Sunday, February 27, 2011

Joan Bennett: Almost Scarlet O'Hara, But Always a Movie Star

Joan Bennett (1910-1990) had a long career in Hollywood. Starting out as a movie ingenue in the silent era, Bennett made the transition to sound without missing a beat. A scandal in the early 1950s put an abrupt end to her movie career, but she continued to work on the stage and on television. Bennett became something of a pop icon when she portrayed Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on the daytime TV cult classic Dark Shadows.

A studio portrait of Joan Bennett, a natural blond

Theatrical Roots
Born to a family with theatrical roots going back to 18th-century England, Joan was the youngest of three sisters born to Richard Bennett, a popular stage and silent film actor and Adrienne Morrison, an actress and literary agent. Her eldest sister, Constance, was once the highest paid movie actress in Hollywood. Barbara, the second Bennett sister, was an actress and dancer.

Joan (left) with older sister Constance Bennett

From Ingenue to Major Movie Star
In the early 1930s, under contract to Fox Film Corporation, she costarred with other bright newcomers like Spencer Tracy (twice). In 1932 she married movie producer Gene Markey—her first marriage to John M. Fox lasted from 1926-1928. Bennett’s marriage to Markey only lasted five years. Before her marriage to Markey ended, Joan left Fox and costarred in Little Women (1933) at RKO. As Katharine Hepburn’s self-centered younger sister Amy, Bennett was noticed by producer Walter Wanger. In 1935, Wanger had her cast as Sally McGregor, a character with mental health issues in Private Worlds. The film starred Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, and Joel McCrea. The picture was a hit and Bennett earned good notices; she was on her way.

Little Women was an important role for Bennett.

Winds of Change
In 1938, Bennett, a natural blond, became a brunette for her role as Kay Kerrigan in Trade Winds, costarring Fredric March. As a brunette, Bennett took on a whole new persona and was now being compared to the dark-haired beauty Hedy Lamarr. Bennett and Lamarr had more in common than their hair color. Lamarr married Gene Markey in 1939, two years after Bennett and Markey divorced. In 1940, Bennett and Wanger married.

This film defined Bennett's movie persona for the rest of her career.

Almost Scarlet
Bennett was one of the dozens of actresses David O. Selznick tested for the role of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Until Vivian Leigh showed up, the coveted role was between Paulette Goddard and Bennett, with Goddard having the edge. Bennett’s screen tests still exist and suggest she might have been an interesting choice for the role. In spite of not being cast as Scarlet, Bennett’s career was on an upward arch. In 1939, the same year Gone With the Wind was released, Bennett made a beautiful Princess Maria Theresa opposite Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask. In 1940, she starred in four films including House Across the Bay opposite George Raft and The Son of Monte Cristo, again cast opposite Hayward.

Bennett in one of her screen tests as Scarlett O'Hara; David O. Selznick called her tests "magnificent."
 
Lang's Favorite Noir Heroine
Probably Bennett’s most productive period, was her work with director Fritz Lang. Under his direction, Bennett gave some of the best performances of her career. She played a prostitute in Lang’s Man Hunt (1940) opposite Walter Pigeon, Alice Reed in The Woman in the Window (1944), and the slutty Kitty March in Scarlet Street (1945), both costarring Edward G. Robinson. The late 1940s brought continued success. She costarred with Gregory Peck in The Macomber Affair (1947) an adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. That same year Bennett worked with Jean Renoir in The Woman on the Beach. She was under Lang’s direction again for the psychological melodrama Secret Beyond the Door (1948). In 1949, she worked with Max Ophuls as blackmail victim Lucia Harper in The Reckless Moment.

Bennett and Gregory Peck in a publicity still for The Macomber Affair

From Femme Fatale to Perfect Wife and Mother
In 1950, Bennett starred in Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. The movie was such a hit that is spawned a sequel, Father’s Little Dividend the next year. Bennett’s new image as the perfect wife and mother looked like it would continue through the rest of the 1950s, but a scandal all but destroyed her movie career.

Bennett, like Myrna Loy, became the perfect wife and mother on film.

Notes on a Scandal
On December 13, 1951, while Bennett was talking with her long-time agent Jennings Lang, Wanger shot Lang, thinking the two were having an affair. Both Lang and Bennett denied any personal involvement. The scandal put the brakes on Bennett’s film career. Supposedly, a third Father of the Bride movie had been planned, but was scrapped.

Bennett played matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on TV's Dark Shadows.

Pop Icon
Bennett managed to keep her name before the public by appearing on the legitimate stage and TV. It would be through TV that her career would take an unusual turn, making her a household name once again. In 1966, Bennett starred in the gothic daytime drama Dark Shadows, a cult hit that featured vampires, witches, warlocks, and werewolves. Bennett played family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard for the show's entire five-year run.

Bennett and Jack Albertson in an episode of Love American Style

Later Career and Death
After the end of Dark Shadows, Bennett guest starred on popular TV shows like Love American Style, as well as starring in occasional TV movies. Bennett had another chance at screen stardom in 1985 when she was offered the role of Bess McCarthy in Ron Howard’s Cocoon. The role eventually went to Gwen Verdon, but had Bennett taken the role, it would have reunited her with frequent Hollywood "Golden Age" costar Don Ameche. The story goes that David Wilde, Bennett’s fourth husband, didn’t think the role was dignified enough and talked her out of taking it. In 1990, Bennett suffered a heart attack and died. She is buried next to her parents in Lyme, Connecticut.

A beautiful and glamorous movie star, Joan Bennett left a body of work that classic film fans will be studying for generations to come.

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