Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Book Review: Center Door Fancy by Joan Blondell

"When Joan Blondell published Center Door Fancy in 1972, it was labeled a novel, but everyone knew better. She maintained that virtually all events in the book were from her life. No one questioned her; the parallels were too transparent.... The roman à clef included her vaudeville trouping childhood, her days as a fizzy comedienne of the talkies, and her doomed marriages."
— from Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy

Center Door Fancy is an autobiographical novel by actress Joan Blondell covering her life from her birth into a Vaudeville family until her third divorce. (Click on the "Joan Blondell" tag at the end of this review for reviews of some of her films.)

Except for one thing: the heroine of Center Door Fancy is not Joan Blondell but "Nora Marten." The name of every other major "character" in Blondell's life has been changed, too (with walk-ons like James Cagney and Clark Gable retaining their monikers) — but, presumably, everything that Blondell writes about really happened.

Blondell doesn't shy away from anything: her attempted rape by a policeman, her multiple abortions during her first marriage, and her third husband's volatile nature are all here. Her childhood and each of her marriages are handled in detail, making it very easy, as Matthew Kennedy states in the quote above, to tell who is who. "Johnny Marten," writer and star of "The Boy Is Gone," is her ambitious vaudevillian father Ed Blondell (writer and star of "The Lost Boy"); "Ceecy Quinn" is her ultrareligious mother, Katie Cain.

Then there are Blondell's three husbands: the distant and impenetrable David Nolan (Oscar-winning cinematographer and serial husband George Barnes), the caring but insecure Jim Wilson (actor and crooner Dick Powell, also her costar in nearly a dozen films), and the unstable and ambitious Jeff Flynn (Oscar-winning producer Mike Todd).

The years are not specifically stated most of the time, but it's fairly easy to keep up with the time, especially if you look up the real dates. The novel ends around 1950, right after Nora's divorce from Jeff, with her "trying to revive a career" that would continue with movies and regular TV appearances until her death in 1979.

I'm not sure why Blondell chose to write her autobiography as fiction. I don't think it was to avoid a lawsuit — all three of her husbands had passed away by 1972 — so perhaps it was simply in order to achieve a certain amount of distance from painful events. In any case, Center Door Fancy is incredibly readable in that "listening through the keyhole" kind of way.

But it's also very well written. Blondell has a upfront and open style (much like her film persona) that presents a lot of information in few words. I imagined I would like it, but it's even more engaging than I expected. Center Door Fancy is one of those books that fill your every possible moment until it's finished — when I had to put it down, I couldn't wait to get back to it. (And anyone who reads a lot knows how rare that is.)


John said...

Just found your site. Very nice.

I have been looking for a copy of "Center Door Fancy" for a long time.

I recently read M. Kennedy’s bio on Blondell A Life Between Acts.

Here's a review I wrote:


Craig Clarke said...

Very informative review. Thanks for the kind words.

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