BLONDIE JOHNSON: A Fresh Dame

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Blondie Johnson (Dir. Ray Enright, 1933) is the only American gangster film ever made in which a woman, the eponymous Blondie (Joan Blondell), travels the road of Paul Muni, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson, from destitute nobody to affluent somebody by becoming a mob boss. (Don’t believe me? I’ll deal with your reservations below.)

Blondie parties with Max’s mob

It was also an unusual vehicle for Joan Blondell, who was typically cast as the snappy, feisty friend of the heroine in musicals and rom-coms. As Virginia “Blondie” Johnson, she is snappy and feisty all right, but a power house leading woman, running rings around the male gangsters. It was not a commercial success and so it did not become a trend. Made by First National and Vitaphone Pictures, it was quickly shelved, but it is past time for feminists to discover and revel in it. From a 21st century vantage point, Blondie Johnson is fascinating and ahead of its time, with its complex, nuanced portrait of women, power, and social hierarchies, and also because of the way it was limited by the coming censorship that was then beginning its reign of terror over Hollywood.

The Blondie Johnson lobby card that also serves as the cover for the DVD I own suggests though its use of font the ambivalence with which Blondie is drawn in the film, even before you put the disc into the player. Here’s an approximation of the architecture of the billing:

Size matters, and has always mattered with respect to billing. I’m bemused as I imagine Joan Blondell’s agent and the studio liaison negotiating this truly antic graphic display, with top billing going to the actor who plays Blondie’s love interest and sidekick/henchman, Danny Jones, and second billing over the title displaying the name of actress who plays the lead role. Complicating the hierarchal implications, Blondell’s name is presented in two lines, adding weight to her presence, but, bizarrely, her first name is in relatively small font while her last name is in significantly larger font than the name of the top billed Morris, with his measly one line. It’s a rorschach of gendered and commercial tensions. Full disclosure: there are other lobby cards in which Blondell’s name goes over the title and Morris’ under it, but this one more accurately reflects the movie’s uneasy, sometimes stunningly progressive, sometimes conventional politics, gendered and otherwise.

Made at the height of the Great Depression, but just before the Production Code sank its teeth securely into Hollywood, like the Warner Bros. gangster classics–Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), and United Artists’ Scarface (1932)–Blondie Johnson was part of a genre that was one of the few acknowledgments by the mass culture industry of the poverty of working class and immigrant Americans during the economic collapse.

But where the other gangster movies merely implied the economic roots of crime, while being pressured by the Catholic dominated Hays Office to explicitly vilify gangsters as moral degenerates, Blondie Johnson is astonishingly Dickensian in its explicit depiction of her turn to mob life because of the failure of the government to aid suffering Americans. It is more than astonishing in its unique portrait of the hypocrisy of a Priest who tries to shame Blondie with absurd truisms completely out of touch with her reality. Having read through the Production Code files at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Movie Arts and Science for two books I wrote about old Hollywood, and knowing how imbalanced censorship was in favor of conservative Catholic doctrine, I have no idea how Ray Enright and First National managed to avoid having to cut the contemptibly condescending Priest out of the opening scenes.

Blondie is appalled by the hypocritical Priest

BLONDIE RISES

We first see a bedraggled Blondie in a government assistance office hopelessly trying to get aid for her extremely sick mother from a puritanical, cold clerk, who grows increasingly unsympathetic once he learns that Blondie quit her job because of sexual harassment. Yup, both social condemnation of women who will not shut up and endure the men who prey on their desperation, and the added problems working women face from predators are front and center in this 1933 scene. Blondie and her mother are being sheltered temporarily in the back of a drug store, because of the kindness of a Jewish pharmacist—yup, the ethnicity is made clear–after having been evicted from their pitifully threadbare home. Overwhelmed by her own situation, Blondie looks around the office and is struck dumb by the similar, if not worse, destitution of the other people in the room. WOW! An old Hollywood movie that gives importance to the social context of our heroine.

Blondie gets the news of her mother’s death

After her mother dies of pneumonia, Blondie is told by a lawyer that she has a good case; the landlord who evicted her sick mother into the rain and cold is liable, but she hasn’t got a chance because she doesn’t have the money to pay court costs. On top of this, she is confronted by the sanctimonious Priest I alluded to above, who, in all other gangster movies would, with his venerable white hair, have stood for righteousness. In this movie, it is obvious that he is a smug hypocrite, who is simply mouthing platitudes when he puts all the burden on her, complacently counseling her to get a job and be self-sufficient. Blondie can barely conceal her contempt for him, as he glosses over the widespread, well-known lack of employment available for many millions of despairing, starving Americans, and the hand to mouth lives of those who have the few outrageously low paid jobs on offer. Intelligent and realistic, she clearly despises his patronizing faux “kindness” and his attempt to mask a hard truth. Blondie’s Lesson Number One: money is everything in America. Do you find this depiction dated? Can’t say as I do.

Clearly, Blondie is not defined by the powers that be, the Priest and the government clerk. Rather they define her motives for turning toward crime, and cast her in a sympathetic light when social conditions push her toward the wrong side of the law. When next we see Blondie, she’s well dressed, confidant, and living in style. There is an ungrudging admiration in this movie for the way she has can do the capitalist dance and is supporting herself handsomely as a fast-talking con artist, even though she is preying on the vulnerable and gullible. The movie slyly implies that only poverty and failure are the two unforgivable capitalist crimes. And then it throws us an amusing, ironic curve when one of the victims of her scams turns out to be handsome Danny Jones, right hand man to gangland’s Max Wagner (Arthur Vinton)–Mr. Big to you. Her con game has won her a chance to propel herself to even greater criminal success because she has brought herself to the attention of the mob, or at least one mobster who loves the fact that she is, as he calls her, “a fresh dame.”

Blondie works to keep Danny’s mind on business

From a 2019 perspective, it’s not at all surprising that she angles to impress Max, so that she can work for him on a par with Danny, making the big bucks. But in any other gangster movie of the 1930’s, the audience would have expected her to become the very smitten Danny’s moll, while the men battled it out for turf and power. In fact, Danny pretty much has that idea, before she smacks him upside his head and sends the movie spinning into uncharted waters for American movies. Working her points to impress Max, Blondie and the audience receive a second shock of recognition about life in America. Not only is money everything, but hard work doesn’t pay off for women. There’s no room for her in Max’s organization, no matter how clever she shows herself to be, and she is all that. Lesson number 2: upward mobility is only for men.

Blondie impresses Danny as a “Fresh Dame”

Danny calls Blondie “a fresh dame,” with exasperation, but he admires her too. Mr. Big is another story Until Danny spills the beans that Max regards Blondie with disapproval and even hatred as a “smart dame,” she thinks that, when she shows demonstrates her talents, Max will see her the way she sees himself. Fat chance. He hypocritically hides it from her, but clearly this “uppity broad” is anathema to him. Moreover, Max won’t be satisfied with keeping Blondie off his turf, he also wants Danny to cut Blondie loose in all ways. Apparently the audience sided with Max, or so the lack of popularity of this sparkling film would suggest, but at least a significant portion of today’s movegoers are likely to be delighted to find that Max is not as on top of things as he thinks he is.

Max doesn’t count on one or two things beyond his blinkered ken. Danny has the hots for Blondie and isn’t ready to forego some romance and sex with her, h’ors de combat, even if he too is limited in his perception of her abilities. It never occurs to Danny that his gorgeous blonde is prepared to take her place on the battlefield regardless of what he and Max think. So it’s boom and OMG! when Blondie shows both guys just what a “smart dame” can do. She goes on to beat Max at his own protection game, luring Danny to her mob and some other of Max’s soldiers besides, through a very different mob leadership style that leads to a very different mob that is diverse not only in gender—Blondie includes other women in her gang—but also in ethnicity.

Blondie and her gang come to cut Danny loose

Moreover, she’s not only smarter than Max, she also understands how to create loyalty by showing respect and by sharing rather than by counting on creating fear, Max’s style, and, of course, the preferred style in all other gangster movies. While Max packs heat to assert his authority, she sashays around, as he cannot, manipulating the world through her command of wit and humor and her insight into human nature. Some of her one-liners are just priceless. Asked what her name is, she smartly replies, “Santy Claus. I had my face lifted and my beard’s grown under my hat.” (There is a rumor that line was written by Busby Berkeley.) In order to lure Danny over to serve her instead of Max, she ties him in knots with rapid fire zingers about how Max has compromised his manhood. Watching this kind of early prequel to second wave feminism is really a mind blowing treat.

BLONDIE FALLS

Ah, but. And here’s the twist that reflects the conflicted billing on the lobby card and the inescapable chauvinism of the age. Blondie is stymied at last by her success because it runs counter, in very specific ways, to what, according to the assumptions of day, the movie naturalizes as sexual hierarchy. While Blondie makes Danny dizzy with her taunts about how much more of a man he would be if he worked with her, she loses sight of the fact that she is as much in love with him as he is with her. Her insistence on business first and then, maybe…….turns out to be highly lucrative, but both unnatural (as this movie would have it) and her undoing, as well as Danny’s. Blondie and Danny have one delicious love scene early in the film in which Blondie first partially succumbs to her desire, but then pulls back, not wanting to distract herself from her business plan. She convinces Danny that postponing romance is for the best. But the result of her “unwomanly behavior” is near fatal confusion and a dark turn for their destinies.

Blondie almost gets carried away with Danny

Danny’s frustration leads him to veer into the kind of arrogance that characterized Max, and is typical of 1930’s movie gangsters. Danny compensates for thwarted desire by degenerating into a greedy bastard and turns, for satisfaction, to the wrong woman, a showy, shallow gold digging actress. (Ironically, Blondell made her most indelible mark on American movies as a good natured, smart, and caring show girl in the gold digger musicals of the the 1930s.) Blondie, as a good boss, cuts Danny out of the gang for his increasing arrogance and sloppiness, blind to her responsibility for what has happened to him. Or at least the responsibility this 1930’s movie insists that she should assume. At he same time, it is amusing that it is only when Danny goes wrong that he turns into an imitation, almost a parody, of the gangsters in the genre movies of the time. Where they idealized that kind of machismo (despite protests from the Production Code Office) and flaunted it as charisma, Danny’s swagger is about failure, his failure to follow Blondie’s level headed lead, and her failure to be a natural woman. And then things get worse.

When Danny cannot make good on his own in the underworld and becomes embarrassingly impoverished in great contrast to his affluence as a mob soldier, everyone, including Blondie, assumes he is out for revenge on her as a snitch when word gets around that he has spent a couple of hours at the police station. Taking the steps her position requires of her, she has to give orders to kill him as a rat and learns too late that appearances can be deceiving. Her Danny could never betray her. And she should have known. If only Blondie had not rejected Danny’s love!

Blondie, a “natural’ woman at last, stands by her man

Things only get straightened out when she begins to play the role “nature intender,” but not before blood is spilt and both Danny and Blondie are caught and punished. You have to see the film to get the full impact of the turnabout, which, it seems, will lead them both to a good bourgeois life once they have paid their dues to society. Yeah, it’s sweet; only, what happened to the economic and gendered realities with which the movie began? The end of the movie seems to forget what the beginning of the movie established, that Blondie would have trod the straight and narrow if she could have. How are she and Danny going to become proper citizens when the country is still under water? Well, forget that; it’s a happy ending.

There’s also only a whisper left of how the movie loved her initially for her indomitable spirit. She’s on her way to redemption, which just might mean submissive womanhood. But we can’t be sure. The penultimate line at closure is Danny’s, when he once again intones, “You’re a fresh dame!” Does her reply undercut that one last remainder of rake hell, assertive, mob boss Blondie? You be the judge when you see the film.

IS BLONDIE REALLY THE ONLY FEMALE GANGSTER PROTAGONIST?

I assume that many of you have been feeling, throughout this entire critique, that there are plenty of women in crime films, and that my claims for Blondie Johnson are somewhat exaggerated. And you’re half right. I’d better explain which half. I expect you’re thinking about Bonnie (Faye Dunaway), of Bonnie and Clyde (Dir. Arthur Penn, 1967) for an obvious opener. But I respond that she was an outlaw, not a gangster, and that there are indeed many girl outlaws in the movies. To name a couple of others, there are Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in Gun Crazy (Dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1950), who like Bonnie a psychopath, and, of course, there is also Bloody Mama (Dir. Roger Corman, 1970), featuring Shelly Winters as a psychopath, who organizes her sons into a wildly bloody criminal family. What’s the difference between a gangster and an outlaw? Because of my work on gangster films I have come to see that there is a huge distinction to be made, one I discuss at length in Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong.

While gangsters and outlaws are both greedy, work outside the law, and employ violence; it’s about belonging in gangster films, wanting in to a society that has rejected them for being immigrants, women, and poor. Outlaw films, by contrast, are about proudly staking out outsider status and acting as the disloyal opposition with violent anger, often depicted completely or almost completely as insanity. And this difference means a great deal to the portrayal of women in crime films. Outlaw women act out psychological rebellion by breaking the law. In Blondie Johnson, as in the other great mob films, crime is rooted in social circumstances, and their protagonists are hustling for—dying for–inclusion, for a place at the table. I’m not saying Blondie is a more feminist image than the images of Annie Laurie and Bonnie Parker, more that their films feature two extremely different kinds of gratification, and two extremely different cultural statements.

I am not big on women who act out in movies to prove themselves as violent as the most violent men, giving the world a big third finger and breaking doors and windows. I am more partial to women who assert their rights with brains and persistence, the “nevertheless, she persisted” type who want to open social doors and windows to fresh air and more opportunities. Like Elizabeth Warren, but working the dark route. However, I do accept feminist discussions of female outlaws. So, I hope to take nothing away from the fiery rebellions of Bonnie and Annie, when I say that Blondie should be much better known than she is as a figure in the mass media crime pantheon. Blondie Johnson gives us a depiction rare depiction in the 1930’s of some realities of poor, smart, ambitious women; and a telling way to calibrate the differences (or similarities) between the limits on what movies could say about such women in that era and what they say now.

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