Saturday, June 1, 2019

Stubs - Blondie Johnson

Blondie Johnson (1933) Starring: Chester Morris, Joan Blondell, Allen Jenkins, Earle Foxe, Claire Dodd. Directed by Ray Enright. Screenplay by Earl Baldwin. No Producer Credited. Run time: 67 minutes. USA Black and White Drama, Crime

Joan Blondell arrived in Hollywood in 1930, appearing in one film, The Office Wife, but she didn’t really get noticed until she appeared with James Cagney in such films as Sinners' Holiday (1930) and Other Men’s Women (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and The Crowd Roars (1932). She would also appear next to Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse (1931) and with Warren William, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis in Three On a Match (1932), to name a few of the films she made in Hollywood’s pre-code era.

After playing second fiddle in so many films, Warner Bros. decided to make a film to feature her. Screenwriter Earl Baldwin definitely had her in mind when he created the role. At the same time, the studio hedged their bet by giving the film a modest budget of $151,000 and a 25-day shooting schedule. The end result, a film little more than an hour in length, was released on February 23, 1933.

The doctor tries to comfort Blondie (Joan Blondell) when her mother dies.

The film takes place in the midst of the Great Depression. Blondie (Joan Blondell) may feel that she has it hard, but the relief board where she pleads her case thinks otherwise. She and her mother may live in the back of a drug store, but they have it better than those who have no roof over their heads. She doesn’t have a job because her last boss made sexual advances and forced her to quit. Making things worse for Blondie is that her mother is ill, but that doesn’t move the needle for her. Word reaches her to hurry back to the drug store, but she isn’t in time, her mother has already passed.

Blondie sets up a money-making scheme, but needs the help of taxi driver Red (Sterling Holloway).

Facing an uncertain future, Blondie sets out to make money any way she can. She sets out almost immediately teaming up with taxi driver Red (Sterling Holloway). The idea is that she’ll pretend to be a nurse late for her shift, but with no money to pay for a cab. She’ll sucker unsuspecting men to give her cab fare, which she’ll then split with Red. It works well until one of the men she duped, Danny (Chester Morris), runs into her when she’s supposed to be at work. Danny is the second in command to Max Wagner (Arthur Vinton) and she decides to try to go in with him.

Danny obviously has feelings for Blondie, but she insists over and over again to keep it platonic and on a business-like footing.

When Louis (Allen Jenkins) gets off, Danny arranges for a banquet to celebrate.

One of the gang members, Louis (Allen Jenkins), is facing a long prison sentence and Blondie has the scheme to get him off. Only Wagner’s not interested and he tells Danny to break it off with her. But instead, he listens to her. She dares him to stand up to Wagner and get Louis off. That’s what he does, and Blondie shows up in court as the grieving bride pleading for Louis’ release. It apparently works and even though Louis gets off, Wagner is not happy that Danny disobeyed him.

Danny (Chester Morris) ends up in the hospital.

Sensing Danny is trying to take over, Wagner has him run over by a car, landing Danny in the hospital, but still alive. Louis gets revenge for his friend by helping to set Wagner up. He invites him to a safe house, an apartment that has a rotating fireplace/bar. He excuses himself, leaving Wagner and a couple of his henchmen alone. While they wait for Louis to return, they are fired upon in a barrage of machine gun fire from a secret compartment in the fireplace.

 Louis gets even, setting up Max Wagner (Arthur Vinton) to be killed.

For the rackets they control, they set up an insurance front with Danny as the face of the company. When he starts to act like he’s his own boss with excessive spending, Blondie moves to replace him. She takes over and runs the rackets, making them very successful.

Blondie puts a hit out on Danny, but quickly regrets it.

Things go sour when Louis is arrested for Max’s murder. The gang naturally believes that it was Danny who turned them in. Reluctantly, Blondie orders his murder. It is only after that she discovers that Danny had nothing to do with Louis' arrest and hurries to stop the killing. But she arrives too late.

Danny, however, once again, isn’t killed, but after he recovers, both are tried and sentenced to jail. When they are being led away, the two of them run into each other. They agree that they lived the wrong life and vow to get together after they’ve paid their debt to society to marry and try to live the straight and narrow.

In typical Warner Bros.’ fashion, the story moves forward in leaps and bounds with little thought to actually telling a believable story. Not that women are incapable of being gang leaders, it’s just that we’re not given anything in Blondie’s very thin backstory to suggest that she is capable of pulling off the schemes she suggests and, for the most part, gets away with. When I say thin background story, I mean thin; we’re never really shown any of it, though we’re told as much as we’re going to learn in the film’s opening scene.

Joan Blondell is the only real reason to watch Blondie Johnson.

Joan Blondell is the reason to watch the film. She is a force of nature and a real sexy and vibrant symbol of Pre-code Hollywood. While we often think of her as the sidekick to another actor or actress, she is capable of being the lead. I agree with the New York Times’ review which noted, “Of course, the film's best asset is Miss Blondell herself, who is ingratiating, cynical and tartly amusing.”

Chester Morris may be best remembered for his turn as Boston Blackie in a series of films from Columbia Pictures in the 1940s, but what may be forgotten is that he was once a Broadway actor and was nominated for Best Actor in his first sound film, Alibi (1929). Here he is either tight-lipped or he has a cigarette in them. Smoking seems to be his most common trait throughout the film.

Allen Jenkins has a small though memorable role, though he doesn’t really do all that much in the film but look menacing. I’ve seen him in films with more to them and I can only say he’s underused here, as are all the main cast.

The film has promise, but it doesn’t necessarily deliver on it. The love story, which is supposed to save their lives, is peripheral at best. When Danny tries to make a move on Blondie early on in the film, he’s rebuffed. She wants to keep their relationship business-like. In typical fashion, she only realizes she loves him when it is almost too late. After having been kept at arm’s length for most of the film, Danny is very willing to wait for her after they both do prison-time.

In perhaps my harshest criticism, for a film that is only 67 minutes, it frankly seems to drag from time to time. I would imagine for these types of films, that were built for speed, that would be considered a sin. If you only have a little more than an hour to spend and are a big fan of Joan Blondell’s, this might be a film worth watching. If not, then I say skip it.

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