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The hit films Little Caesar, Public Enemy and Scarface brought down an unofficial but effective ban against gangland sagas that might glorify crime. The studios looked for ways to circumvent their inability to make movies about charismatic hoodlums, and came up with stories involving women tangled with mobsters, and attorneys corrupted by big-time crime. The gangsters were present but what they did was kept mostly off-screen.
Blondie Johnson is the perfect example of a Warners' melodrama from the darkest year of the depression, 1933. It follows the career of a woman up through the ranks of crime. Gangster characters appear, but Earl Baldwin's screenplay and Ray Enright's direction are careful to heed the letter of the rules: at one point we see a submachine gun aimed through a secret wall panel, but we don't see the face of the hit man holding it.
The story begins as do many Warners' thrillers of this time, with the leading character hitting rock bottom. City girl Virginia "Blondie" Johnson (Joan Blondell) is desperate and nobody will help her. Her younger sister has died in childbirth after "getting in trouble", and her mother succumbs to pneumonia after being evicted into the rain by an unfeeling landlord. When a lawyer tells Blondie that it's all about who has money and who doesn't, she vows to make the city pay for what it's done to her. She begins by cheating taxi drivers in sucker bets, and with the cooperation of a cabbie (Sterling Holloway) moves on to talking strangers into paying for taxi rides she doesn't need.
One of her marks is Danny (handsome Chester Morris), the right-hand man of mobster Max Wagner (Arthur Vinton). After a rough getting-acquainted, Blondie helps Danny scam a jury into thinking that killer Louis (Allen Jenkins) is innocent. Blondie then shows Danny how to extend Wagner's petty extortion racket to a better class of customer, by running a sting on a jeweler with a reputation to uphold. Life in the rackets is good, but two problems trip up the duplicitous pair. Blondie refuses to sleep with Danny until their business empire is secure. The two eliminate Max Wagner before he can kill Danny, but Danny takes up with Wagner's flashy girlfriend, actress Gladys (Claire Dodd).
Blondie Johnson gets away with its gangland theme by keeping all the violence off-screen, if not very far off. The irony is that by refusing to allow realistic stories of gang activities, the censors encourage the studio filmmakers to substitute a glamorous fantasy. In Blondie Johnson crime certainly pays, even if Danny tells Blondie that success in the rackets is fleeting. Blondie doesn't appear to wear the same designer gown twice. Although not quite a "Lady Scarface", Blondie takes her turn at running the mob. The movie avoids showing the details of her racket, which involves gunmen shaking down honest businessmen throughout the city.
The film avoids some of the usual Pre-code extremes we're used to seeing, to perhaps allow the censors to overlook the provocative gangster theme. Ms. Blondell avoids her usual parade of revealing outfits (although one dress has a neckline cut almost to her waist) and the dialogue doesn't go in for too many racy inferences. Slick dish Claire Dodd limits her sex appeal to her dazzling smile.
The lovers do end up spending a few years in stir for their crimes (I guess the D.A. overlooked a murder or two) and vow to hook up again when they get out. The average impressionable kid watching Scarface might like the idea of having clothes, cars, and Jean Harlow, but there's no denying that hoodlum Tony Camonte is a wildly destructive maniac and needs to be put down hard. Watching Blondie Johnson, the rackets seem like a place for someone smart and ambitious. Blondie isn't really bad -- both she and Danny honestly regret their sins. Learning that her old cabbie cohort has settled down to raise a family, Blondie tells him that he's made the better choice. I can't help but imagine a Code Office screening with a Warners' executive pointing out each of these "highly moral" messages as they unspool.
Director Ray Enright ("Gung Ho!") directs at a crisp pace, hitting all the story points solidly and finding the humor in some thin jokes, as when Danny keeps finding an oafish would-be suitor at Blondie's doorstep. Even creaky camera ideas, like whip-panning between faces huddled around a table, come off rather well. The awkward ending may have been re-filmed. Danny gets shot three or four times at point-blank range and then plays a standard kick-the-bucket scene. But after a fade-out that spans just a month or two, he's totally recovered.
Joan Blondell grabs us immediately in the genuinely heart-tugging opening. She may be struck down by adversity, but nobody is going to keep her from speaking her mind. Chester Morris was considered one of the most handsome men in pictures, with his chiseled profile and determined manner. Allen Jenkins is hilarious as a hood too clueless to play innocent at his own trial. Mae Busch and Toshia Mori (Bitter Tea of General Yen) are a pair of classy molls, while Olin Howland cuts a fine form as Danny's top gunman.
At just 67 minutes, Blondie Johnson is a strong Pre-code contender and an interesting gangster film at a time when Hollywood claimed not to be making any. Joan Blondell carries the picture with ease.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Blondie Johnson is a "Remastered Edition" and for all practical purposes looks brand new, in sparkling B&W. The WAC also includes an original trailer, that alternates key scenes from the film with animated stills and graphics that could practically be for any movie, not just this one!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Blondie Johnson rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.