August 23, 2011

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Joan Blondell made herself at home in the cinema. Regardless of the plot or set decoration, Blondell would adjust her sheer stockings and plop into a seat as if she was at a cuckolded boyfriend’s pad. This Warner Brothers working class goddess buckled knees with this studied insouciance,  a glamour of gum-smacking nonchalance. Our blog-a-thon has been counting down the days until the Blondell-bonanza on August 24th, her day on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Earlier this week Jeff discussed the James Cagney-Blondell pairing Blonde Crazy (1931), and today I’ll take a look at their subsequent film together, Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars (1932).

Hawks had just completed work on Scarface (1931), his large-scale gangster film for producer Howard Hughes, and as the film was encountering censorship battles across the country, the director was busy with his next project. He took the conflict of the 1917 play, “The Barker: A Play of Carnival Life”, by Kenyon Nicholson, and adapted it to one of his hobbies, auto-racing. Nicholson’s story concerns a carnival barker who lives with a young mistress. His brother is coming to visit, and he wants to hide the affair. So he has his girlfriend sic one of her cohorts on his sibling to seduce and distract him. With a few tweaks, Hawks and his horde of screenwriters John Bright, Niven Busch, Kubec Glasmon and Seton I. Miller transplanted the tale to the race track. Production lasted from December 1931 – February 1932, and was released on April 16th 1932.

The Crowd Roars stars James Cagney as championship driver Joe Greer, a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and sometime lover of Lee Merrick (Ann Dvorak, also fresh off of Scarface), who grows impatient with his immaturity. When Joe starts mentoring his racing-hopeful brother Eddie (Eric Linden), Joe cuts Lee out of his life, not wanting to be distracted from the training. In a fit of pique, Lee encourages her friend Anne (Joan Blondell) to flash her wares to Eddie, so Joe can experience how it feels to be separated from a loved one.

When shooting was slated to begin Ann Dvorak was cast as the vampy Anne and Blondell was to portray the long-suffering Lee. However, as Todd McCarthy wrote in his fabulous biography, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood:

Once they got down to work, however, Blondell announced, “I can’t play a neurotic,” and Dvorak decided, “I can’t play an ingenue,” so, with Hawks’s agreement, they swapped roles without even telling the studios.

In retrospect this seems like an obvious switch to make, although it meant Blondell was willingly taking on a lesser role, as Anne has roughly half the screen-time as Lee. This indicates a striking self-awareness on Blondell’s behalf, knowing that she can make a bigger impact in the smaller part better suited to her talents. She was managing a persona that was already well established, having cranked out 10 films in 1931, her wide-eyed and acid tongued striver a familiar and welcome sight for Depression-scarred audiences. Blondell was given second-billing behind Cagney despite her diminished presence in the film (in the trailer below, she’s “The Peppiest Blonde Who Ever Broke a Heart”), since Dvorak was still breaking in as a lead (Scarface was her first) and Blondell had already garnered box office success with Cagney on Blonde Crazy.

The Crowd Roars is a classic Hawksian scenario of male camaraderie and competition, with self-worth won on the job. The setting here is the race track, instead of the airport of Ceiling Zero (1936) or fishing boats of Tiger Shark (1932). While the film has stunning racing photography by Sid Hickox (shot at real Indianapolis, Ventura and Ascot tracks), Eric Linden’s limp turn as Eddie leeches the central conflict of tension, and the female characters are not as fully developed as Dvorak was in Scarface, or Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century (1934) a few years later. Lee is present to be hysterically in love with Joe, and Anne ultimately ends up married and neutered to Eddie. There are hints of the past and present Hawksian women to come though, in Anne and Lee’s banter about Joe, privileging a female perspective on the male lead in a few scenes. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, in her essay on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, does note it for giving Dvorak and Blondell “enough screen time and dialogue together to establish a real friendship which only later, as the story spirals out of control, becomes overtaken be plot points.”

Watching Crowd Roars now, it’s hard to conceive Blondell as the rather shrill wilting lily Lee. Anne, as thinly sketched as she is, dominates every scene she’s in, a sexual dynamo until the third act unconvincingly turns her into a housewife. Although they share only a few scenes together, Cagney and Blondell maintain the sparks they lit on Blonde Crazy. Cagney is a marvel, as usual, swatting Joe Greer’s problems away with jittery flits of his hand, while Blondell is constantly fidgeting with her stockings and urging Dvorak to dump him. Hawks told Joseph McBride about working with Cagney:

“Cagney was so much fun to work with because you never know what Cagney was going to do. When I work with Cary Grant, I can go home and write a scene for Cary and know how he’s gonna to handle it the next day, but Cagney had these funny little attitudes, you know, the way he held his hands, and things like that.”

You first see Cagney playing with Dvorak’s hands, mocking her for wanting a wedding ring, and then throughout the film he uses a flat-palmed Queen’s wave as kiss-off, a curious, electrifying gesture of contempt. Hawks doesn’t discuss Blondell, but she’s equally resourceful in her few scenes.

She is introduced after a close-up of a telegram from Joe, informing Lee that he’ll be delaying his return in order to train Eddie. Lee crumples the note and throws it in the trash. Blondell is splayed out on a divan in the background, and sashays slowly to the foreground, implanting a hand on her hip. She grabs the note dismissively and strides right, bobbing her head to snap off her complaints like, “playing nursemaid to a kid, huh?”. She sits down on the bed, and crosses her legs, her feet resting on an ottoman, to continue her harangue. Angrily throwing back the note, she walks to the middle of the frame, bends over, and adjusts her stockings before snapping, “You can take those hard-drinking, hard-riding men and put them in a truck and shove them over a cliff, as far as I’m concerned.” It’s a play of anger and self-regard that rivals Cagney’s regal kiss-off to Lee. Blondell continues these moves later in the film, propping her gams up on a table, and pulling up her hose, in order to entrance Eddie. This time her primping is an act, although one Blondell has established that Anne is happy to perform.

Blondell’s performance is one of constant small surprises, matching Cagney’s bantam rooster routine gyration for gyration. While The Crowd Roars is a second-tier Hawks film, the director’s openness to improvisation makes it a particularly riveting one, and reveals Blondell to be a wonderfully inventive actress as well as an indelible personality.

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