The Queens of Noir Series: Miss Joan Bennett

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Joan Bennett and Walter Pidgeon defy the Nazis in Man Hunt

The daughter of an acting dynasty, Joan Bennett was the middle child of theatrical matinee idol Richard Bennett and the sister of 1930s movie diva and fashion icon Constance Bennett. Never believing she was much of an actress, Joan simply fell into the family business, like the daughter of a grocer landing behind the counter of the family store.

Her first roles were on stage with her temperamental father, but by the early 1920s the beautiful blond was appearing on screen in small parts and the 1930s ushered in stardom with several showcase vehicles including the part of Amy in Little Women (1933) and Kay Karigan in the mammoth Trade Winds (1938).

The star of over forty films before entering the next decade of her life, Joan was always incandescent on screen, but seemed to hold a part of herself back, never able to get past her finishing school manners and cut velvet voice.

Despite the success that came with being a “movie star,” Miss Bennett (now a gorgeous brunette) wanted to be seen as a real actress. The opportunity to stretch her acting muscles finally came with her third husband, independent producer Walter Wanger and their partnership with the German directing genius Fritz Lang. The trio was part of Joan’s independent production apparatus, Diana Productions, and their focus became film noir. The genre would change the trajectory of the actress’ career.

While many of Bennett’s past directors had allowed the beautiful actress to glide effortlessly through performances on her looks, Lang demanded that Joan bring the characters she was playing to life on screen. A detail-oriented, methodical film-maker, Lang put the actress through her paces by making her undergo take after take until she finally got it right. Sensing that the German director was getting a more honest and genuine performance out of her, Joan never complained about all the hard work, and the results are mesmerizing.

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Man Hunt:

The team’s first outing was Man Hunt (1941) in which Bennett starred as Jerry Stokes, a beautiful cockney prostitute/seamstress who rescues a hunter who tries to assassinate Hitler from the clutches of the Germans. Effortlessly essaying the hooker with the heart of fourteen carat gold, Bennett is luminous as the self-sacrificing Jerry who gives her own life to save the man she loves.

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Joan Bennett shines as Jerry Stokes in Man Hunt

Joan attacks her role with obvious relish. The pain fairly oozes from her every pore as she begs the rather cavalier Walter Pidgeon (as stalwart sharp-shooter Captain Allen Thorndike) to allow her to join him on the run from the Nazis who want to make him admit he tried to gun down Hitler. Her enormous eyes fill the screen, her each and every look begging Thorndike to love her. This was a Joan Bennett movie-goers had never seen before.

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Joan Bennett ensnares Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window:

In 1944, Wanger’s independent International Pictures featured Woman in the Window, a film noir thriller in which Bennett’s character Alice Reed pulls sedentary middle-aged college professor Richard Wanley (beautifully underplayed by frequent Bennett co-star Edward G. Robinson) into a dark whirlpool of deception and murder. When Robinson spies the real life model for the painting of the ravishing woman he’s been drooling over for weeks standing in front of a gallery window, he readily agrees to accompany her to her apartment to “see her sketches.” Once inside, Wanley finds himself mistaken for Miss Reed’s latest conquest by her current flame. Violence ensues as the professor stabs the intruder to death with a pair of scissors.

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Miss Bennett as the cool and calculating Alice Reed in The Woman in the Window

Window gave Joan what she really craved—the opportunity to submerge her off-screen personality almost completely in the character of the relentlessly cool Alice. Through dulcet tones, the actress delivers a gentle caress to her victim with every word. During the murder and its aftermath Bennett gets past herself enough to utter the breathless cries of a woman who is desperate to extricate herself from the situation, sliding quickly into brittle hardness when she convinces Wanley to get rid of the body of her lover.

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Scarlet Street:

1945 brought the riveting noir Scarlet Street. This Diana Productions offering gave Joan the opportunity to do some of the finest acting of her career. As the carelessly grasping Kitty March, Bennett owns the screen. We see none of Joan’s usual finishing school airs and graces here. Kitty is nothing more than a grifter and a tart and the actress pulls out all the stops to let us know. A silky whine slips from her red lips with all the self indulgence of a wronged street walker.

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Joan Bennett gives the performance of her career in the noir classic Scarlet Street

 

Robinson again plays Bennett’s victim in Street. A henpecked low-level clerk who’s a weekend painter, Christopher Cross falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Kitty while she calmly extracts every bit of dough she can from him, ultimately convincing him to bankroll a swank apartment for her and her rancid boyfriend (Dan Duryea) complete with a studio in which Cross can paint. After showing Christopher’s work to an art dealer, Kitty claims to be the artist when she finds out his paintings will bring her a pretty penny. The professor is pathetically happy to allow Kitty to take credit for his work, but when Chris finds Kitty in the arms of Duryea, he kills her in a fit of jealous rage.

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Miss Bennett seduces Edward G. Robinson as the grasping Kitty March in Scarlet Street

The Secret Beyond the Door:

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The final Bennett/Wanger/Lang production was the silly The Secret Beyond the Door (1947). This is a melodramatic tale of a clueless bride (Bennett) married to a murderous husband who hides the truth about his serial killer tendencies behind (you guessed it) a secret locked door in his dark and moody family castle. Diana Productions needn’t have bothered. This gothic vehicle was a complete wast of celluloid.

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Joan Bennett is up to her old acting tricks in the inane Secret Beyond the Door

Apparently aware that she was starring in a turkey, Joan falls back on her usual lady of the manor persona in portraying the breathlessly naïve Celia Lamphere. The actress is far better in the later Hollow Triumph (1948) and the Hitchcock-like Reckless Moment (1949).

The noir era of Miss Bennett’s career ended (most appropriately) with a gunshot. Her husband Walter Wanger shot the private parts of the actress’ agent Jennings Lang in a Beverly Hills parking lot. Apparently, the independent producer was sure his beautiful wife was having an affair with Lang. She claimed she wasn’t. Amazingly, Bennett came to her husband’s defense and refused to divorce him—that is until fourteen years later.

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Joan Bennett and her husband Walter Wanger on the set of the disastrous Secret Beyond the Door

Scandalous or not, Joan Bennett became an actress when she began to appear in film noir vehicles under the tutelage of Fritz Lang. The breathtaking star cemented her place in cinema history by being part of them.

A Joan Crawford Picture: MGM vs. Warners

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Crawford plays the villainous Crystal Allen in The Women (1939).

Crawford at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1924 – 1943)

Few could question the fact that movie legend Joan Crawford had a fabulous career, one that far outstripped many of her contemporaries. While Garbo and Shearer faded from view, Crawford moved, with sure foot, onward (and usually upward) gallantly trying on, and often dazzling in, new roles and genres of film.

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Joan impresses in her finest performance at Metro in A Woman’s Face.

Any perusal of Miss Crawford’s work at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer uncovers quite a few excellent films and performances, including Grand Hotel (1932), The Women (1939) Susan and God (1940), Strange Cargo (1940) and A Woman’s Face (1941). In these, Joan expertly navigates from “little stenographer” to shopgirl to flippantly religious society matron, hooker and finally (and deliciously) the conniving home wrecker. But the standout among such star turns is the actresses’ worn-down yet bitter portrayal of thief and con artist Anna Holm whose face has been nearly destroyed by fire. Indeed, Face was Joan’s last “good” film at the “Tiffany of Studios.”

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The Bride Wore Red was one of Crawford’s less than impressive outings at MGM.

Despite these entries, many Crawford offerings churned out by Metro were shallow, repetitive and often silly. Examples of this fare include: Love on the Run (1936), The Last of Mrs. Cheney (1937), The Bride Wore Red (1937), and Ice Follies of 1939 to say nothing of the real clinkers Crawford was saddled with because the studio was trying to force her out such as Reunion in France (1942), and the all but incomprehensible Above Suspicion (1943). Despite the flimsiness of many Crawford vehicles manufactured in the the early through mid-1930’s, the actress never “phoned in” a performance but often seemed more like an actress “playing” a part than “becoming” a character.

At the risk of being roundly chastised by all of Joan’s religiously faithful fans for such blasphemy, this is not to say that these vehicles aren’t often thoroughly entertaining and that they sometimes gave the star a chance to exercise her acting chops, but Joan’s work at Warners was often more entertaining and dynamic, while allowing the mature leading lady to prove she could be a real actress (as apposed to movie star with a capital “S”) given the right material.

Crawford at Warners (1943 – 1952)

After being unceremoniously dropped by Metro, it took Crawford all of two days (or weeks depending on the source) to ink a new contract at Warner Brothers. While her price dropped at the less prestigious studio, the actress knew that if she made the right script choices she could not only get her career back on track but allow it to thrive. In fact, Joan was so determined that her first starring vehicle at Warners be the right one, she didn’t appear in front of a camera for the next two years, barring a couple of cameos. She even told Jack Warner to take her off salary rather than make a bad picture.

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Crawford gets her first chance to shine in her Oscar-winning performance in Warner’s classic film noir, Mildred Pierce.

Finally, Joan got her hands on the script for Mildred Pierce (1945). Even Bette Davis turned this one down because she didn’t want to the mother of a teenaged daughter. The noir offering gave Joan a chance to demonstrate abject maternal self-sacrifice complete with tears pooling in those enormous orbs she was so famous for. A sterling performance and some creative self-promotion insured a best actress Oscar for Joan. The win was also a direct result of Joan’s now being a valued (and supported) part of the Warner Brother’s stable of stars.

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Joan gives a stellar performance as the unstable Louise Howell in Warner’s Possessed.

Crawford went directly from Mildred to Humoresque (1946) in which she played the unstable alcoholic Helen Wright who ends her troubles by walking into the sea. Her riveting performance had all of Hollywood saying Academy Award and Crawford in the same breath for the second time in a year. Joan followed this on-screen triumph with another when she played Louise Howell, a nurse who becomes obsessed by the man she loves, and unhinged when she shoots him dead in a fit of jealousy. Joan gave what is arguably her finest performance in Possessed (1947). She walks the tightrope between madness and sanity, giving a beautifully layered portrayal that garnered the actress another Oscar nomination.

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Crawford sizzles in Warner’s Flamingo Road.

Although Joan wasn’t thrilled about playing carny girl Lane Belamy in Flamingo Road (1949), the role fit her like a glove and while not a masterpiece, Flamingo is an excellent noir that ends with Crawford gunning down the rotund Sydney Greenstreet (and there’s nothing better than that)! The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) rounds out Crawford’s winning streak at Warner Brothers. This vehicle isn’t great cinema either, but it is a really good story that moves at breakneck speed and Crawford is great in it. Damned opens with Joan as a household drudge who leaves her blue-collar husband for life in the big city. Within minutes, Crawford becomes a “dress model,” then a gangsters moll and finally, a society matron funded by the mob. To no one’s surprise, in the final reel, Joan gets shot for her pains. Clawing her way through this blistering melodrama from the first foot of film to the last, Damned is the ultimate Crawford vehicle.

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Joan dazzles in the ultimate Crawford vehicle in the Warner’s crime drama, The Damned Don’t Cry.

Joan was so good at playing these gritty, down-on-their-luck and troubled characters because they came close to who she really was under the skin. The young Lucille LeSueur was no stranger to hard times and taking desperate measures to survive in the world. Joan Crawford learned to use these experiences to influence her finest performances on screen. And some of the best of these came from the gritty and fast-paced world of Warner Brothers, not the hothouse environment at MGM.

Mildred Pierce: Noir or Not?

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When I read fellow blogger and New York Times Bestselling author Debbi Mack’s excellent review of Mildred Pierce, I got an idea. Ms. Mack’s “I Found It at the Movies Blog” asked (and answered) a series of questions about the film in order to figure out why the classic melodrama might be a noir or “black” film:

 Q:Was the picture a film noir because Mildred is a strong-minded, independent business woman whose success threatened the masculinity of the men in her life?

A: It could be, but probably not.

 Q:Was it because Mildred’s sweet younger daughter Kay  croaks while the conniving Veda not only lives but manages to thrive?

A: Nope.

 Q:Was Mildred a film noir because Veda is a bitch on wheels?

A:Perhaps.

Q:Because Mildred tries to take the fall when Veda snuffs out the life of her lover?

A:Questions, questions.

 Q:Then again, Mildred Pierce has a relatively happy ending (unusual in a film noir) in that Mildred and Bert get back together. Was this a factor in the film noir equation?

The results were inconclusive, but Mack highly recommended Mildred to her readers.

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While no expert on film noir, Mildred and its status in the category gelled for me after reading Debbi’s blog.

A little background:

Film noir began to surface after World War II because the candy-coated world presented by many pre-war films suddenly didn’t fit the perception that post-war Americans had of life. Americans had been through the horrors of world war. They now wanted to see films of a darker nature on their movie screens, films they felt were more apt to reflect their current reality.

The case for Mildred Pierce as a Film Noir:

Besides its murky lighting and often rain-slick streets, Mildred Pierce is a film noir because it reflects the general dissatisfaction and human restlessness which fuels all film noir. From the moment the picture opens Mildred expresses her resignation with her lot as a mother trapped in a bad marriage to a feckless husband. Mildred’s husband Bert is unhappy in his marriage and his life in general. While Mildred’s daughter Veda is pleased with herself, she is certainly miserable living a lower-middle-class existence.

Other dark themes threaded throughout the picture include over-weening selfishness, rampant greed and opportunism (Monte Beragon marries Mildred for her money and then betrays her by selling off his part ownership of her business. Wally Fay forces Mildred out of her own company. Veda is willing to murder Monte just because he throws her over and will do anything to live the high life).

While I believe that Mildred Pierce falls into the film noir category, it is a truly unusual example of the genre. It’s unique because a woman is at its center. In most film noir, this spot is occupied by a man. This man, while essentially decent, is flawed and in the thrall of a femme fatale. The same can be said of Mildred.

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At the eye of the storm that is a film noir is the femme fatale. Veda Pierce fits the bill perfectly. Like a well-oiled machine, she reaches out for everything she can get with both grasping hands, all the while heaping equal parts ridicule and tooth-decaying sweetness on her hapless mother, depending on what she needs from her at the moment.

The final piece of the noir puzzle falls into place when we examine the poison relationship between Mildred and Veda. Like most noir heroes (in this case heroine), Mildred is hopelessly caught in the intricate web of lies spun by her daughter.

Desperate to please her oldest child, Mildred places Veda’s needs above her own in situation after situation. While Mildred makes a dizzying success of her roast chicken restaurant chain, she probably would’ve remained a successful (and perhaps, contented) waitress if Veda hadn’t openly jeered at her mother’s profession and constantly pressed Mildred to give her everything money can buy. Mildred marries the “veddy” social leech Monte Beragon not only to lure Veda back into her life but to place her at the center of California society as well. Mildred even neglects her younger daughter in favor of the older.

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Mildred Pierce is a film noir, if an unusual example of the genre. Whatever its genre, it’s an excellent film for about a hundred other reasons, including a stellar cast. Joan Crawford nabbed herself an Academy Award for her work as Mildred, and the sixteen-year-old Ann Blyth gives a deliciously evil performance as Veda, not to mention the excellent work of Zachary Scott as the slimy Monte Beragon. It’s a cinematic experience I thoroughly enjoy over and over again and recommend that you do too.

I’d like to give special thanks to Debbi Mack for giving me permission to use our discussion of her blog as the inspiration for this one. You can visit Debbi’s blog at: debbimacktoo.wordpress.com.