Sunday, February 27, 2011
BORN ON THIS DAY: JOAN BENNETT
Part of a famous theatrical family, Bennett's maternal grandfather was Jamaica-born Shakespearean actor Lewis Morrison, who embarked on a stage career in the late 1860s. He was of English and Spanish ancestry. On the side of her maternal grandmother, actress Rose Wood, the profession dated back to traveling minstrels in 18th century England.
Bennett first appeared in a silent movie as a child with her parents and sisters in her father's drama The Valley of Decision (1916), which he adapted for the screen. She attended Miss Hopkins School for Girls in Manhattan, then St. Margaret's, a boarding school in Waterbury, Connecticut, and L'Hermitage, a finishing school in Versailles, France.
She moved quickly from movie to movie throughout the 1930s. Bennett appeared as a blonde (her natural hair color) for several years. She starred in the role of Dolores Fenton in the United Artists musical Puttin' on the Ritz (1930) opposite Harry Richman and as Faith Mapple, his beloved, opposite John Barrymore in an early sound version of Moby Dick (1930) at Warner Brothers Studios.
Under contract to Fox Film Corporation, she appeared in several movies. Receiving top billing, she played the role of Jane Miller opposite Spencer Tracy in She Wanted a Millionaire (1932). She was billed second, after Tracy, for her role as Helen Riley, a personable waitress who trades wisecracks, in Me and My Gal (1932). Bennett left Fox to play Amy, a pert sister competing with Katharine Hepburn's Jo in Little Women (1933), which was directed by George Cukor for RKO. This movie brought Bennett to the attention of independent film producer Walter Wanger, who signed her to a contract and began managing her career. She played the role of Sally MacGregor, a psychiatrist's young wife slipping into insanity, in Private Worlds (1935) with Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, and Joel McCrea. She then starred with Bing Crosby and WC Fields in the costume musical Mississippi (1935) over at Paramount.
She then appeared in a sequence of highly regarded film noir thrillers directed by Fritz Lang, with whom she and Wanger formed their own production company. Bennett appeared in four movies under Lang's direction, including as Cockney prostitute Jerry Stokes in Man Hunt (1941) opposite Walter Pidgeon, as mysterious model Alice Reed in The Woman in the Window (1944) with Edward G. Robinson, and as vulgar blackmailer Katharine "Kitty" March in Scarlet Street (1945) another film with Robinson.
Then, easily shifting images again, she changed her screen persona to that of an elegant, witty and nurturing wife and mother in two classic comedies directed by Vincente Minnelli. Playing the role of Ellie Banks, wife of Spencer Tracy and mother of Elizabeth Taylor, Bennett appeared in both Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951).
Bennett was a cast regular on the gothic daytime television soap opera Dark Shadows, which attracted a major cult TV following, for its entire five year run, 1966 to 1971, receiving an Emmy Award nomination in 1968 for her performance as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, mistress of the haunted Collinwood Mansion. In 1970, she appeared as Elizabeth in House of Dark Shadows, the feature film adaptation of the series. She declined to appear in the sequel Night of Dark Shadows however, and her character Elizabeth was mentioned as being recently deceased.
Bennett also appeared in one more feature film, as Madame Blanc in Italian director Dario Argento's horror thriller Suspiria (1977), for which she received a 1978 Saturn Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Bennett died at age 80 on December 7, 1990 from a heart attack at her home in Scarsdale, New York. She was died with her four children and fourth husband at her side. She is interred in Pleasant View Cemetery, Lyme, Connecticut with her parents.