Happy 112th Birthday, Constance Bennett!

Actress Constance Bennett was born 112 years ago today in New York City. Here are 10 CB Did-You-Knows:

  • Bennett was born into a theatrical family. Both her parents, Richard Bennett and Adrienne Morrison, were actors, as was her maternal grandparents, Rose Wood and Lewis Morrison.
  • Bennett’s two sisters, Joan and Barbara, were also actresses (though Barbara’s career was brief), but it was Constance who was the first to enter motion pictures, appearing in silent pictures filmed in and around NYC and making her Hollywood debut in Cytherea (1924).
  • After giving up films upon marrying Philip Plant in 1925, Bennett, after divorcing Plant, returned to her film career just as talking pictures were taking off.
  • Bennett was, for a brief time in the early 1930s, the highest paid actress in Hollywood.
  • Like Kay Francis, Bennett’s ability to wear fine clothes well played a big role in her success.
  • Bennett Was cast in the role of Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night but withdrew when Columbia Pictures declined to allow her to serve as producer of the film. Claudette Colbert, who took over the role, won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in the picture.
  • Bennett starred in the Janet Gaynor/Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand role in What Price Hollywood (1932), which was a clear inspiration for the A Star Is Born pictures.
  • Less in demand in pictures by the 1940s, Bennett began working in radio and in the theatre. Her stage debut came in 1940 in Noël Coward‘s Easy Virtue.
  • Bennett Was married five times; the final marriage, to US Air Force Colonel (later Brigadier General) John Theron Coulter, lasted by far the longest—from June 1946 until Bennett’s death in July 1965.
  • Because of her marriage to Coulter and in recognition of her efforts in providing relief entertainment to US troops stationed in Europe during and after World War II, Bennett was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Happy birthday, Constance Bennett, wherever you may be!

Constance Bennett

Happy 106th Birthday, Joan Bennett!

Joan Bennett, sister of Constance Bennett, another Cladrite favorite, was part of a theatrical family that went back to the 18th century. She had a few tiny bits in the silent era, but got really busy once talkies came in and acted into the early 1980s.

Bennett, who was born 106 years ago today in Pallisades, New Jersey, left a legacy in two of our favorite cinematic genres—Pre-Code and Film Noir—and we wish her the happiest of birthdays, wherever she may be.

Joan Bennett

Times Square Tintypes: Richard Bennett

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles stage actor Richard Bennett.
 

! ! ! * * * @ @ @ ! ! ! * * * *

SOME day someone will write another Royal Family. It will be a tale of the mad, mad Bennetts. For that author, here’s some data about the head of the clan: RICHARD BENNETT.
Caricature of Richard BennettHe is always positive.
Has two favorite dishes. One is plain lamb chops. The other is a bowl of wilted lettuce.
Has three daughters. Joan, Constance and Barbara. All began their careers by performing in the movies.
When he rehearsed in Jarnegan he wore only a pink nightgown.
Drinks a quart of Apollinaris water every day on rising. Gets the water free by mentioning it in the play he happens to be in.
He calls the box office from his dressing room before every performance to ask how the house is. Doesn’t give instructions to raise the curtain until satisfied.
Likes to encourage extras. Tells them that he rose from the ranks himself. He never was an extra in his life.
Claims a man’s best friend is his press agent and his worst enemy an ex-wife. He has two of each.
Always does rewriting in which he appears. What Every Woman Knows he believes to be the best play he ever appeared in. Because he didn’t have to do any rewriting with that, he considers Sir James Barrie the greatest writer in the world.
He can talk a great fight. His right hook, however, is a think to duck.
After What Every Woman Knows closed and he parted with Maude Adams, he took advantage of the fact that she was opening in Chanticleer to send her this wire: “I congratulate you on the realization of your fondest ambition—at last you are your own leading man.”
He retires at four every morning. Rises promptly at twelve. Eats only one meal a day. That at six o’clock. However, he loves to act in plays that give him a chance to eat on stage.
Hates interviewers who don’t come armed with complete information about his career. Tells them to consult Who’s Who—which contains only a fragmentary account.
Makes a curtain speech every time he has something to get off his chest. The stage is his soap box.
His luck charm is a white elephant.
If an actor stands in the wings talking while he is acting he invents some excuse to leave the stage. Then tells the actor to stop talking or have his head knocked off.
If the front door of the theater is opened by some peerer-in he stops acting until the glare from the outside has passed. If particularly annoyed he steps to the front of the stage and yells at the person.
His favorite literature is “The Songs of Solomon.”
Wants to be cremated when he dies so he’ll be used to it when he gets there.
Holds a kind of soirée in his dressing room every night after the second act. Has hundreds of visitors. Mostly broken down actors, rich acquaintances and young feminine admirers.
He likes to frighten Boy Scouts.
He counts that day lost when he doesn’t add a new line to the play he happens to be in.
Spends so much time in adjusting the makeup that he never leaves the theater after a matinée. Thus avoids removing and replacing the grease-paint. Passes the time between performances by either sleeping or entertaining.
He plays the piano, banjo and guitar. Believes that he could make a living as a tap dancer.
His wife is his attention caller. She plays solitaire in his dressing room every evening.
He never wore a wig. Dyes his hair to suit the rô. His hair has been blond, black, brown, red and gray.
He insists upon owning the road rights of any show he is in. Quarreled with the Theatre Guild over Playing at Love, later titled Caprice, because of this and quit the show.
No woman with a double chin is beautiful to him.
When traveling he carries with him a necktie board that irons them while you sleep.
He is a man of much talent. Shaves himself. Manicures his own nails. Cuts his own hair.
Once at Texas Guinan‘s night club he drew a Bible from his hip pocket and read it to the assemblage. Everybody kept quiet and listened. He panicked them.
He wears only a green smock when sleeping.
Considers himself one of the ten greatest actors in the world. Has a difficult time naming the other nine. Generally being unable to get past Forbes-Robertson.
No matter what play he is appearing in he never promises to go on for more than one act.
He has one hair growing on each shoulder.

Forget the forest; it’s all about the trees

We took in a Fritz Lang double feature yesterday afternoon at Film Forum: Scarlet Street (1945) and The Woman in the Window (1944).

As one might expect from Lang, they were both solid pictures, both in the noir vein and both starring Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson, and Dan Duryea.

And yet, in a way, the two pictures are reverse images of one another. Scarlet Street is oddly whimsical throughout; the circumstances—a young woman and her shiftless boyfriend work to take a bank cashier and would-be artist for all he’s worth (which is far less than they imagine it is)—are typical of film noir, but the tone of the performances isn’t. The packed house at Film Forum tittered and chuckled throughout, and we couldn’t help wondering if that was what the filmmakers were aiming for. But they weren’t laughing at any perceived ineptitude; the laughs did seem intended.

But the ending of the picture is as bleak as any classic noir. It was a bit jarring.

The Woman in the Window, on the other hand, takes a more traditional approach to its noir tale of a middle-aged professor and a glamour gal who unintentionally commit murder and spend the rest of the picture trying to avoid having the deed be traced to them. It’s cleverly done and witty, but not nearly as lighthearted as Scarlet Street.

But the twist ending (don’t worry, we won’t spoil it) takes the picture in a different direction entirely.

Both films are available on DVD and are well worth watching.

As we always do when we’re viewing a pre-1960 picture, we found ourselves watching for small background details, in the decor of the apartments in which the stories took place, the design of the clothing worn by the actors, the terms, slang and otherwise, used in the dialogue. It’s a habit we picked up long ago, as our interest in life as it once lived grew ever more avid.

Our visual scouring when watching an old movie goes even so far as to take note of the titles on a book shelf, if we find a shot that pulls in close enough for us to make them out. In The Woman in the Window, there’s a scene that finds Duryea, playing a lowlife blackmailer (is there any other kind?), is searching for some hidden dough in Bennett’s apartment, and in conducting the search, he pulls down a handful of books from a shelf on the wall.

He leaves a few books behind on that shelf, and in doing so, the title of one of them is made clearly visible (it’s visible on the big screen, at least, which is just one more argument for seeing classic movies in a theatre whenever possible). We made a mental note of the title, for no good reason whatsoever beyond curiosity, with the intention of doing a little digging when we got home.

The book was entitled “30 Clocks Strike the Hour.” We were left wondering whether it was an actual book or a dummy one mocked up by the prop department at MGM. We were inclined toward the latter possibility.

Well, as it turns out, we were wrong. The book is a collection of short stories by Vita Sackville-West, a prominent and prolific English author and poet who penned more than 10 books of poetry, at least 17 novels and short-story collections, and a handful of biographies. Sackville-West is also remembered for the lengthy string of affairs she conducted with a number of prominent women, including one with Virginia Woolf that is said to have inspired the novel Orlando (Ms Sackville-West and her husband, writer and politician Harold George Nicolson, practiced open marriage).

So it likely says more about us than it does of Ms. Sackville-West that not only didn’t we recognize the title of the book, we were previously altogether unaware of her life and career.

But that’s okay. We know about her now, and who knows? We might even pick up a copy of Thirty Clocks Strike the Hour one of these days. After all, if it was good enough for Alice Reed, Bennett’s character in the picture, it is very likely good enough for us.

Having authored a book of our own a few years back, we have to admit we’d get a kick out of seeing our humble little hardback sitting on a shelf during a given scene in a movie, especially a film that eventually comes to be viewed as a classic and is still drawing sold-out houses 66 years after its debut, as is The Woman in the Window.

We like to imagine some guy or gal, ca. 2077, with an interest in the cinema of the early 21st century and an eye for detail, undertaking a search via the web (or whatever has replaced it by then) to find out if our book (and, by extension, we) really existed.

It’s remarkable, really, what one can discover by looking beyond the cinematic forest at the tiniest trees.