Thursday, September 05, 2013

Book Review: Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes

The latest book read from my Summer Reading List is JOAN BLONDELL: A LIFE BETWEEN TAKES by Matthew Kennedy.

Kennedy's biography was written with the complete cooperation of Blondell's family, including her children Norman and Ellen Powell. The extensive primary source research undertaken for this book is most impressive; this is not one of those biographies strung together with period news clippings -- though the author dug those up too -- but rather, it's a detailed portrait filled with original input from Blondell's colleagues and those who knew her best, her family. (Norman Powell's endorsement of the book can be found at Amazon.)

The family cooperation did not prevent Kennedy from presenting a frank, unflinching look at Blondell's life, which was admirable in many respects but also rather sad. Blondell rose from life in a vaudeville family to significant success in the movies, but her offscreen life was far too often the antithesis of her sunnier movie roles; the part that might have been closest to the real Joan was one of her best, most authentic portrayals, Aunt Sissy in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945), who was ever in search of a happy home life.

The dark shadows in Blondell's offscreen life included the fact that by the time she became pregnant with her son Norman in 1934, she had had seven abortions. Seven. Her first husband, cinematographer George Barnes, did not want children and was dismayed by Joan's refusal to have yet another abortion; he divorced her not long after the baby's birth. Norman, who was named for actor-director Norman Foster, was adopted by Blondell's second husband, Dick Powell.

Despite Kennedy's extensive research, not much information seems to be known about the reasons behind the sudden breakdown in the mid '40s of the Powells' previously happy marriage -- but Joan's infatuation with Mike Todd, who would become her third and final husband, seems to have been a key factor. (Dick lost no time establishing a relationship with June Allyson.) Marriage to Todd was a relatively short-lived disaster -- good heavens, what kind of man would poison his stepson's dog?! -- and the entire experience was quite traumatic for both of the Powell children, especially as Joan chose the time of the divorce to inform Norman that Dick wasn't his "real" father.

Joan was obviously a smart woman in many ways, as her work attests, but she bizarrely thought Norman would find the divorce easier if he knew there wasn't a blood relationship with the only father he'd ever known. Little Norman not only had to process this information along with the divorce, but he also had to deal with the additional realization that his biological father hadn't ever wanted him. File that one under "Parenting stories which make your jaw drop."

Incidentally, years later, at the time of Powell's death, Joan would lament she should never have divorced him.

It was a long, hard road for Joan, including daughter Ellen's substance abuse and mental health issues, and Joan's own tough final battle with leukemia. Joan was a resilient woman, however, and she admirably kept on going for as long as she possibly could, including taking acting roles not long before her passing.

On one level, I enjoyed the peek at the real woman behind so many enjoyable film portrayals, and I especially appreciated the author's meticulous research and sourcing; on the other hand, just as with the Yvonne DeCarlo memoir I recently reviewed, the reader is left with a feeling of regret that an admired figure made some poor decisions and had such a tumultuous life.

(By contrast, stories about long-married, emotionally grounded Hollywood couples such as Joel and Frances Dee McCrea or Fred and June Haver MacMurray are inspiring; mixing Hollywood and a happy personal life was possible!)

JOAN BLONDELL: A LIFE BETWEEN TAKES was published in 2007 by the University Press of Mississippi, as part of the fine Hollywood Legends Series. It's exactly 300 pages, including a filmography, lists of radio and television appearances, index, and extensive source notes and footnotes. There are a number of interesting photos from family collections.

This book was read as part of my participation in Raquel's 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge at her blog, Out of the Past. Five books down and one to go. Thanks again for the inspiration, Raquel!


Blogger barrylane said...

There is a companion piece to the Kennedy book. Center Door Fancy, a novel of her life, written by Joan Blondell. Published in 1972, it covers similar ground but quite differently.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Cliff Aliperti said...

Piggybacking @barrylane's comment above, I made the mistake of reading the two back-to-back. At the time I felt like the newer book was essentially an updated rewrite of Blondell's novel, but I've been meaning to re-read it for awhile now since I think I've finally got "Center Door Fancy" completely out of my head!

1:17 PM  
Blogger Silver Screenings said...

I usually shy away from reading actor bios because so many of them had such sad lives - and it looks like Joan Blondell is no exception. But I really enjoyed your review of a smart and talented woman.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

I've always known that Joan Blondell had a rather turbulent personal life so I'm not surprised that there is even more to this than I knew before. And yikes about her son finding out that Dick Powell wasn't his real father.

I'm glad he at least approves of the book. I read that review on Amazon that you linked to and that was very nice of him to do!

I definitely want to read this. Blondell has fascinated me for years. I just have to mentally prepare myself for what I'm about to read.

Great review Laura!

10:18 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Despite being kind of sad it's a very well-done book, Raquel. Hope you enjoy it!

Best wishes,

2:24 PM  

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