“The Barkleys of Broadway” for MGM in 1949) for RKO.
Ginger also appeared in some wonderful comedies on her own, such as “Bachelor Mother,” “Roxie Hart,” “5th Avenue Girl,” “The Major and the Minor” and “Monkey Business.” Once Ginger left RKO, she made several dramatic pictures but it was 1940’s “Kitty Foyle” (1940) that won her an Oscar for her portrayal. She continued to work in pictures, and on the stage, for decades until retiring in 1991. In 1995, Ginger died of natural causes in Rancho Mirage, California. She was 83.
Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow. Those brassy, blonde and beautiful babes of the ‘30s. Bless them all.