A Fatal Femme – Joan Bennett (1910 – 1990)

Posted in Rewind by - January 06, 2014
A Fatal Femme – Joan Bennett (1910 – 1990)

Married at 16, a mother at 17, and divorced at 18, the attractive and very popular Joan Bennett came from a long line of acting talent. Her parents were well-known stage actors; while older sister Constance went on to have a fairly successful movie career of her own.

Born Joan Geraldine Bennett on February 27th 1910, Joan was only 4 when she first acted on stage, and six when she appeared on film. The 1916 silent drama ‘The Valley of Decision’, had Joan act alongside her parents, as well as older sisters Constance and Barbara.

Following early roles in ‘Bulldog Drummond’ (1929) with Ronald Coleman, and ‘Moby Dick’ (1930) with John Barrymore, Joan played the perky Amy March in the 1933 version of ‘Little Women’, with Katherine Hepburn memorable as her older sibling Jo. A terrific turn followed in ‘Private Worlds’ (1935), as a doctor’s wife who suffers a nervous breakdown, and becomes a patient in his hospital. After narrowly missing out on the part of Scarlet O’Hara, Bennett played a Princess alongside Louis Hayward, in the second screen version of ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ in 1939.

1941 saw Joan’s first movie for expert director Fritz Lang. The excellent, though largely forgotten ‘Man Hunt’ (1941) saw Joan as a Cockney prostitute, befriending Walter Pidgeon’s big game hunter, who is on the run from the Nazi’s.

Perhaps Joan’s most fondly remembered part came in 1944, when she took the title role in Fritz Lang’s superb mystery noir ‘The Woman in the Window’. A supremely entertaining thriller, Bennett played the mysterious Alice Reed, a beautiful lady caught in a crime of passion, involving Edward G Robinson’s love-struck college professor. A terrific surprise ending highlights this wonderful movie, and repeated viewings are assured. The following year Bennett reunited with director Lang, and co-stars Robinson and Dan Duryea for the excellent ‘Scarlet Street’. Another twisty thriller, this one had Joan being devilishly nasty, playing a conniving, kept woman. Edward G Robinson is again the besotted and gullible nice guy, going to drastic lengths to keep Joan in the spoiled lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. A much more bleak movie than ‘The Woman in the Window’, there was no happy ending to this one.

After starring with James Mason in the Max Olphus cult melodrama ‘The Reckless Moment’ in 1949, Joan turned to comedy, with great success as Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in Vincente Minnelli’s 1950 hit ‘Father of the Bride’.  This endearing movie had Spencer Tracy on top form as the exasperated father dealing with his young daughters impending marriage. A sequel soon followed (‘Father’s Little Dividend’) in 1951, and proved just as popular. Interestingly, a year before ‘Father of the Bride’, Elizabeth Taylor had played Amy March in the 1949 version of ‘Little Women’, the same part her screen mum Joan had played 16 years earlier.

In December 1951, Bennett’s then husband (film producer Walter Wanger) shot and wounded Joan’s agent, Jennings Lang, after he suspected Lang and Joan of having an affair. This shooting scandal would severely harm Bennett’s career, and she made very few movies in the proceeding years, with only the Humphrey Bogart comedy ‘We’re No Angels’ (1955) standing out. With few movie offers available, Joan returned to the stage, and over the next few years had varying success in plays such as ‘Once More, With feeling’, and ‘Never Too Late’.

After years of playing in thrillers, melodramas and the comedy, Joan had a successful genre change with the popular prime-time series ‘Dark Shadows’, which ran from 1966 to 1971. Bennett played Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, an aging recluse who takes in young orphan Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), who soon sets about resolving her strange past. Appearing in nearly 400 episodes, Joan was surprised and delighted at her new found popularity, receiving huge fan mail and interview requests.

Joan’s final movie appearance was in Dario Argento’s 1977 stylish shocker ‘Suspiria’. Bennett played Madame Blanc, the mysterious owner of a girl’s ballet academy. Argento sought Joan for the role as he was a huge fan of Fritz Lang, Joan’s most frequent director.

After a couple of TV movies, Joan retired from the screen in 1982, after a career which had begun 66 years earlier.

Married four times, most notably to Walter Wanger (1940 – 1965), Joan Bennett died of a heart attack on December 7th 1990, aged 80. Although Joan is fondly remembered as one of Hollywood’s most attractive stars of the 30’s & 40’s, she was also a great talent who could play both good and bad to perfection.

Favourite Movie: The Woman in the Window
Favourite Performance: Scarlet Street

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