Saturday, February 27, 2010

Joan Bennett's 100th Birthday

Perhaps no actor ever had as diverse a career as Joan Bennett. It was not simply that she saw success on stage, in movies, and on television, although she did. It was more a case that she played a large variety of roles, often very different from each other, and did so very well. She started out playing blonde ingénues (blonde being her natural colour) before playing brunette femme fatales. Towards the end of her career she often played the mother figure. In between she played an enormous array of different parts, everything from a naive blonde to a dangerous seductress to a caring mother to the head of a witch's coven. And in every case she did so with a sincerity and conviction of which only few actors are capable.

Joan Bennett was born 100 years ago today, on February 27, 1910. It could literally be said that she had acting in her blood. Her father was Richard Bennett, star of the stage and a matinee idol of the early Silent Era. Her mother was Adrienne Morrison, an actress on stage and in early silents. Her maternal grandfather was stage actor Lewis Morrison. Her maternal grandmother was actress Rose Wood, whose lineage in acting reached all the way back to 18th century England. Before her, her older sisters also became actresses. Constance starred in such films as Topper and Two Faced Woman. Barbara met with less success, appearing in a few silents. Miss Bennett attended St. Margaret's, a private school in Waterbury, Connecticut and later L'Hermitage in Versailles, France. She married for the first time when she was only sixteen. She divorced her husband, John Marion Fox, later saying that he was a drunkard and a playboy, when she was only 18.

Joan Bennett made her film debut when she was only six, alongside her parents in the film Valley of Decision, released in 1916. She also appeared in a small part in The Eternal City when she was only 13. Despite this, she had no intention of going into the family business. At age 18, however, she found herself divorced with an infant daughter. In need of work, she accepted a role in her father's play Jarnegan, making her Broadway debut in the process. The novice actress received good notices and Miss Bennett's acting career officially began. She played small parts in Power (1928) and The Divnie Lady (1929) before being cast as the female lead in Bulldog Drummond. Under contract to Fox, Miss Bennett generally played blonde ingénues, such as the love interest in the 1930 version of Moby Dick, although there were exceptions.  In The Trial of Vivienee Ware she played the acccused murderer of the title. In Me and My Gal she gave one of the best perfromances of her early career, as a wisecracking waitress. A shift in her career would occur when she made Little Women at RKO, released in 1933. Miss Bennett's performance in the film attracted the attention of independent filmmaker William Wanger. Wanger not only signed her to a contract, but also acted as her manager as well.

Under contract to Wanger, Miss  Bennett no longer played blonde ingénues,  but more substantial roles. In 1935 she played a psychiatrist's young wife who was experiencing a psychotic break in Private Worlds. In Big Brown Eyes, released in 1936, she played a reporter helping her police officer boyfriend (Cary Grant) on a case involving jewel thieves. Joan Bennett was one of the actresses in the running for the role of Scarlet O'Hara. For a short time she was one of the front runners for the part, but lost it in favour of Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh (who was ultimately cast in the role).

It would be in 1938 that Miss Bennett's career would take a major change. It was that year that Walter Wagner had a hit with Algiers, which introducing the United States to dark haired beauty Hedy Lamarr. Thinking to capitalised on Miss Lamarr's mystique, Wanger and director Tay Garnett convinced the naturally blonde Miss Bennett to go brunette for the part of Kay Kerrigan. in Trade Winds.  With her newly dark locks, Joan Bennett soon found herself cast in new roles. She appeared in the crime drama The House Across the Bay in 1940 and the political melodrama The Man I Married in 1940. It would be 1941 that would establish Joan Bennett in the sort of roles for which she is now best known, as a film noir femme fatale.

It was in 1941 that Miss Bennett played Cockney prostitute Jerry Stokes in Fritz Lang's Man Hunt. She nad Lang would work together again in 1944's The Woman in the Window, playing mystery woman Alice Reed. They worked together in arguably their best film, 1945's Scarlet Street, in which she played blackmailer Kitty March. Joan Bennett also appeared in Lang's 1948 film noir fairtyale Secret Beyond the Door. She appeared in films noir directed by other directors as well, including Jean Renoir's The Woman on the Beach (1947) and  Max Ophüls' The Reckless Moment (1949). In between these films Miss Bennett appeared in such movies as Nob Hill and Colonel Effingham's Raid. In 1950 Joan Bennett's career would change again, as she played the mother in the films Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951).

Sadly, just as William Wanger had helped spur Joan Bennett's career, he would also bring it nearly to a halt. The two had married in 1940.  It was in 1950 that Wanger shot her agent of twelve years, Jennings Lang, claiming that the two were having an affair. Both Lang and Miss Bennett strenuously denied that they had an affair and stated that their relationship was only one of business. Miss Bennett blamed Wanger's actions on stress brought on by their financial woes. Wanger's attorney pleaded temporary insanity and he served a three month sentence at a minimum security prison farm. Unfortunately, the damage was done and Miss Bennett's career would never be the same.

Increasingly, Joan Bennett's appearances were on television. She made her television debut on Nash Airflyte Theatre in 1951. Throughout the decade of the Fifties, she appeared on such shows as General Electric Theatre, Climax, Playhouse 90, and Pursuit. In 1959 she played the mother in the short lived series Too Young to Go Steady. She also appeared often on stage, and toured in such plays as Susan and God, Bell, Book and Candle, Once More With Feeling, The Pleasure of His Company, and Never Too Late.Sadly, her movie career was nearly at non-existent. From 1951 to 1960 she appeared only in Highway Dragnet, We're No Angels, There's Always Tomorrow, and Desire in the Dust.

The Sixties saw Joan Bennett appear both on television and the stage, but in only one film (and that one was linked to a television series). She guest starred on an episode of Mr. Broadeway in 1964 and on Burke's Law in 1965. In 1966 she was cast as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. In the course of the series she not only played Elizabeth, but three other members of the Collins clan in the show's various time travel story arcs. In the end she was only one of three actors who appeared in the series from its beginning to the end. She also appeared in the feature film aon the series, House of Dark Shadows, released in 1970.

Following Dark Shadows Miss Bennett appeared in the telefilms Gidget Gets Married (1972), The Eyes of Charlie Sand (1972), Suddenly Love (1978), This House Possessed (1981), and Divorce Wars: A Love Story. She guest starred in an episode of the short lived show Dr. Simon Locke. Her last big  screen appearance was in the cult horror film Suspira, released in 1977. She died on December 7, 1990.

Joan Bennett was one of those few classic actors I first encountered not in their movies, but on a television series. That series was Dark Shadows, the Gothic serial that was a phenomenon for a time and the only soap opera I ever loyally watched. Miss Bennett's talents as a dramatic chameleon were put to good use on the show, as she not only played the matriarch of the Collins clan in the Sixties and early Seventies, but other members of the Collins family throughout the ages. Perhaps no other actress could have accomplished this with such finesse. Later I discovered her classic films, Scarlet Street, Man Hunt, Father of the Bride, Little Women, and so on. If I had not known better, it would have been hard to believe that it was the same actress playing those various roles. Indeed, while Joan Bennett's transformation from ingénue to femme fatale to a change in hair colour, I think she could have accomplished it with her natural blonde locks. After all, Miss Bennett was of such talent that she could easily play an innocent one film and a seductress in the next. Few other actresses in the history of film were ever that versatile.

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