Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: BLONDIE JOHNSON (1933)

As one of Warner Bros.' top gold diggers, Joan Blondell was already a gangster of love. It was a natural leap for screenwriter Earl Baldwin and director Ray Enright to make her a plain and simple gangster, a distaff counterpart to Cagney, Robinson et al. Inevitably, however, Virginia "Blondie" Johnson remains a more sympathetic figure than the studio's male gangsters. She is explained, as they are not, by a grudge against society, introduced begging for an immediate relief payment after her family is evicted from their latest home. Her mom's dying of pneumonia in the back room of a pharmacy offered to the Johnsons as shelter, but the fact that they have a roof over their heads makes them better off than many families in the eyes of the relief agency, and in any event they can't pay out on the spot. Blondie returns home to find Mom dead. She rejects the consolation of faith, realizing now that there are two ways to get ahead: the hard way and the easy way.

For Blondie the easy way is to turn grifter -- and you thought she meant something else! She runs a con with a taxi driver, standing at street corners crying that she won't get to work on time and will lose her job, hoping that some mark will spring for cab fare when her partner (Sterling Holloway) drives past. This works for a while, but Blondie learns that you can't con a con when one of her marks reveals himself as Danny Jones (Chester Morris), the right-hand man of Max Wagner. Max and Danny are in the "insurance" business; they insure shopkeepers against getting their property wrecked and so forth, if you get my drift. Danny gets his money back, but he admires Blondie's spunk. She helps his buddy Louie (Allen Jenkins) beat a murder rap by playing his pregnant lover before a gullible, soft-hearted jury, and runs a number of cons on the side with the help of her fellow molls. She also detects a lack of ambition in Danny and goads him to challenge Max for dominance. When that gets Danny run over and hospitalized, Louie takes out Max. He may seem simple, being Allen Jenkins and all, but he lives like a serial villain. His apartment is furnished with a fireplace that turns into a bar at the flip of a switch -- and the space behind the wall makes an excellent machine-gun nest. Louis invites Max and his loyalists over for a parlay, steps out for a moment, and in the next moment Max & Co. are dead.

Danny takes over and starts living large, devoting much of his time to another woman as Blondie grows jealous and ambitious in her own right. She thinks Danny's spending too much of the gang's money on the other woman and convinces Louis and the rest of their cronies to back her in a bloodless coup. Now it's her name on the door of their impressive front office while Danny loses his money and his new girl. When Louie suddenly gets arrested for Max's murder and gossip indicates that the D.A. has a witness against him, everyone assumes it's the disgruntled Danny. This is the supreme moment for Blondie; as the gang leader she knows what she has to do though it makes her sick at heart. "What are you waiting for?" she tells her men, condemning Danny to death. But bare minutes later her spy in the D.A.'s office tells her that the witness is the janitor of Louie's apartment building, whom we saw chatting with Louie moments before Max's death. Now she has to rush to the rescue -- hailing a cab with her old partner in crime driving -- to save Danny from a fate he doesn't deserve....

Joan Blondell may not wield a machine gun or beat anyone up, but it's fun to watch her ruthless rise to power. Blondie really belongs to another Warners rogues gallery, this one consisting of dangerously empowered women, the more troubling counterparts to Blondell's more typical gold-digger, of whom Barbara Stanwyck's Baby Face, who sleeps her way up the corporate ladder,  is the most notorious example. Pre-Code buffs may be reminded of Stanwyck's bedroom Nietzscheanism by Blondie's rise to the top of her profession, but gangland seems more meritocratic, and Blondie's success in it more truly earned, than the corporate world of Baby Face. If anything, Blondie's rapid rise begs the question: why is she so seemingly helpless and woebegone in the first part of the picture? Anger energizes her, it seems, as it does the Stanwyck character. That motivating anger separates these two pictures from the gold-digger comedies, and from the male gangster films. Blondie Johnson has little in the way of social consciousness, but it's more obviously a story of rebellion than other Warner films. At the same time, and perhaps for chivalrous reasons, Blondie doesn't pay the same price the male gangsters pay. She never actually kills anyone -- though you wonder why, when she gets the real dope from her spy, she doesn't have the janitor killed -- and the film is marred by going soft at the end. Blondie's goons end up only wounding Danny, and after he recovers everyone comes clean and everyone goes to jail. Blondie gets six years, but it's a happy ending because she and Danny will reunite after they finish their respective terms. I assume Louie gets the chair but they never say it for certain. Whatever the filmmakers intended, this finish turns the film into a comedy after all.

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Blondie Johnson gets extra Pre-Code points for a singular piece of casting. One of the guys in the gang has a moll named Lulu. She's played by Toshia Mori, who made movie history earlier in 1933 by becoming the first non-Caucasian named as a "WAMPAS Baby Star" by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers. For a decade by then the annual annointing of Baby Stars was a big publicity event that got the actresses' pictures in newspapers across the country. Mori's class included such imminent luminaries as Ginger Rogers and Gloria Stuart. Mori was under contract to Columbia and was nominated by the studio as a Baby Star -- a star of tomorrow, that is -- after their initial choice quit on them. For Columbia it was a good way to promote their current release The Bitter Tea of General Yen, in which Mori had a prominent supporting role. Needless to say, Mori was stuck in stock Asian roles and was out of the movie business by 1937. Only Warner Bros., for one picture, accepted the premise that Mori was actually the peer of her sister Babies. In Blondie Johnson a white actor and a Japanese-American actress play lovers -- this would be taboo under Code Enforcement -- and Lulu's obvious Asian ethnicity passes completely without comment by anyone in the picture. The only hint of ethnic subservience is Lulu's portrayal of a maid in one of Blondie's cons. It's very likely that Lulu's part, admittedly relatively small, was written without ethnicity in mind, and that the Warner casting director, seeing the publicity pictures of Mori with the other Baby Stars, simply said "Why not?" For that alone you'd have to admire Blondie Johnson -- but there's plenty to like besides that.

Meanwhile, the original trailer plays on Blondell's gold-digger image while billing Blondie as "The Commander of Men." As usual, it's from

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

It's quite an entertaining little flick and Joan Blondell makes anything worth watching.