Here she is…Miss Public Enemy No. 1!
Though acclaimed by most at the film that catapulted star Joan Blondell to the national scene, Blondie Johnson is at best an average movie. Though billed as the next entry in Warner Brothers’ long line of gangster classics and containing hints and snippets of the genre, it fails to fit easily into any single genre. This indecision results in a bit of a jumbled- though not at all unpleasant- mess.
Blondell is of course in the role of the title character. At the film’s start she’s a down on her luck woman begging for assistance from the state of New York. These were the dark days of the Depression and her last job at the Star Laundry was four months ago and she and her mother are living in a back room solely dependent on the charity of neighbors, who ‘are almost as poor as we are.’
Then, to make matters worse, her mother passes from pneumonia. In an offbeat kind of deathbed promise, Blondie vows to take what she is deserved, while giving back as little as possible. She takes a cab to a hotel, meeting cabbie Red, played by an insanely young looking Sterling Holloway. As he drops her off, she quickly works him for a few bucks, before relenting and making him a partner in an entirely different scam.
Like much of the film, as soon as a tone is set, it is suddenly broken by a comic quip- most always from Blondell. For example, as Blondie presents her deal to Red, she says, “Red, I’ve got a proposition for you.” “Well, not during business hours,” is Red’s nonplussed reply. While the sexual innuendo is relatively tame by pre-code standards, there are more than enough hints that it lingers just below the surface.
In working with Red, Blondie comes to the attention of Danny, the key man of one of the leading crime gangs in the city. He feels under-appreciated and wants to partner up with Blondie- in creating their own syndicate as well as other, more nefarious couplings. She rebuffs Danny’s romantic yearnings but turns a kind ear to creating their own racket.
After Blondie saves the Boss from serving time in an acted plea acting as his wife, she and Danny strike out on their own. Things start off smashingly well; they have a few folks on the payroll and money is starting to flow in their fraud ring. Over time and after Blondie’s repeated gentle but firm refusals of Danny’s amorous intentions, he tries to go off on his own.
Though on the surface equal partners, Danny sends her off to Detroit to deliver a letter to another crew. While on the train, she reads in the papers that Danny has announced he’s ready to wed the platinum headed (but shallow) Gladys, played by Claire Dodd. With jealousy suddenly overtaking her, she rips open the letter to find Danny telling the recipients to use Blondie as best they can but to not let her return to New York.
Angry and hurt, Blondie returns to New York and kicks Danny out. Having run out of money and opportunity (perhaps robbed of both by Gladys), Danny finds himself in a squalid apartment when the news hits that a witness in an old case has appeared which incriminates some on Blondie’s crew.
Fearing the worst and knowing that Danny could spill the beans on all of them, she reluctantly orders a hit on Danny. Almost as soon as the hit-men leave however, she learns that Danny’s kept his mouth shut and that the witness is actually a janitor. Knowing the worst, she rushes to Danny’s apartment, arriving just as the smoke clears to find Danny shot on the floor.
Though it all sounds good, the problem Blondie Johnson faces is that it simply doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be. Promoted heavily at the time as a gangster film, it simply isn’t one. Does it have some elements of the gangster film? Sure. But at the same time, and perhaps in greater measures, it tries to be a light comedy or even a love story. It’s an enjoyable film but sadly too much of everything and too little of any one thing to present anything really cohesive.
That said, Blondie Johnson deserves its reputation as the main launch pad of star Joan Blondell’s career. Though never particularly convincingly hard enough to be a passable crime boss, it’s impossible to say that she doesn’t carry the film. As usual, she is at her best in the lighthearted banter and wit she was historically so good at. She is definitely the main attraction.
At the start of the film she has a slightly affected voice with a slight accent which is clearly slanted towards Cagney and The Public Enemy. There are many lines which use vocabulary which seem out of place given the overall tone of the picture- words like ‘dough’ and adding ‘see?’ after each line. “I’m gonna get some dough, see?” Thankfully these fade after the first third or so of the film so the distraction isn’t for long.
Chester Morris as Danny is the other key player of note throughout Blondie Johnson, clearly relishing the role and the chemistry he develops with Joan. It is clear they are having a good time almost to the point of breaking up in laughter on camera. Though Morris was an up and comer during the first half of the 1930s, by the end of the decade he was a fixture of B films and is best known today as the star of Columbia’s Boston Blackie series of films of the 1940s.
Disfunctional and unbelievable as it is sometimes- for example how do two hit men not completely massacre Danny at point blank range in his room- it is hard not to like Blondie Johnson. It never reaches the grit of a Cagney gangster epic. Yet again, (as another review commented) it isn’t like we expected Joan Blondell to get blown away herself, did we?