If I could name one actress that I found totally intriguing, Joan Bennett’s name would probably at the top of my head. This might be because she is not the most famous or talked about star of the Golden age of Hollywood, so there’s sort of an aura of mystery around her. In the 30s, she was a blonde pre-code star and then, in the 40s, she dyed her hair black to become a dangerously convincing femme fatale in film noirs. Joan Bennett can also be well-remembered for her collaborations with the great movie director Fritz Lang. I wrote an article about it a few years ago. You can read it here.
Today, we are back discussing the mythical actress as Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting the Joan Bennett Blogathon (July 19-21, 2019). This is not to mark her birthday or death anniversary. But do we really need an excuse to celebrate Joan Bennett except for the fact that we LOVE her? Joan Bennett is my 10th most favourite actress and I know she is very high on Crystal’s top list as well. So, obviously, it’s a pleasure for me to participate.
I was initially supposed to write about Me and My Gal (probably my favourite performance by Joan or, one of my very favourites) but, instead, I’ve decided to go with a top 10. I’ve actually seen a total of 10 of her films (so far) so the only hard part would be rank them.
That being said, if there’s a Joan Bennett film you love that is not on the list, the only reason is that I haven’t seen it yet! Of course, these lists are very personal so the ranking is totally subjective. But, honestly, I don’t think any of these films can be considered bad. I’m warning you, Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment will, unfortunately, not be on this list. I haven’t seen it yet but I desperately want to. I just haven’t found a good version to watch (I mean with a legit sound and visual quality). Maybe I could eventually update this list when I’ll have seen it. I preferred to warn you because I know it’s considered a masterpiece, so I don’t want you to be too surprised not to see it!
Ok, here we go! Please don’t hesitate to click on the links in orange to read more reviews of the films I’ve listed.
10. There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
Although I’m really not a fan of Fred MacMurray (sorry Crystal) and I prefer Gainsborough melodramas to American Melodramas, I keep a good souvenir of this film and remember it as one presenting complex and interesting conflicts between the characters. I saw it in class when I was doing my bachelor in film studies. I attended a highly entertaining seminar on American films of the 50s and we watched films that I would never have expected to watch at university but that, for various reasons, were always historically significant. Honestly, I received them like a breath of fresh air. Just to give you an example, we saw The Girl Can’t Help It, a very light comedy with Jayne Mansfield. In There’s Always Tomorrow, Joan plays Fred MacMurray’s wife and Barbara Stanwyck, who is another huge favourite of mine, plays his lover. I’ve learned recently that this same teacher who taught the seminar on American Cinema of the 50s, also gives a class on Barbara Stanwyck (PhD level, if I’m not wrong). I just LOVE that idea.
9. The Woman on the Beach (Jean Renoir, 1947)
This is the latest Joan Bennett film I saw. My expectation were high as Jean Renoir directed one of my absolute favourite films: La Grande Illusion (my favourite French film). Renoir, the son of the famous impressionist painter August Renoir, knew how to include the visual poetry of his father in his films and this isn’t missing in The Women on the Beach. However, narratively, it’s not as good as some of his other work. Actually, when he worked in Hollywood, Renoir had difficulties to adapt himself to the system and his films suffered, probably due to the many restrictions. Fritz Lang is another movie director who wished he could have had more liberties when making films in the North American country. Anyway, despite everything, the film remains a good one and I love seeing Robert Ryan as a good guy. Ok, he’s not Mary Poppins either (his character has quite a nuanced personality) but he’s far from being as bad a Smith Ohlrig in Caught! Joan Bennett is great, as always, and her character could remind us of those she played in Fritz Lang films.
8. Hollow Triumph aka The Scar (Steve Sekely, 1948)
I have seen this film only once and quite a long time ago but I remember highly enjoying it and it’s probably the film that made Paul Henreid a favourite of mine as we can really understand his versatility as an actor. This was also one of the first Joan Bennett’s films I was watching and I was mesmerized as well. Steve Sekely’s Hollow Triumph is not the most famous film Joan Bennett starred in but it surely deserves more recognition. It’s an underrated thrilling and chilling noir that keeps you at the edge of your seat.
7. Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941)
Man Hunt was the first collaboration between Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang. The film also stars Walter Pidgeon, George Sanders, and a young Roddy MacDowall, all favourites of mine. Although it is not as well-remembered as Scarlet Street or The Woman in the Window, I believe it was a strong way for Joan and Fritz to start their collaboration. Joan Bennett plays a highly touching character in this film and proves a beautiful sensibility which makes a huge contrast with some of the other characters she portrayed. I remember this scene where she cries and we just want to enter in the story and console her.
6. Secret Beyond the Door (Fritz Lang, 1947)
If memory serves right, Secret Beyond the Door is the first Joan Bennett film I ever saw. It’s more precisely on my second viewing that I understood the brilliance of this underrated gothic noir. The last collaboration between her and Fritz Lang also stars Michael Redgrave and can also remind us of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Ok, it’s maybe not as good but, visually, it just has to be one of the most beautiful black and white cinematography I’ve ever seen. Secret Beyond the Door is one of these films where, like Joan character, we often wonder what will happen as the story progress. Michael Redgraves plays a highly enigmatic, perhaps dangerous man, but we can never really tell his true nature. We discover life in a huge mansion with Joan character and that’s how we can easily identify to her. Joan Bennett said that the film was “an unqualified disaster” but, to be honest, I think she’s a bit severe!
5. Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932)
This might actually be my favourite of Joan’s performances. I mean, she’s just so sure of herself and she has some of the most memorable punchlines. Her character is one that doesn’t let herself walk on her feet, and this results in memorable dialogues with Spencer Tracy. I rarely don’t like a Raoul Walsh film and this one was no exception either. I mean, I haven’t seen all his films (far from it) but I highly enjoyed the ones I’ve seen so far. I’ve read he was a movie director who liked to work fast and this could sometimes be problematic but, despite that, I found his films to be of great quality. Me and My Gal is a dramatic romantic comedy with gangsters. This wasn’t the only time Walsh included such characters in his films (The Roaring Twenties, White Heat). And this was not the only collaboration between Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett. We also saw them together in She Wanted a Millionaire, Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend. They had great chemistry together!
4. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944)
Ok, the conclusion of this film is a bit…silly (and weak)… But, except for that, it’s a masterwork of film noir, once again directed by the amazing Fritz Lang. To be honest, I’ve rarely seen a film of his that I didn’t like and The Woman in the Window has to be one of the absolute best. Here, Fritz Lang truly incorporates Joan Bennett to the idea of film noir and femme fatale (although she probably isn’t as fatal as Kitty in Scarlet Street – we’ll come back to it) and probably gives her one of the best entrance ever. This moment where Edward G. Robinson’s character looks at Joan Bennett’s portraits in the window shop and she appears behind him and confuses her true-self with the portrait is just magical.
3. Father of the Bride (Vincente Minnelli, 1950)
Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Bennett play daughter and mother in this delightful comedy about the organization of a wedding directed by the great Vincente Minnelli. Once again, Joan and Spencer Tracy are reunited, this time, as husband and wife. Father of the Bride is one of those films that I found absolutely delightful. The story is seen from Spencer Tracy (the father)’s point of view but Joan also adds a lot to the portrait. Actually, it’s more precisely because of her if I decided to watch this film for the first time. It’s a story that, first, seems simple but that is presented to us in a most endearing way. Joan’s character is very different from the one she played in 40s noirs, but she’s just as great and surely hasn’t lost her touch. Father of the Bride is one of those films I can watch over and over and not get tired of it.
2. Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)
Damn, that film is SOMETHING! Something that leaves you speechless for the great masterpiece and shocking story it is. Here, Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson, once again, star opposite each other but, this time, the story is even darker than the one in The Woman in the Window. Kitty March, the character played by Bennett is, in my opinion, the best example of femme fatale or, at least, one of the best. Joan is dangerously elegant and memorable in that thanks to her mysterious acting game, her sensual voice and those stunning gowns designed by Travis Banton. I remember, the first time I saw it, I was just mesmerized by this film. Scarlet Street surely is one of the best American films directed by Fritz Lang. Interestingly, this was a remake of French film La Chienne (The Bitch) directed by Jean Renoir. Remember, Joan starred in one of his films!
1. Little Women (George Cukor, 1933)
And, we’ve finally arrived at what surely might be my favourite Joan Bennett’s film. Is it necessarily my favourite performance of hers, not necessarily and we’ve got to admit Katharine Hepburn pretty much steals the spotlight. But, I just love the film in general. However, Joan IS great, of course, and portraits Amy March perfectly. And if we look at her character in Me and My Gal, a film made the year before, it’s pretty amazing how she’s able to mold herself into a completely different personality. Also, she’s hilarious. This scene where she and Katharine Hepburn (Jo) rehearse a play makes me burst into laughs each time I watch it. Honestly, I always have to start it over one or two times. Little Women is a film that makes you live a myriad of emotions and that shows beautiful values. There aren’t any reasons not to like it!
Here you can also read my article on the portrayal of Amy March by Joan vs Elizabeth Taylor (in the 1949’s version). Coincidentally, both actresses were born on February 27.
It was an honour to share with you this ranking of 10 Joan Bennett films! Writing about them just made me want to watch them again. Now, I know I must see The Reckless Moment!
Many thanks to Crystal for hosting this blogathon. Please click here to read the other amazing entries.