Joan Bennett

Active - 1916 - 1982  |   Born - Feb 27, 1910   |   Died - Dec 7, 1990   |   Genres - Horror

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The title of actress Joan Bennett's 1970 autobiography is The Bennett Playbill, in reference to the fact that she came from an old and well-established theatrical family: her father was stage star Richard Bennett and her sisters were screen actresses Constance and Barbara Bennett. Though she made an appearance as a child in one of her father's films, Joan Bennett did not originally intend to pursue acting as a profession. Honoring her wishes, her father bundled her off to finishing school in Versailles. Alas, her impulsive first marriage at 16 ended in divorce, leaving her a single mother in dire need of an immediate source of income. Thus it was that she became a professional actress, making her first Broadway appearance in her father's vehicle, Jarnegan (1928). In 1929, she began her film career in the low-budget effort Power, then co-starred with Ronald Colman in Bulldog Drummond. She was inexperienced and awkward and she knew it, but Bennett applied herself to her craft and improved rapidly; by the early '30s she was a busy and popular ingénue, appearing in such enjoyable programmers as Me and My Gal (1932) and important A-pictures like Little Women (1933) (as Amy). During this period she briefly married again to writer/producer Gene Markey. It was her third husband, producer Walter Wanger, who made the decision that changed the direction of her career: in Wanger's Trade Winds (1938), Bennett was obliged to dye her blonde hair black for plot purposes. Audiences approved of this change, and Bennett thrived throughout the next decade in a wide variety of "dark" roles befitting her brunette status. She was especially effective in a series of melodramas directed by Fritz Lang: Man Hunt (1941), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Secret Beyond the Door (1948). In 1950, she switched professional gears again, abandoning femme-fatale roles for the part of Spencer Tracy's ever-patient spouse in Father of the Bride (1950). Though her personal life was turbulent in the early '50s -- her husband Walter Wanger allegedly shot and wounded agent Jennings Lang, claiming that Lang was trying to steal his wife -- Bennett's professional life continued unabated on both stage and screen. Her television work included the 1959 sitcom Too Young to Go Steady and the "gothic" soap opera Dark Shadows (1965-1971). In failing health, Joan Bennett spent her last years in retirement with her fourth husband, media critic David Wilde.

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