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Joan Bennett: Criterion Channel Remembers Unique Blonde + Brunette Actress

Joan Bennett blondeJoan Bennett: Pert blonde 1930s actress became a sultry brunette throughout the 1940s. ”I don’t think much of most of the films I made,” she remarked in a 1986 interview, “but being a movie star was something I liked very much.”
  • The Criterion Channel is presenting 10 films starring Joan Bennett, a blonde 1930s star in mostly lighthearted fare and a brunette 1940s star in mostly somber dramas.

Joan Bennett films on the Criterion Channel: 10 titles – from light crime comedies to dark crime dramas – cover the Hollywood star’s blonde and brunette phases

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

A movie star both as a peppy blonde and as a seductive brunette, Joan Bennett – daughter of Broadway star Richard Bennett; sister of 1930s RKO star Constance Bennett – is the Criterion Channel’s “actress of the month” this January.

The U.S.-based streaming channel is presenting 10 Joan Bennett films covering her career both as a blonde and as a brunette.

Spanning nearly a quarter of a century – from 1932 to 1956 – they are the following: Wild Girl, Me and My Gal, Little Women, Big Brown Eyes, Man Hunt, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, The Woman on the Beach, We’re No Angels, and There’s Always Tomorrow.

Below is a brief glimpse at each title (in chronological order).

Wild Girl (1932)

As Wild Girl’s titular character, the charmingly tomboyish Salomy Jane, Joan Bennett is the object of desire and/or affection of local card shark Ralph Bellamy, schemer Irving Pichel, sociopathic Family Values (“anti-woke” in 2020s parlance) politician Morgan Wallace, and avenging stranger Charles Farrell (who first meets Bennett while she is skinny-dipping).

Set in California’s Sierra Nevada, this unpretentious pre-Production Code drama juxtaposes nature’s paradisiac beauty (the movie was partly filmed at Sequoia National Park) with humankind’s inexhaustible propensity for vileness (deception, stupidity, cruelty).

Raoul Walsh, by then a veteran with nearly two decades in the business (The Thief of Bagdad, What Price Glory?), directed this first talkie version of Bret Harte’s 1889 short story/1910 novel Salomy Jane’s Kiss and Paul Armstrong’s 1907 theatrical adaptation Salomy Jane, previously filmed in 1914 (with Beatriz Michelena) and 1923 (with Jacqueline Logan).

Me and My Gal (1932)

Another 1932 Raoul Walsh-Joan Bennett collaboration, the romantic crime comedy Me and My Gal starts out poorly, with a long, juvenile sequence centering on New York City cop-on-the-beat Spencer Tracy.

Things pick up once the focus falls on Bennett’s no-nonsense waterfront waitress, whose sister (Marion Burns) is madly in love/lust with a hunky low-life gangster (late 1910s Fox star George Walsh, the director’s brother and the actor who almost got to star in the 1925 Ben-Hur).

Though hardly a match made in movie heaven, Joan Bennett and Spencer Tracy were seen together in three other titles: John G. Blystone’s She Wanted a Millionaire (also 1932); and, nearly two decades later, Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-nominated hit Father of the Bride (1950) and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951).

In the two Minnelli movies, Bennett plays Tracy’s wife but looks like his older daughter. (Elizabeth Taylor would be the younger one.)

Little Women (1933)

The first talkie version of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868–69 literary classic, George Cukor’s RKO-produced Little Women helped to solidify the Hollywood stardom of recent Broadway import Katharine Hepburn (as Jo March).

As the second female lead, Joan Bennett plays Amy March, the only blonde among the four titular characters. (The other two were played by Frances Dee and Jean Parker.)

Also in the cast of this Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adaptation (Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason) Academy Award nominee (1932–33): Future Oscar winner Paul Lukas (Watch on the Rhine, 1943), Douglass Montgomery, and Spring Byington.

A great print of Little Women has been available for some time.

An aside: Coincidentally, Joan Bennett’s Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend daughter Elizabeth Taylor was cast as Amy in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 Little Women remake for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Big Brown Eyes (1936)

Wild Girl, Me and My Gal, and Big Brown Eyes are evidence that even as a blonde Joan Bennett was far more than just eye candy. It probably helped that all three titles were directed by the aforementioned Raoul Walsh (their only collaborations), who had been guiding big-name actresses since Theda Bara back in the 1910s.

The generally amusing – if flimsy and more than a tad reactionary (the U.S. legal system doesn’t work because it’s just too lenient) – Big Brown Eyes stars brown-eyed Cary Grant (thankfully in place of the originally announced Fred MacMurray) as a ventriloquist cop (his [dubbed] falsetto is one of the movie’s highlights) and Bennett as his girlfriend, a sprightly manicurist who, after throwing a jealous fit on the floor, becomes … an investigative journalist.

Although Cary Grant was a great match for Joan Bennett, the couple were seen together in only one other movie, also released in 1936: Wedding Present, a now largely forgotten romantic comedy directed by Richard Wallace. (And the following year Grant would be paired with sister Constance Bennett in Norman Z. McLeod’s supernatural comedy Topper.)

Also of note, Big Brown Eyes was produced by Walter Wanger, who would become Joan Bennett’s husband from 1940–1965. Officially, the couple collaborated on seven titles (with Wanger as the credited producer and Bennett as the star/costar); besides Big Brown Eyes, there were Private Worlds (1935), I Met My Love Again (1938), Vogues of 1938 (1938), The House Across the Bay (1940), The Reckless Moment (1949), and Navy Wife (1956).

Joan Bennett Man Hunt Walter PidgeonJoan Bennett in Man Hunt, with Walter Pidgeon: Phoney Cockney accent, but genuine star charisma. Bennett had gone brunette three years earlier as a result of the Hedy Lamarr craze – and after being accused of murder in Tay Garnett’s 1938 mystery comedy-adventure Trade Winds.

Man Hunt (1941)

The first of her four crime/suspense dramas directed by Fritz Lang, Man Hunt has Joan Bennett in what amounts to a supporting role: A talkative Cockney sex worker who befriends big-game hunter and Adolf Hitler assassin wannabe Walter Pidgeon.

Bennett’s accent is a lark, but the phoniness is part of her character’s appeal. In fact, her presence is one of three elements of interest in an otherwise underwhelming thriller reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock efforts like The 39 Steps and the Walter Wanger-produced Foreign Correspondent.

The other two: Arthur C. Miller’s moody black-and-white cinematography and the climactic confrontation in a London Underground tunnel.

It should be noted that Joan Bennett never got to star for Alfred Hitchcock, though she would have been perfect casting in titles like the aforementioned Foreign Correspondent, Under Capricorn, or, once again opposite Cary Grant, North by Northwest.

The Woman in the Window (1944)

In another subordinate role, this time as the titular (unwitting) femme fatale in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, Joan Bennett, exuding star charisma, outshines guilt-ridden middle-aged professor Edward G. Robinson. Director Lang and cinematographer Milton Krasner did a fantastic job in making her look as alluring, as glamorous, and as ethereal as cinematically possible.

And that’s not all. Whenever she’s on screen, Bennett also holds her own – as a dramatic performer – opposite her more experienced and more critically acclaimed costar.

Unfortunately, this classy – albeit absurd – film noir has its emotional charge all but destroyed by a pathetic, cop-out finale. (Either censor-imposed or Fritz Lang-imposed, depending on the source.)

Scarlet Street (1945)

Another Fritz Lang noir costarring Edward G. Robinson and shot by Milton Krasner, Scarlet Street features Joan Bennett at her femme fatalest.

In this remake of Jean Renoir’s 1931 drama La Chienne (which starred Michel Simon and Janie Marèse), Bennett and scuzzy boyfriend Dan Duryea (who also has a key role in The Woman in the Window) scheme to get money from Robinson’s enamored cashier/amateur painter.

Though the similarities between The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street are striking, they are derived from different sources. Adapted by Nunnally Johnson (who also doubled as producer), the former is from J.H. Wallis’ 1942 novel Once Off Guard; adapted by Dudley Nichols, the latter is from Georges de La Fouchardière’s 1929 novel La Chienne (“The Bitch”) and the aforementioned Renoir title adapted by André Mouëzy-Éon.

The fourth and final Joan Bennett-Fritz Lang collaboration would be the inane yet intriguing 1947 psychological noir Secret Beyond the Door, costarring Michael Redgrave.

The Woman on the Beach (1947)

Jean Renoir didn’t get to direct Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street, but the two did work together on another film noir, The Woman on the Beach, in which her sultry, mysterious character – is she to blame for husband Charles Bickford’s blindness? – becomes emotionally entangled with PTS-suffering coast guardsman Robert Ryan, who, for his part, is shipyard worker Nan Leslie’s object of affection.

An engrossing, great-looking (cinematography by Leo Tover and Harry J. Wild) drama, The Woman on the Beach should have been a good 10–15 longer so we could get a stronger feel of the various intertwining relationships. As is, things feel a bit too rushed, especially the final resolution.

We’re No Angels (1955)

After going strong for more than two decades, Joan Bennett’s Hollywood career was derailed in late 1951, when Walter Wanger shot her agent, Jennings Lang, whom he believed to be his wife’s lover. (Hit in the leg and the groin, Lang recovered; Wanger spent four months behind bars.)

Gone from the big screen for two and a half years, Bennett returned in a minor 1954 crime drama, Nathan Juran’s Highway Dragnet.

The following year she was back in a supporting role, billed below the title, in the unusual Christmas comedy We’re No Angels, directed by Oscar winner Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, 1943), and starring fellow Oscar winner Humphrey Bogart (The African Queen, 1951), Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray as three Devil’s Island escapees.

Once again, Bennett was cast as the wife of a man who looked old enough to be her daddy*, nerdy Cayenne store owner Leo G. Carroll. Looking stunning in her mid-40s – and in Technicolor – she quietly steals every scene she’s in.

* Joan Bennet was not infrequently paired with actors who looked far older than she was. Besides Spencer Tracy, one could name the aforementioned Walter Pidgeon, Edward G. Robinson, and Charles Bickford, in addition to Ronald Colman (Bulldog Drummond), John Barrymore (Moby Dick), and Warner Baxter (Vogues of 1938).

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

In another supporting role – but billed above the title – Joan Bennett delivers one of the most effective performances of her career as the household-/children-focused wife of neglected husband Fred MacMurray in Douglas Sirk’s superior romantic melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow.

In a remarkable acting feat, Bennett succeeds in being as memorable – and as affecting – as the film’s powerhouse lead, Barbara Stanwyck, cast as a prosperous fashion designer who also happens to be MacMurray’s former employee and his newfound (near-)mistress.

After There’s Always Tomorrow and the Walter Wanger-produced 1956 comedy Navy Wife, Joan Bennett mostly set her sights on the stage and on television, where she would costar in the hit supernatural soap Dark Shadows (1965–1971). Her final big-screen role turned out be one of her best remembered: Madame Blanc, headmistress of a German dance school in Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria.

Joan Bennett died at age 80 in December 1990 at her home in Scarsdale, New York.

“Joan Bennett: Criterion Channel Remembers Unique Blonde + Brunette Actress” notes

The Criterion Channel website.

Joan Bennett quote re: her movies/movie stardom via the New York Times.

See also: Joan Bennett movies on TCM.

Walter Pidgeon and Joan Bennett Man Hunt movie image: 20th Century Fox.

“Joan Bennett: Criterion Channel Remembers Unique Blonde + Brunette Actress” last updated in June 2023.

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