When Earl Baldwin died in 1970, he rated a few perfunctory lines in Variety. I'd like to rectify in some small way the injustice of it all—you see, Baldwin wrote for Hollywood when the studio system was cranking out generic masterpieces by the dozen. Today's lesson concerns the neglected scribes whose gift of gab helped put a beat behind the Depression."Kidding on the level," they used to call it, honest finger-pointing that masquerades as harmless fun.
Since the studio style more or less dictated how films moved, screenwriters found themselves not only camouflaged but pretty well subsumed. With this in mind, I'll limit my panegyric to a sad and sweet indictment wrapped in a programmer, 1933's Blondie Johnson. Baldwin wrote the original story and screenplay, which dovetail with the schematic plot one might expect from Warner Bros.—it's a picture about a decent girl who, losing her mother to poverty and illness, grows cynical and turns to crime.
In the hands of Earl Baldwin, fresh dames and tough guys are pared down; instead of becoming mere archetypes, they emit sincere nervous energy—a personal angst that brings me up short every time, as if I'm being confronted all at once by a cast of battle-scarred biographies. It's "Blondie" of course (the typecast Joan Blondell) who gives Baldwin's screenplay the most punch. She doesn't exude sex so much as steely conviction, spitting out broadsides against "The Dirty Thirties."
There's a shorthand in the dialogue, a palpable sense that everyone's screwed. Hard to know how many of the nuances belong to Baldwin, but I'll briefly mention a few other screenwriting credits here: Wild Boys of the Road (1933), Life Begins (1932), and The Widow from Chicago (1930). Baldwin earned an additional dialogue credit for Widow, and I can confirm that the language really swings.