Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Spotlight On: Joan Bennett

Joan Bennett was a natural blond
Joanie was a natural blond
Joan Geraldine Bennett, an American stage, film and television actress, was born February 27, 1910 to successful stage actors, Richard Bennett and Adrienne Morrison. 

The Bennetts
The Bennetts
Joan was the youngest of three daughters. Both her sisters, Constance and Barbara, became actors also, although Barbara never achieved the success of her sisters, and of the three, Joan became the best known. All three girls started their careers very young, working on the stage with their father.

The Bennett Sisters - Constance, Barbara, and Joan
Constance, Joan, and Barbara
Besides acting on the stage, she appeared in more than 70 motion pictures from the era of silent movies well into the sound era. She is possibly best-remembered for her film noir femme fatale roles in director Fritz Lang's movies such as The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, which I recently reviewed. If you missed it, you can find that post here. She made five films for Fritz Lang, more than any other American actor or actress who worked with him (many actors disliked working with Lang).

Joan Bennett

Joan Bennett
At the age of 16, Joan married Jack Marion Fox, who was 26. The union was anything but happy, in great part because of Fox's heavy drinking. In February of 1928 Joan and Jack had a baby girl they named Adrienne, later to be called Diana. The new arrival did little to help the marriage, though, and in the summer of 1928 they divorced. With a baby to support, Joan turned to acting.

Joan Bennett 1935
Joan Bennett 1935

Joan Bennett with Spencer Tracy in Me and My Gal
Joan with Spencer Tracy in Me and My Gal
She moved quickly from movie to movie throughout the 1930s appearing as a blonde (her natural hair color) for several years.

On March 16, 1932, she married screenwriter/film producer Gene Markey, but the couple divorced on June 3, 1937. They had one child, Melinda Markey born February 27, 1934.

Joan Bennett with second husband Gene Markey and director Raoul Walsh in 1932
Joan with second husband Gene Markey and director Raoul Walsh in 1932

JoanBennett with Gene Markey and daughters Diana and Melinda
Joan with Gene Markey and daughters Diana and Melinda in 1936

Joan Bennett with daughter Melinda
Joan with daughter Melinda in 1936
In 1933, while pregnant with daughter Melinda, Joan played Amy, a pert sister competing with Katharine Hepburn's Jo in "Little Women". This movie brought her to the attention of independent film producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a contract and began managing her career. Wanger and director Tay Garnett persuaded Joan to change her hair from blonde to brunette as part of the plot for a role. With her change in appearance, she began an entirely new screen career as her persona shifted from that of blond ingenue and evolved into that of a glamorous, seductive femme fatale.
Joan Bennett "Little Women"
Joan as Amy March in Little Women
Later, as middle age approached, Joan shifted to the role of witty and nurturing mother in Vincente Minnelli's comedies "Father of the Bride" and "Father's Little Dividend".
Joan and Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride
Joan and Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride
On January 12, 1940, Joan and Walter Wanger were married. They had two children together, Stephanie Wanger, born June 26, 1943 and Shelley Wanger, born July 4, 1948. The following year on March 13, 1949, her daughter Diana, from her first marriage, made her a grandmother at age 39.  

Fun fact: Her co-star in Father of the Bride, Elizabeth Taylor, became a grandmother at the same age. She and Taylor also shared a February 27th birthday, and each gave birth to one of their children on their birthdays. They also both played the part of Amy March in "Little Women".
Joan Bennett with husband Walter Wanger
Joan with third husband Walter Wanger

Joan Bennett with daughters Stephanie and Shelley
Joan with daughters Stephanie and Shelley
In 1951, Joan's screen career was marred by scandal after her third husband, Wanger, shot and injured her agent Jennings Lang. Wanger suspected that Lang and Joan were having an affair, which she adamantly denied. Joan made only five movies in the decade that followed, as the shooting incident was a stain on her career and she became virtually blacklisted. Blaming the scandal that occurred for destroying her career in the motion picture industry, she once said, "I might as well have pulled the trigger myself."
Joan Bennett

Joan Bennett

Despite the shooting scandal and the damage it caused her movie career, she and Wanger remained married until finally divorcing in 1965. 
Joan Bennett

Joan Bennett

She did continue to work steadily on the stage and in television and in the 1960s, she achieved success for her portrayal of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on TV's cult classic, "Dark Shadows", for which she received an Emmy nomination in 1968. She was one of only three cast members that appeared in Dark Shadows from the beginning in 1966 to the shows end in 1971.
Joan Bennett in Dark Shadows
Joan Bennett in Dark Shadows
For her final movie role, as Madame Blanc in Suspiria in 1977, she received a Saturn Award nomination.
 On February 14, 1978, she and retired publisher/movie critic David Wilde were married and their marriage lasted until her death from a heart attack, on December 7, 1990 at the age of 80. In her 'New York Times' obituary she was said to be " of the most underrated actresses of her time".  At the time of her death, Joan had 13 grandchildren. Her first two great-grandchildren were on the way - one of her grandsons and his wife were expecting twins.
Joan had three distinct phases to her long and successful career, first as a winsome blonde ingenue, then as a sensuous brunette femme fatale, with looks that movie magazines often compared to those of Hedy Lamarr, and finally as a warm-hearted wife/mother figure.

Joan Bennett

Celebrated for not taking herself too seriously, Bennett said in a 1986 interview, "I don't think much of most of the films I made, but being a movie star was something I liked very much." And what a movie star she was!


  1. What an informative, interesting, beautiful post and look at one classic Hollywood's brightest shinning stars. I've always adored Joan and her work. She had a certain elegant soulfulness to her that really radiates through the excellent performances she gave to her film going audiences over the years.

    ♥ Jessica

  2. I love this post. She is one of my favorite actresses. Another role where she played a caring mother figure - but in a noir - was The Reckless Moment. I thought this was a good film, almost up there with Scarlet Street.

  3. This was a great post! She truly went from pretty to seductive. It's too bad that her husband marred her career but unfortunately this is too common.

  4. She is absolutely lovely. I remember watching the 1930s adaptation of Little Women with her. It's not my favorite, but I did think she and the actress who portrayed Meg did a fantastic job in it.


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