Joan Blondell was a ray of sunshine—but every once in a while, the sun sets and the storm prevails. In her life, the storm meant tumultuous weddings, and leaving Hollywood and Broadway… until the rain settled and she shined again. Let’s take a deep dive into this glamorous yet heartbreaking Old Hollywood tale.
Rose Joan Blondell joined the glamorous Blondell family on a hot summer day in 1906. Since the family were busy vaudevillians, they were always on tour. Born in New York, Little Blondel had no choice but to be carried around from one show to the other—reportedly, her cradle was a property trunk.
She was meant to be a “showbiz” baby.
As young as four months old, Blondell had a taste of the good old stage dust.
She had her first appearance in the show The Greatest Love, where she was carried on in a cradle. Right out of the gates, she was a born performer. Blondell certainly had a unique upbringing—but the wild ride didn't end there.
Growing up, Blondell was never home.
Thanks to her family and their tours, she experienced various cultures and lived in many places—from Honolulu to Australia. Just as she stepped into her teenage years, the Blondell family decided to come back home, eventually settling in Dallas.
Blondell, on the other hand, had some big plans for her own future.
With her silky blonde hair and dashing blue eyes, Blondell entered the 1926 Miss Dallas pageant.
No surprise—she won, but that wasn't all. She entered other pageants—Miss America and even Miss Universe. Even though she didn’t win those, she reached the finals for both of them, which probably gave her a good ego boost.
However, on her journey through the pageant world, there was something different about Blondell.
During her time running from one pageant to the other, Blondell changed one significant thing about herself.
Contrary to what we expected, it didn’t have to do anything with her looks. Instead, she decided to give herself a different name—Rosebud Blondell. From 1926 onward, she used that name everywhere.
In fact, the new name led to some new risky adventures.
As of 1927, the 21-year-old Blondell moved to New York—full of hope. Fortunately, she made her New York debut in no time, and on Broadway, no less.
After that, it seemed like she could do everything, and she did. She worked as a model, a clerk, and even a circus hand.
But her true love was always Broadway, and she couldn't wait to get back on that stage.
In 1929, Joan Blondell teamed up with James Cagney in a Broadway production named Penny Arcade. The show was a hit, inspiring Warner Brothers to produce it as a movie under the name of Sinner’s Holiday. Of course, the movie had the same leads—Blondell and Cagney. The next stop was Hollywood.
When Blondell changed teams as she moved from the East to the West, Hollywood made a dreadful request of her. As she began working for Warner Bros, the studio boss Jack L Warner wanted her to change her name to Inez Holmes. Unfortunately for them, Blondell had a strong mind of her own and refused.
Of course, when it came to rocking the boat, this was just the tip of the iceberg.
The two newcomers—Cagney and Blondell—seemed to excel on the big screen. People adored them together, and therefore, casting directors seized every opportunity to pair them up. In the following years, Blondell made six movies with him—six movies that equaled countless hours together.
The consequences were unbelievable.
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After spending all this time together, one might assume that the two actors would get sick of one another. In fact, Blondell reported that they adored each other—and Cagney confirmed her sentiments. He even said that Blondell was the only woman he loved, other than his wife, of course.
But Cagney wasn't the only Old Hollywood legend she rubbed shoulders with.
Joan Blondell also met one of the biggest Hollywood icons—Jean Harlow. She once told the story about how Harlow never wore underclothes, sharing a bizarre conversation between Harlow and Cagney. He asked Harlow, "How do you hold those things up"? and she replied with a straight face, "I ice them".
Of course, when it came to her own body, Blondell never shied away from airing her scandalous side.
In 1932, Blondell posed for a publicity photo which sparked controversy. It was a picture of Blondell sitting backward on a chair. Even though we don’t know whether she was dressed or not, the placement of the chair made it look like she was not wearing a stitch of clothing. Of course, some people were not happy.
This bold picture was the talk of the town. Since she was the “Warner Bros girl," there was a certain standard that the people from Warner Bros expected from her. They viewed her as a rule-breaker and the picture as unacceptable, which resulted in the picture being banned.
At least, she had a BFF who knew the hardships of being in her position.
This BFF was named Glenda Farrell, who acted alongside Blondell in a comedic duo for nine films. You might expect two gorgeous women who were always teaming up to be more competitive with each other, however, these two actually had a weird—but working—chemistry.
They just couldn't stop paying compliments to each other.
As Blondell put it, it was outright “delightful” to work with Farrell. She described her as “a comedienne by accident rather than design for no matter how serious she takes her work before the camera, the finished product plays havoc with your funny bone”.
Blondell’s friendly attitude on set resulted in many friendships like this—but something more dangerous lurked on these sets as well.
Blondell was constantly working; she made one movie after another.
Therefore, her only time to meet with people was on set—and this was where she first laid eyes on a special gentleman. Surprisingly, he was not an actor.
Blondell began dating the cinematographer George Barnes, who worked alongside her in The Greeks Had a Word for Them. We had a word for them too…and it was “in love”.
The lovebirds soon officialized their relationship.
However, they decided to keep it lowkey. In 1933, Blondell married Barnes in a private meeting ceremony—at the First Presbyterian Church in Phoenix, Arizona. When the wedding was over, Blondell couldn't wait to both live and work with her lover. But this wasn't your typical "happily ever after".
Well, Blondell and Barnes worked on five more movies together. Therefore, their honeymoon was probably spent on sets, representing different times and places. Not bad for a Hollywood couple, especially considering the turmoil that raged behind closed doors.
Apparently, married life didn’t treat Blondell very well—either the married life or the husband. People often reported that their relationship was “intense”. When one of them was behind the camera and the other was in front of it, they worked well together—but as husband and wife, not so much.
When your marriage is tiresome and intense, it makes sense to not want kids.
Therefore, she didn’t want her first baby when she first got pregnant. However, Blondell kept getting pregnant—and she kept deciding against keeping the second baby as well. However, the third time seemed to be the charm.
Little did Blondell know, this baby was about to punish her.
Unfortunately for Blondell, the road from pregnancy to hugging her healthy child wasn’t that fast and easy. Blondell had a horrifying labor that lasted twenty hours.
Not only was it a breech birth but she also had a fractured coccyx. Moreover, her lovely son couldn't breathe at first due to the cord wrapped around his neck.
American actress Joan Blondell (1906 - 1978) in a fur-trimmed coat and a wide-brimmed hat, circa 1930. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Fortunately, little Norman Scott began breathing, and Blondell was finally able to take a deep breath herself.
The two named their son after the actor-director Norman Foster—the famous Claudette Colbert’s first husband. Nevertheless, there was another challenge around the corner for the undeterred Blondell.
Three years, a private wedding, and one child later—Blondell realized that it was time to let it all go. She was unhappy in her marriage, but she wasn’t eager to stay that way. Therefore, the two divorced in 1936.
But surprisingly, she didn't waste any time. When Blondell was at her most vulnerable, a brand new man entered her life.
Blondell's new love interest wasn't exactly a stranger. In 1933, Blondell and actor Dick Powell co-starred in a show named Gold Diggers of 1933. Three years later, the two co-starred in a relationship.
Yes, they began dating immediately after the divorce—but they didn't stop there.
The very same year, there were wedding bells ringing for Blondell and Powell. Not only had they jumped into a marriage like it was no big deal, but another child also joined this parade of madness.
Once Powell officially adopted Blondell's son, Norman Scott Powell, Ellen Powell made the couple a family of four.
There were so many new people in her life, so she decided to say goodbye to some old faces.
In 1939, Blondell made a startling decision. She decided to leave the company—Warner Bros—which she'd made history with. After a decade of making nearly 50 films, she exchanged the big screen and Hollywood life with baby diapers and home-cooked meals—and she couldn’t have been happier.
Though Blondell embraced domesticity for a time, it didn't last forever.
In 1943, she got back on the horse, but she didn't return to the big screen. Instead, she went skipping back to her first love—Broadway. Unfortunately, every time she had a good thing going on with her career, her love life fell apart.
Blondell gave a sneak peek into their tumultuous marriage in an interview with Time magazine. According to her, Powell’s most used phrases at home were, "If you don't like it, you can get the hell out,” every time Blondell complained about anything. She was sick of the treatment she was getting—and was at the end of her rope.
Despite the fact that Blondell believed her marriage would last forever, the way her husband treated her was unbearable.
In 1944, she made the dreaded decision to divorce her second husband. She left Powell, and yet despite this agonizing heartbreak, she still held out hope that she'd one day find her Prince Charming.
In the four years following her divorce, Blondell continued working, raised her kids, and even got a new boyfriend—whom she worked with while she was married. There seemed to be a pattern in Blondell’s love life, and she wasn’t about to break it anytime soon. What would be next in this concurring love story?
Of course, Blondell’s next step would be another wedding. In 1948, she married her new boyfriend Mike Todd. Same old story: first the wedding, then another temporary “goodbye” to her career, and her dreaming about living happily ever after. Unfortunately, fate—and Mr Todd—had other plans for her.
Blondell’s experience as Todd’s wife was not even close to normal—let alone a dream come true. It turned out that he was not good with money.
His disastrous spending behavior dragged Blondell and Todd into a controversial bankruptcy. Sadly, his being a heavy spender was not even close to his worst shortcoming.
Blondell's marriage with Todd was a total disaster and took an emotional toll on the actress. Besides the financial difficulties, she also had to deal with her husband's aggressive personality.
Allegedly, he once held her outside a hotel window by her ankles. But his horrifying behavior didn’t stop there.
There was one last notorious story about Todd that made us all feel very sorry for Blondell. Even though Todd was a hauntingly disappointing husband, he was the one leaving Blondell—well, according to him. How so?
According to a myth, he left Blondell for Elizabeth Taylor.
Nevertheless, Blondell’s account of this event was shockingly different.
According to Blondell, Todd wasn’t the one who broke up with her—and Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t even in the picture. According to her, she'd broken up with her awful husband years before he even met Taylor. We don’t know who dumped who, yet we do know that someone had to finish this disaster.
Even though she was miserable, her comments about her marriage were jaw-dropping.
By her admission, Joan Blondell didn’t regret marrying Mike Todd. In fact, she admitted that she didn’t regret any of her marriages. As she put it, “Barnes provided my first real home, Powell was my security man, and Todd was my passion. But I loved them all”.
Sadly, after realizing that none of them was the one, she stopped trying to excel in her love life and went back to the thing she already excelled at.
As of 1950, the blondie was back. She skipped stage work and jumped right onto the Hollywood big screen. Not only did she land her first performance in a very successful movie called The Blue Veil, but she also got nominated for an Academy Award. It was a huge moment for Blondell—but it soon became clear that her days as a leading lady were long gone.
After countless movies and theatre work, Blondell wanted to give television a shot.
However, she soon realized that TV wasn’t that welcoming of her. In 1965, she landed a role as Lucille Ball's sidekick on The Lucy Show. It should have been an exciting new chapter—but instead, Blondell was in no mood to celebrate.
After wrapping up her first day on The Lucy Show, Blondell knew that this wasn’t her scene. Still, she filmed her second guest appearance, but that was it for her.
Not because she wasn’t satisfied with the script or the show, but because—for the first time— she didn’t like her co-star.
For the first time, she felt horrible on the set.
Though Joan Blondell played Lucille Ball’s sidekick on the show, she was not playing her sidekick in real life. Unfortunately, Ball didn’t realize this. When Ball criticized her performance in front of everyone, Blondell felt furious and humiliated.
So, she stormed out of the set right after the filming was over—and never came back.
Her next co-star was definitely a step up.
In 1968, Blondell scored a gig in the American comedy western film Stay Away Joe. She played the tavern owner Glenda Callahan, who constantly chased the character Elvis Presley portrayed. While rubbing shoulders with the King of Rock and Roll, she had an experience that compensated for her disappointment in the TV world.
But she was still searching for something new.
After the TV fiasco and the new movie, Blondell began experimenting with yet another art form—writing. She wrote a book, a novel titled Center Door Fancy. The novel oddly represented Blondell’s real life, and therefore, it seemed like an autobiography disguised as a work of fiction. Here’s why.
Of course, all of her husbands were characters.
For example, it was reported that Powell was described as very stingy. Even the main plot supported the claim that this was indeed an autobiography. This was because it told the story of Nora, who grew up around vaudevillians and rose to stardom in Hollywood. Coincidence? I think not.
However, this wasn't the only crazy story in Blondell's life. Her daughter Ellen had one of her own—and it wasn’t a joyful one.
Blondell, at that time, had her hands full with some serious family problems. Her daughter—Ellen Powell—was battling with addiction to a certain white powder. It was a long and arduous road to recovery—but thankfully, Ellen Powell ended up getting sober.
Still, Blondell's personal problems didn't stop her from pursuing her career.
While dealing with issues at home, Blondell didn’t take a step back from the screen. She was in the period of her career where she’d get small roles in big movies. She portrayed the character Vi in the hit musical Grease, which was one of the last movies she ever acted in.
For most of her life, Joan Blondell kept a horrifying secret. Back in 1927, she lived through a real-life nightmare but was too frightened to tell anyone.
While locking up the library she worked at, a police officer approached her—and did the unthinkable. He forced himself on her and scarred her deeply, but that wasn't all.
In addition to the unspeakable acts he subjected her to, the officer threatened to end Blondell's life if she ever told anyone what had happened.
For decades, the actress lived with this chilling memory, until she finally broke her silence. She confessed her truth to her daughter and then released her story to the public with her memoirs.
Towards the end of 1979, the 73-year-old Blondell began to feel worse by the day.
For a while, she stayed at the hospital, where she faced a tragic diagnosis—leukemia. There would be no comeback this time. On Christmas day, Blondell's children and sister were by her side when the worse happened.
Sadly, Joan Blondell passed as a result of her leukemia.
The 73-year-old actress was interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery. However, her name wasn’t about to go away soon. Like all legends, Blondell had her name carved on the streets of Hollywood Boulevard.
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