The Return of Pre-Code Crazy!

I’m so excited to announce that, after two long years, my pal Kristina at Speakeasy and I are bringing back our series Pre-Code Crazy, where we each recommend a pre-Code feature airing on TCM in the coming month. It’s hard to believe it, but our last Pre-Code Crazy entry was two whole years ago, in August 2019 – but we’re back and, as I always say, better late than never! (Actually, I don’t say that, but you know what I mean.)

I’m celebrating our Pre-Code Crazy return with one of my all-time favorite films from the era: Blondie Johnson (1933), starring one of my favorite pre-Code actresses, the incomparable Joan Blondell. Blondell plays the title role of Virginia “Blondie” Johnson which, for my money, is one of the best parts of her career.

When we first meet Blondie, she’s down and out – and that’s putting it mildly. She’s trudged through pouring rain, with ill-fitting clothes and runs in her stockings, to beg for help from the local welfare and relief association. We learn that she and her sick mother are living in the back of a drugstore, after being turned out in the street from the tenement where they were living. She finds neither welfare nor relief, however; she’s told that because she has a roof over her head and she’s not starving, her case is not an emergency. Sadly, when she returns to the drugstore, she discovers that her mother has died. Grief-stricken and bitter, Blondie vows to rise above her circumstances; when a local priest cautions her that there are two ways to get money, Blondie affirms, “Yeah. The hard way and the easy way.”

Like Lady Macbeth, Blondie was running the show.

The next time we see Blondie, she’s running cons at the train station on unsuspecting cab drivers, and before long, she encounters Danny Jones (Chester Morris), the right-hand man to the city’s biggest mobster. Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Blondie becomes the power behind the throne – coming up with innovative money-making schemes and shrewd plans for Danny to take over the leadership of the mob. And eventually, she steps from behind the throne to take her seat as the head of the organization.

Intelligent, fearless, and always quick with a quip, Blondie is an amazing character, not just because of the craftiness she displays during her rags-to-riches ascent, but for her unwavering stance concerning sex. From the first night of their meeting, Danny makes no secret of his attraction to Blondie, but she’s having none of it. “Can’t you see this romance stuff don’t belong?” she says in one scene. “With me, business comes before pleasure. And I’m not stopping for love and kisses until I can take ‘em on top of the pile. Do you get that?” And later, after she’s urged to “give Danny a tumble,” she makes her position clear to the two other females in the gang (played by Mae Busch and Toshia Mori): “I got plans – big plans. And the one thing that don’t fit in with ‘em is pants.”

No sex.

Like the best laid plans of mice and men, however, Blondie’s plans go awry – but I’ll leave the details for you to discover when this gem airs on September 27th on TCM. You only owe it to yourself. (Meanwhile, see below for some trivia tidbits on some of the film’s cast members . . .)

Born in Australia, Mae Busch appeared in comedy two-reelers at Keystone Studios, and she reportedly had an affair with Keystone studio chief Max Sennett that led to the end of his engagement to popular actress Mabel Normand (who, incidentally, was previously Busch’s mentor and friend). In her heyday as a contract player for MGM, Busch starred in films directed by Erich von Stroheim and was seen opposite Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three (1925), but her career never really rebounded after she suffered a nervous breakdown in 1926. She did, however, appear in the popular Laurel and Hardy film Sons of the Desert in 1933. Busch died in 1946 of colon cancer; she was 54 years old.

Busch and Mori played key components of Blondie’s empire.

Toshia Mori, a native of Japan, was best known for her role as Mah Li in Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932) – she was singled out by the reviewer for Time magazine, who called her “the most noteworthy female member of the cast.” The same year that this film was released, Mori was named as one of 13 WAMPAS Baby Stars – this was a group of young women identified each year by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers as actresses on the verge of big-screen success. Others in the 1932 crop included Ginger Rogers and Gloria Stuart; Mori was the only actress of color to ever be named to the group. Oddly, a number of references on the Internet claim that Mori later changed her name to Shia Jung in an effort to secure film roles that were going to Chinese actresses. Several references point to the low-budget 1939 film Port of Hate, which credits Shia Jung in the cast. I’ve watched it, and I think it could definitely be the same actress who was in Blondie Johnson. To make matters even more confusing, the Internet has completely different biographical information for Mori and Jung, stating that Mori was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1912 and died in 1995 in the Bronx, New York, and that Jung was born in Hong Kong in 1916 and died there, of SARS, in 2003. So I just don’t know. Despite her small role in Blondie Johnson, Mori was fascinating to watch – I’d love to get to the bottom of it some day.

Allen Jenkins, on the left, always there to lend a hand.

Allen Jenkins, who played a mobster in Blondie’s inner circle, was a familiar face in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, including such first-rate features as 42nd Street (1933), Marked Woman (1937), Dead End (1937), and Ball of Fire (1941). Contrary to his screen persona as a ruthless tough guy or a slang-slinging blue collar worker, Jenkins attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He worked up until the year of his death, 1974, appearing that year in an episode of TV’s Police Story and the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau remake of The Front Page.

A brief appearance – one scene, three lines – is served up by Charles Lane, who was seen in nearly 400 feature films and television shows during his lengthy career. In 1933 alone, he was seen in no fewer than 13 movies. Some of his best-known pictures include 42nd Street (1933), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), It’s a Wonderful Life (1939), Arsenic and Old Lace (1943), and The Farmer’s Daughter (1947). Lane died in 2007 at the age of 102.

Don’t forget to turn into TCM on September 27th for Blondie Johnson – and pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending this month!

~ by shadowsandsatin on September 1, 2021.

12 Responses to “The Return of Pre-Code Crazy!”

  1. Have never seen this one. Must catch it.

  2. A must see! I love that both our movie picks flip the gender roles but are not just simple flips, they really do creative things with the reversals, which is even more refreshing. I love that an Asian actress and the interracial relationship is just there, not a token or a stereotype, or even made a deal of, just accepted as is. This is peak Joan, and fantastic, great choice.

  3. It has been so long since I last saw “Blondie” that I only vividly recall the opening. It’s a new movie again! Thanks for the head up and the fascinating background.

    Two years! I knew it was a while, but – geesh!

  4. I saw this movie back when. Joan Blondell – if she can handle Cagney in all his incarnations, she can flip Chester Morris over her shoulder without breaking a sweat! This blonde is having more fun!

  5. Welcome back to this column! I saw this movie several years ago and loved revisiting it thanks to your writing – made me want to rewatch it! I especially enjoyed Mori and wish she were in more movies. Looking forward to more of Pre-Code Crazy in the future!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    • Thank you so much, Laura! I’m starting to find that she may have been in several movies — including a Carole Lombard feature — but under different names! The plot thickens . . .

  6. Joan Blondell? Sign me up!

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