The Purchase Price (1932): The Time of the Season for Love?

poster“I’ve been up and down Broadway since I was fifteen years old. I’m fed up with hoofing in shows. I’m sick of nightclubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chiselers, and smart guys. I’ve heard all the questions and I know all the answers. And I’ve kept myself… fairly respectable through it all. The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high-powered headache. I’ve got a chance to breathe something else, and boy, I’m grabbing it.”

—Joan Gordon, The Purchase Price 

For the quantity of one (1) soul mate, send $10.00 and a self-addressed envelope to… Yeah right. Ah, if only it were that easy. If only fate (or a non-creepy catalogue, perhaps?) brought a wonderful gal or worthy suitor right to your door. If only you could order your very own Barbara Stanwyck via mail, as William Wellman’s The Purchase Price suggests.

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In spite of its hilarious contrivance—the idea that an ill-advised mail-order marriage could melt into true love—I fell for this offbeat romance. You cannot resist its charms. You find yourself rooting for the wily city girl to end up with the aw-shucks boy-next-door. And I marvel at how much plot and character development these pre-Code yarns could cram into a runtime of barely over one hour.

vlcsnap-2013-07-06-17h59m05s160Trying to pry loose from a dead-end relationship with a gangster, Joan Gordon changes her name, goes to Canada, and switches places with a woman who had agreed to be a mail-order bride on a frontier farm. Although Joan initially rebuffs her yokel husband on their wedding night, she grows to admire and respect him. Transforming into a warm, caring wife, Joan battles financial pressures threatening the farm and tries to fend off shadows of her past.

vlcsnap-2013-07-06-17h42m01s160 Stanwyck shines (does she ever not shine?) in a role closely related to her breakout performance in Ladies of Leisure: a tough child of asphalt who pines for a more meaningful existence. When we first meet Joan, she’s crooning at a speakeasy. In fact, the trailer for The Purchase Price advertised Missy’s singing voice as a significant attraction—announcing “Listen! It’s the voice of Barbara Stanwyck!”— although she only sings in one scene.

Although Stanwyck’s smoky, homely contralto doesn’t exactly soar in a torch song melody, her soulful delivery tells us much more about the character than your usual pre-Code nightclub sequence does. In this opening scene, a surprising amount of drama creeps into the character introduction. For instance, I just love the ironic contrast between the pure yearning in Stanwyck’s voice and the ugly mugs we see from above, looking up at her with wistful lust. The peculiar combination of corny, but heartfelt sentiment and urban grime elegantly sums up Stanwyck’s early image.

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Like an angel in greasepaint, she leans over tables of drooling drunks and sings a sad ballad, “Take me away…” which becomes the movie’s musical and emotional theme.

As Joan hovers over a silken gangster type, his platinum blonde moll, a sort of bargain basement Jean Harlow, eyes her with envy and melancholy. We, the viewers, immediately recognize the difference between your run-of-the-mill working girl and Joan—a complex, earthy woman. Even faced with a gallery of grotesques, Joan Gordon sings like she means it. And, as we soon learn, she’s not just putting on an act: she really does long for an escape.

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The men in Joan’s life seem to specialize in letting her down. There’s Eddie, her slimy, yet affable racketeer boyfriend, who insists, “You daffy little tomato, I’m bugs about ya. I’d marry ya myself—if I wasn’t already married.” Now, there’s a winner! Unfortunately, he doesn’t excite her as much as she excites him, we notice, as she clinically changes behind a screen her dressing room, while he jumps up to get a look.

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Unfortunately, Joan’s “chance to breathe,” her rich milksop fiancé, breaks off their engagement because of Joan’s ties to the aforementioned slimy gangster. Prevailed upon by his wealthy father, this anemic fool dumps Stanwyck (“It’s STANWYCK, you goof!” I yelled at my screen) in a humorous hotel scene during which the maid stops scrubbing floors and the groom shuts off his vacuum cleaner to eavesdrop.

And, that night, Joan’s in her dressing room again, getting taken back by her low-life boyfriend—and hating every minute of it.

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I appreciate how William Wellman and canny screenwriter Robert Lord (of The Little Giant and Heroes for Sale) handle what could’ve been clichés with a light touch. Instead of the evil bootlegger, victimized torch singer, and spotless high-class fiancé love triangle, we get something a bit more interesting and true.

Joan comes across as neither victimized nor blameless, neither virtuous nor promiscuous.  I particularly love how she sits there after being dumped by her escape-plan-man, watching men in the street take the garbage out. You can sense every fiber of Staywyck vibrating with contrasting emotions: not only mentally cursing out her limp-wristed fiancé, but also feeling trashy, blaming herself, lamenting what could have been. There are no tears, no hysterics. Just a sigh and a shrug. It’s worse than tragic. It’s disappointing.

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Cheer up, Stany! It’s just the first act…

She’s made of better stuff than the men in her life, but they’re not good-versus-bad caricatures either. Eddie racketeer doesn’t menace her, like we expect him to. And Joan’s fiancé doesn’t defy his family to marry her, like we expect him to.

Having dispatched three stereotypes at once, Wellman returns to Joan and her dilemma. Sick and tired of her life, Joan changes her name and moves to Montréal. Eddie, the clingiest bootlegger of them all, is still trying to find Joan, so she trades places with her maid and goes to the middle of nowhere to marry a stranger.

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Luckily for her, the stranger looks like George Brent. Although Brent just doesn’t do it for me when he’s playing an alluring man of the world, he proves a total delight in the role of Jim Gilson, a loping country bumpkin who conceals surprising reserves of intelligence and dedication.

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Don’t judge a book by its cover. And don’t judge a man just ’cause he looks like he escaped from the cast of Hee-Haw.

Greeting Joan with an iron handshake and a summer cold sniffle, Jim Gilson trots her off to a ludicrous marriage ceremony where the village idiot and a batter-stirring housewife serve as witnesses. All this exaggerated “one-horse town” humor may seem mildly offensive these days, but at least it provides Stany with an abundance of priceless reaction shots.

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“Uh… really?”

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“Really?”

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“Come on—REALLY, now?”

As Jim takes Joan into town, as he haggles over the price of the ring, as he marries her, as he carts her back to his farm, droll suspense lingers in the air—will he attempt to, ahem, assert his marital rights? Um, got awkward? Finally, they get back to his farmhouse and he proceeds to set up a sleeping bag on the living room floor while Stany goes into the bedroom. Phew. No wedding night antics…

Oh, wait. Cut to Jim looking through the legs of the table. He sees shadows under the bedroom door. Cut to Joan getting changed. Cut to Jim, creeping up to the door. Cut to Joan in her nightie inspecting the room. BOOM! There he is, bursting through.

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And since pretty much every Stanwyck movie of the 1930s has to have at least one slap, we know this probably isn’t going to end well for lover boy… I have to take pause and applaud not only the mixture of repulsion and regret that Stanwyck projects, but also Brent’s desire and shame.

Rather than aiming at sheer titillation, this scene sets up the dramatic stakes of the rest of the film. She browbeats herself for hurting him, and he browbeats himself for coming on too strong. Their insecurities bubble up and it will take a lot of adversity—and a year of sexual tension—to bring them together again.

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Will Jim loose his farm? Will he reject Joan when Eddie shows up and reveals her past? What kind of bargain will Joan have to make to save her husband’s dream of happiness?

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Well, I won’t totally give away the ending, but let me say this. I cherish The Purchase Price for its ability to craft a mature fairy tale, a rare blend of pre-Code sex comedy and earnest domestic drama. Let’s face it, a lot of films of the early 1930s betray precious little emotional insight and give us couplings that we don’t exactly buy.

That era of cinematic sophistication often buckled under the pressure of censorship—and the perceived audience desire for an upbeat conclusion—and served up happy endings that the characters didn’t deserve. I mean, who really thinks that Baby Face, Midnight Mary, or Skyscraper Souls (to name only a few) would shake out the way they did in the real world?

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So, it’s a distinctly refreshing feeling to watch The Purchase Price and bask in the agrarian glow of two parallel harvests: a hard-earned crop of wheat and the fruits of an equally challenging courtship. The sensual, yet fully legitimate kiss between Brent and Stanwyck, husband and wife, imbues the film with a cozy, alluring idealism, tempered by the bumpy road it took to get there.

Love, marriage, sex, fertility—these aren’t things that we should snicker about when they occur naturally, as part of a cycle, a ripening. If the premise taxes our credulity a bit, we witness a believable relationship blossom through deliberate pacing and characterization.

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The modern world forces us into all sorts of awkward jumblings of this natural order. (Now, bear in mind, I’m a 22-year-old unattached working girl, so don’t think I’m endorsing the concept of settling down or the white picket fence lifestyle.) I don’t think the movie’s message is “get married randomly and everything will work out.” On the contrary, this movie hints that marrying a stranger is as unnatural as the sort of fast-and-not-so-easy hook-ups that we consider so very modern. The Purchase Price makes the case for courtship, for letting a bond form  patiently between two people.

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The rotation of the seasons as a motif—enhanced through cinematography by Sidney Hickox (of Female and The Big Sleep)—helps to drive this point home poetically.

An astonishing amount of time, effort, and resources went into the set designs that create this “circle of life” seasonal effect. For the bleak winter frontier scenes, masses of snow were made from fine gypsum and thirty-five tons of untoasted corn flakes! The “frozen river” was simulated by heating water then pouring paraffin over top of that which, apparently, reproduces the look of ice—even breaking and cracking like ice when stepped on.

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A behind-the-scenes shot for The Purchase Price, published in the August 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine. William Wellman is teaching Stanwyck to scream.

Winter advisory warning: I’d like to alert you to one seriously hot sequence that takes place in the snow. It’s the one being filmed in the picture above. Even wearing long underwear and a winter coat, Stanwyck manages to turn on the heat and sizzle. “Have you ever heard a woman scream? Well, you’re going to…” In other words, all that set design travail and toil was well worth it!

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I can’t think of many actresses who could sell The Purchase Price, but Missy was the Queen of Credibility. Her extraordinary gift as a screen actress resides in her ability to wed theatricality to realism. Whether with a roll of the eye, a tilt of the head, or a full-on lunge or sock to the jaw, and she is constantly communicating what she is feeling. She tethers her audience to the moment with the sheer present-ness of her performance. For 68 minutes of pure Stanwyck charm, don’t miss out on The Purchase Price. And, to think, I didn’t even mention all those pre-Code lingerie scenes…

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This post is part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol. Be sure to check out the other terrific entries!

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She Calls the Shots: Blondie Johnson (1933)

“I know all the answers and I know what it’s all about. I found out that the only thing worthwhile is dough—and I’m gonna get it, see?”

—Blondie Johnson

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Dames hardly ever call the shots in gangster films. Sure, they wield sexual power over their mobster boyfriends or husbands and occasionally get to plug some poor dumb sap, but they’re rarely in charge as the legitimate boss of a racket. And, unfortunately, when they are giving orders, the situation usually gets played for kink or camp. Noir offered plenty of domineering roles for nasty women running the show, although usually from behind the scenes, but classical gangster pictures, especially the first talkie cycle of the 1930s, remain mostly an old boys’ club.

Blondie Johnson, however, is a whole different animal. In this 1933 crime film (impossible to find until Warner Archive released it), a woman does take the reigns of an operation. She does so not because she’s hot to trot—she keeps men at an arm’s length—but because she’s got brains, guts, and commands loyalty from men and women alike. If this flawed film fails to live up to what I want it to be, it still makes for an intriguing 67 minutes of viewing if, like me, you love gangster films or pre-Codies.

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We all know and love Joan Blondell as Miss pre-Code Cheekiness, a sassy, curvaceous babe out to get what she can and have a little fun in the bargain. So, in a way, Blondie Johnson, a small-time chiseler turned racketeer queen, might not seem to tug too hard at the underpinnings of her star image. She really just takes her tough, but voluptuous chick routine and teases it out to an extreme. This female kingpin (queenpin?) comes across not as a campy bitch goddess, but rather as the logical extension of every pre-Code working girl. She rolls with the big boys, gets them out of jams, and, before you know it, she makes a few decisive moves and ends up on top of the world.

The movie opens in a very un-gangster-like manner with Blondie waiting for unemployment aid. Glamorous, twinkly eyed Blondell hardly looks like herself, as though a pall had been cast over her usually winsome face.

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Her mother is sick, dying, and she needs the money desperately. We all feel like we’ve been punched in the stomach when she gets turned down since she quit her previous job as a laundress—because the boss couldn’t keep his hands off her.

Well, if that’s not a bad enough day, Blondie comes home to find the doctor waiting with bad news. Her mother’s dead. She howls in desolation and crumples by the body.

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In the next scene, a priest and a city magistrate are essentially trying to explain to her why she should accept the hard knocks that life deals her—including getting evicted, losing her mom, and dealing with predatory employers. There are two ways to make money, the priest tells her. “Yeah, I know.” She sneers, rejecting his irrelevant invocation of right and wrong. “The hard way and the easy way.” We understand that the opening trauma steeled this average girl into something determined and dangerous. Just as Baby Face quotes Nietszche,  ol’ Friedrich’s “will to power” carries on in Blondie, too. We discern it in the feverish glow in her eyes.

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Interestingly, whereas movies like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface never set out to explain why their protagonists become gangsters, apart from the obvious greed and ambition, Blondie Johnson introduces its heroine as a wronged woman. Director Ray Enright and writer Earl Balwin take pains to establish Blondie as a poor girl who really did try to live honestly in a society that makes a dignified existence impossible for down-on-their-luck women, especially.

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“Well, the social services network let me down. I think I’ll turn to a life of crime.”

When a woman turns to crime, the producers no doubt assumed, we need to give her a reason, otherwise she’s a gutter snipe. Society does owe Blondie. She didn’t set out on the path to crime because of a desire for swag or authority: she did it because the sheer indifference of the world taught her that, if nobody will take care of you, you have to take care of yourself. I find that rationale a little sexist—a woman might aspire to be a Napoleon of crime for reasons other than economic necessity. But, hey, if it’s what they needed back in 1933 to get Joan Blondell to play a peroxide gangster, so be it.

Cut to Blondie shortly after her ordeal. She’s a totally different woman.

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Tricked out in a stylish velvet dress and a sporty cap, she obviously chiseled some money out of someone… although it’s left to our imagination just how she did. In 1933, Photoplay magazine even went so far as to run promotions for Blondie Johnson based on the fashionable outfits worn by its eponymous girl gangster.

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But the clothes don’t make the gal—the attitude does. From the slinky, yet proud posture of this dame as she calls for a cab with a come hither nod, we recognize how the abandonment of a little thing called morals has liberated her.

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Enlisting the help of a dorky, squeaky-voiced cab driver (Sterling Holloway, who else?), Blondie pulls a small-time sympathy swindle. Waiting outside speakeasies, she cries and pretends to be a little lady deserted by her boyfriend because she wouldn’t sleep with him, now stranded and in need of taxi fare to get back to her job before she gets fired. Ironically, the woman who was wronged in real life ends up making money off of suckers by playing the victim, by staging and feigning a woman’s plight.

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“Oh, sob, sob! I seem to find myself in distress!”

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“I hate to see a dame in distress. Especially with pins like those.”

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Problem is, the first mug she fools happens to be notorious gangster Danny Jones, played by an affably smug Chester Morris and his knife-blade profile.

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Danny bumps into her later that night at a posh hotel where she’s dining on the money she collected from a gallery of suckers and, realizing he’s been taken in, he steps on her foot and prepares to repossess her winnings.

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Using her quick wit and a few well-placed self-defense moves, Blondie manages to defuse his temper and convince him that she’s a “smart dame” who could prove a valuable asset.

So, he takes her to a hotel room for a drink. And here’s where the movie gets really interesting—we all prepare for the old pre-Code fade-out as Danny and Blondie become lovers. But no!

Blondie holds true to the code of the Corleone family: “It’s not personal. It’s business.” She carefully excludes the possibility of any fringe benefits to her and Danny’s mutual interests. Chester Morris and Blondell have a great chemistry together in this scene of back-and-forth attempts to soften the other up: she wants work in his syndicate and he wants, well, what men usually want in a hotel room after a couple of drinks.

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Their snappy negotiations present a sort of gangster version of the famous pickpocketing scene between Marshall and Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise. He pays her for a job—corrupting a jury to swing a member of the gang out of prison—but asks for some sugar in return. She throws the money in his face and storms out.

He calls her back and she tells the story of her life, including the doleful tale of a sister who died from an illicit abortion. Always the optimist, Blondie ends her speech with a vow to get even with life: “This city’s gonna pay me a living!”

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Just when we think things are getting grim, Danny agrees to let Blondie have a proper chance on equal terms, but then counts his money. Even in her fit of high temper, Blondie pocketed some of the money she seemed to refuse. Stunned by her brazenness and slight of hand, Danny stares, as Blondie coyly raises a glass to their platonic partnership.

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As usual, there’s some division in the gang. Danny wants to bail his friend Louis out of jail while the big boss isn’t keen on the idea, since he doesn’t want Danny (really a lieutenant gangster) to make a play for power. That’s where Blondie comes in as a peroxide Lady Macbeth, lending Danny some of her own brass cajones to move ahead with a cunning courtroom drama.

In perhaps the best scene in the film, Blondie saves this big-time gangster Louis from a sure conviction by pretending to be his demure, pregnant fiancée—leaping up from the defendant bench to embrace him!

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She wins sympathy by delivering a bravura performance, smacking of screwball comedy as much as gangster humor. Collapsing in Louis’ lap and heaving sobs of crocodile tears, she looks up at him surreptitiously and grunts, “Kiss me, you mug!” He does. And wins an acquittal.

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After that, Blondie has won a place as part of the gang—but an uncomfortable one. She defies categorization. She’s not a moll, since she didn’t sleep with anyone to get there, nor can she ever fully be one of the boys.

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In fact, no sooner does she attend the inevitable gangland banquet to celebrate Louis’ release (and lets Danny take all the credit) than the big boss gives the word that he doesn’t want Blondie around. Blondie doesn’t take to that news too well.

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She pushes Danny to take over the operation. He almost gets killed for trying, but a few of his men, under Blondie’s direction, get rid of the big boss. And Danny’s suddenly in charge. He has a swanky deco office, a chorus girl as his playmate, and is getting fitted for new suits in the office. (Apparently having two egregious “nance” tailors fuss over you, the same ones from The Public Enemy, was the quintessential sign that you had arrived in the 1930s.)

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But this is just the beginning of Blondie’s problems. You see, as much as Blondie likes and even comes to love Danny and abets his rise to power, Danny doesn’t appreciate the fact the he owes it all to a woman who really does all the driving.  So he decides to ship her off to another racket. Now, the script doesn’t delve into what his plan actually was, but I think we’re to infer that he either tried to have her killed or at the very least sold to another racket, perhaps as a prostitute. Blondie pushed him away a little too much, so he double-crossed her.

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Don’t ever mix business and horizontal kissing.

Still the wronged woman, in spite of all her leadership, Blondie doesn’t like that. Nor does the crack team of molls and mugs. They  recognize that it’s her brains and nerve that made their insurance racket what it is. For instance, in one particularly amusing interlude, Blondie works with two other molls to impersonate a rich heiress and intimidate a bunch of cash out of a bogus personal injury case.

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So, instead of cutting Blondie out, the gang backs her up and give Danny—who’s worn them out with his poor judgement, extravagance, and arrogance—the kiss-off. Now, Blondie’s at the top. Perched amidst modernistic, urban finery, she orchestrates her shady protection/insurance mob with competence and aplomb, appearing more as a sophisticated businesswoman than a scion of gangland.

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But Danny still rankles like a thorn in her side. He knows too much and could sink the whole organization. When one of Blondie’s confederates reports that a disgruntled Danny is going to spill all to the cops, she reluctantly orders his execution and two henchmen go off to dispatch the death sentence.

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Brrring! Brrring! Phone call for Blondie Johnson! It turns out Danny didn’t divulge any information to the police. Remorse sets in. Holding a picture of Danny (yeah, I tend to keep around large, framed portraits of guys who screwed me over, too), Blondie decides that she can’t just kill him off like that.

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At the last moment, she caves in to her humanity and goes rushing to save the man she loves.

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She arrives too late. Bang. Bang. We hear the off-screen shots and think the deed’s been done.

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Danny’s on the floor, still alive, but full of her henchman’s lead. Sirens sound.  Blondie could get away, and Danny urges her to save herself, but she stays, cradling the man who did her wrong. They confess their love as the police draw near.

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Defeated by love and nabbed by the cops, Blondie stands trial and gets six years hard labor. (Yes, it’s lame. I didn’t write it. If I had, Blondie would’ve joined forces with Stanwyck and Teresa Harris from Baby Face and—what the Hell—King Kong. Together they would’ve ruled the world. Anyone wanna greenlight that?)

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As Blondie gets hauled out of court, she passes Danny, also about to be tried and taken to jail, meets her and they share a tender moment, promising to wait for each other.

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The final shot of Blondie Johnson, this uncertain, wistful medium close-up reminds me of a lot of unresolved, ambiguous final shots like this from 1930s movies (I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang comes to mind) that hint at the unresolved fates of people we’ve come to care about deeply.

’Twas beauty killed the beast, but in this case,’twas a beast (Chester Morris) that brought Blondie down. As much as that bothers me, the true emotional sacrifices of running a racket that we witness in Blondie Johnson definitely foreshadow the many heart-wrenching betrayals of The Godfather: Part II. Ruthlessness exacts a price on the one who’s ruthless, too.

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In his brief analysis of this film, Thomas Doherty claims that, because she’s a woman, Blondie gets a chance at rehabilitation and a little bit of hope, whereas a male gangster would’ve been shot down and finished with. I concede the point, but disagree with the interpretation. I think that the punishment dished out to Blondie is a lot worse. Better to go down in a machine-gun burst of brilliance than have to live through a long prison sentence which, frankly, might kill her anyway. There’s no romance to this conclusion. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a tear in Blondell’s big pop eyes.

Blondie is a fascinating film for its attempt to reformat the template of the gangster picture with the added sexual stakes of a woman trying to climb the gang ladder.

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The occupational hazards of working in a male-dominated industry.

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The film starts to hints at the female hierarchy behind the mob though the political dynamics between the gun molls that we see: Claire Dodd as Gladys, the priority blonde mistress, passed from one gang head to another, Mae Butsch as Mae, the matronly has-been moll who acts as a front from time to time, and Japanese-American Toshia Mori as Lulu, another beautiful lady coasting through the racket, mostly in a servile role, perhaps due to her ethnicity.

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It’s subtle but the women get more of a voice under Blondie and her supporters go with her to the top—as suggested by this skyscraper low angle. Molls of the world, unite!

The film criminally underuses these women, but they do come across as more real than the silken ladies of many a 1930s gangster flick in that they’re not in the racket for thrills or luxury, but for survival. It’s a kind of job in a time when jobs weren’t forthcoming. It’s also interesting to watch Lulu and Mae grow into slightly more important, commanding babes in Blondie’s company, as though her strength set an example for them.

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I wonder if real ’30s working girls felt the same about this unconventional female role model. Even if she ends up in the hoosegow, I hope that Blondell’s effulgent badassery inspired more than a few chicks to go a little Blondie on an unfair world.

Nevertheless, I wish that Blondie Johnson had ascended to a higher plane of cinema instead of remaining a somewhat formulaic jumble of missed opportunities. It’s a film that generates a lot of regret for me. I wish it had been less of a plodding women’s picture and more of gangster flick—or even an revolutionary women’s picture. Like Baby Face with guns. I wish that it had a more lucid script, a few more gunshots, and someone like William Wellman or Howard Hawks at the helm. With its good cast and such an innovative concept, in better hands, it could have smashed into our consciousness as a founding gangster film, like Little Caesar or Scarface. And set a precedent for gangster movies that let a dame run the show.

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She’s the show. He just watches and learns.

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As is, Blondie Johnson is well worth watching just to savor how Blondell, a wisecracking sidekick no more, rises from nothing to hold supreme control over the situation. In 1933, Motion Picture magazine was prompted to ask if Blondell was being groomed as a kind of female Cagney. She exudes a warmer version of his alpha male magnetism and moxie. Alas, she doesn’t call the shots for long, but it’s damn fun while it lasts.

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This post is part of the #scenesofthecrime blogathon. Check it out, see?

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon