What is the difference between a woman’s picture and a picture staring a woman? Hollywood is quick to highlight so-called “women’s pictures”, but in the race to classify everything, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that women aren’t just a part of “women’s stories”. Comedy, drama, film noir… all of these are fair game. We are half of the world’s population, believe it or not. The 1933 drama Blondie Johnson stands out as a female led vehicle which manages to take a step beyond the usual pre-code expectations. The movie isn’t simply a romance, nor is it a melodrama. When all is said and done, Blondie Johnson isn’t a “woman’s picture” this is a story about a woman.
Blondie Johnson follows the aforementioned ‘Blondie’ (Joan Blondell) as she fights to make a way for herself as a woman, alone in the big city during the Great Depression. There’s life, love (in the form of Chester Morris) and even the occasional con job. How else is a girl supposed to get ahead in the world? A host of extrordinary character actors round out the cast, with Allen Jenkins and Sterling Holloway backing up the leads. Ray Enright directs the film from a script by Earl Baldwin.
Much has been discussed about the incredibly unique leading ladies of the 1930s, and their cultural importance in relation to feminism and the growing women’s movement. Performers like Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are just a few of the actresses topping marquees of the period. By and large, these women are defined by their spirit. The characters they portrayed were feisty, they were independent and they occasionally wore pants! (Gasp!).
With much of her career defined by musicals, Joan Blondell, finds herself slightly in the periphery of this group. However, Blondie Johnson firmly places the actress along with her contemporaries. While female led vehicles aren’t uncommon in this era, this one feels less overtly romantic as many of the others. In fact, through much of the film, Blondie’s attention couldn’t be farther from true love (or even finding a rich husband as some of her predecessors). Instead, her focus is squarely on surviving and making a good life for herself.
Now, Blondie Johnson doesn’t feel like a ‘woman’s picture’. The film doesn’t have the melodrama, or even the lightness you’d expect of a movie like this. This is the story of a character, who just so happens to be a lady. In fact, when viewed through another perspective, this would be a gangster movie fronted by Chester Morris featuring Blondell as the love interest. Blondell’s take on the titular character is above all else, realistic. The actress hones in clearly on the pain, the desire and especially the drive inherent in this character. In fact, little separates her from the populist heroes of the period like Tom Powers and Little Caesar. She’s not above using the system to get what she wants.
Blondell is typically associated with her comedy and musical work during this period. She is a staple in the Busby Berkeley films of this era, namely Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. While each of these films do deal with social issues like the Great Depression, the realism is scaled back a bit. The musicals bring a certain element of escapist fun simply through their form which is inherently unique to the genre. As such, Blondie Johnson feels like a much deeper cut in Blondell’s filmography.
Is the film what contemporary audiences would call feminist? As a 1930s drama, it’s difficult to make that argument. The movie’s passage of the Bechdel Test is doubtful at best. Ultimately a romantic narrative, the story still brings the usual idealized ending. However, the narrative brings a painfully accurate take on a woman’s story from this period. Early in the first act, Blondie appeals to a welfare office for assistant:
Welfare Officer: Where did you last work?
Blondie: In a laundry on 14th Street. The Star Laundry. But, that was four months ago. I haven’t been able to get any kind of work since.
Welfare Officer: Laid off?
Blondie: I – I quit… The boss wouldn’t let me alone.
Welfare Officer: So you quit! That’s all for now.
This sequence plays painfully familiar, even to contemporary audiences. At the time of writing this movie is 86 years old. In just a minute of screen time, the movie addresses sexual harassment and the plight of women who stand up to it. Blondie is refused financial assistance because she should simply be “grateful” for the work and look passed the sexual harassment which comes with it. While this perspective doesn’t seem out-of-place in 1933, these questions are still being asked almost daily in contemporary society.
Meanwhile, the star persona of male lead Chester Morris plays a great deal into the status of this movie as well. While not a well remembered name, Morris spent much of the 1930s and 1940s establishing himself as a “heavy”. The actor broke out in the late silent era, but made a name for himself in Alibi. The 1929 crime drama netted Morris a Best Actor Oscar nomination at the second annual Academy Awards.
During the 1930s, Morris established himself in tough, almost villainous roles… just not quite. While the actor rarely played true “bad guys”, he always brought an edge (and a bit of a past) to his characters. His take on Danny Jones in Blondie Johnson is no different. While there’s an a romantic narrative playing out, it’s defined largely by the rough nature of these characters in this decidedly Pre-Code environment.
Danny: Well you make me sick. If you was my dame I’d break your neck.
Blondie: If I was your dame I’d deserve it.
This sense of violence is highly problematic; however, it isn’t uncommon to Morris’ roles of the period. In Red Headed Woman (1932) Morris’ character Bill Legendre clearly rapes Jean Harlow’s Lil Andrews. His characters in films like Corsair (1931), Five Came Back (1939) and The Big House (1930) are often verbally (and occasionally physically) abusive to the female leads. He plays gangsters, criminals and social outcasts with relative ease… all with the looks of a matinee idol of the period. As a result, he often stands in as a redeemable example of 1930’s era masculinity. He’s as rough as his contemporaries, but not above the influence of the right love-interest (as we see in Blondie Johnson).
Working together, Blondell and Morris meld perfectly. There’s an equality in their performances as the two go toe to toe. Blondell matches Morris in tone and avoids letting herself be overshadowed by his often dominating persona. Both are particularly impressive in their early, dialogue heavy scenes, excelling in the iconic 1930s style of rapid fire dialogue. It’s an exhilarating, master class in the cinema of the era.
Blondie Johnson packs together a sterling group of supporting actors which makes the movie a must-see for fans of 1930s cinema. Sterling “Winnie the Pooh” Holloway is a complete and utter joy as ‘Red’. Meanwhile, Allen Jenkins shows once again why he was a go to for gangster character roles during this period.
If the film struggles with anything, it’s the Pre-Code shortness. At less than 70 minutes, it’s a quick and easy sit. However, the runtime isn’t enough for the script to truly gel. As a result, plot-points feel rushed and jammed to their inevitable conclusion. By the time the audience is able to get a feel for one thing (just why was Louis (Allen Jenkins) under arrest?) the narrative shifts focus. In fact, the film could tack on an additional thirty minutes and be absolutely fine.
Questions of gender are fascinating, especially in examination of Pre-Code cinema and Blondie Johnson is an important examination of this important topic. This crime drama fronted by a woman is uniquely constructed, not only rare in pre-code cinema, but really in contemporary Hollywood. This film is an incredibly rare example of a film which tells a woman’s story, without being a “woman’s picture”.