A beautiful and accomplished stage and screen actress, Blondell was born on August 30, 1906 (some accounts say 1909) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The daughter of vaudeville comics Eddie and Kathryn Blondell, she got whatever schooling she could in whatever city her parents happened to be performing. She made her debut in the family show at age one. Blondell toured all over the United States, Europe, Australia, and China with the troupe, then settled in Dallas, Texas, where she joined a stock company in 1926. Her sister Gloria was also an actress.
Blondell came to New York City after she won a “Miss Dallas” beauty contest in Texas. Her performance in the 1929 Broadway musical Penny Arcade, which also featured James Cagney, caught the attention of Warner Brothers, who signed both of them in 1930. The studio adapted the play for the screen, renaming it Sinners’ Holiday.
Throughout the 1930s, Blondell remained in Hollywood, working for Warner Brothers, often playing second lead, in the role of the wisecracking but good-natured working-class gal. At Warner, she gained recognition as the indefatigable gold digger in films such as Blonde Crazy and Footlight Parade. Though she worked hard, like most actresses in that era, she felt the studio underutilized her talent—particularly her affinity for light comedy. While audiences appreciated the assured optimism her characters possessed on-screen, it was her self-deprecating humor that sustained her offscreen.
Blondell left Warners in 1938 and began to freelance, acting smaller parts in a number of Fox and MGM films and, later, television. She mainly played character roles, such as Aunt Cissy in the 1945 production of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with director Elia Kazan. In 1951, Blondell received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in The Blue Veil. She appeared in three television series in the 1960s and 1970s: The Real McCoys, Here Comes the Bride, and Banyon. In 1972 she wrote the novel Center Door Fancy, a work of thinly disguised fiction based on her own career.
Blondell was married to cinematographer George Barnes from 1933 to 1935, to actor Dick Powell from 1936 to 1945, and to producer Mike Todd from 1947 to 1950. She had one son, Norman, with Barnes, and a daughter, Ellen, with Powell. She died in Santa Monica, California, on December 25, 1979, of leukemia.