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The Bennetts

An Acting Family

Brian Kellow

Publication Year: 2004

" The Bennetts: An Acting Family is a chronicle of one of the royal families of stage and screen. The saga begins with Richard Bennett, a small-town Indiana roughneck who grew up to be one of the bright lights of the New York stage during the early twentieth century. In time, however, Richard’s fame was eclipsed by that of his daughters, Constance and Joan, who went to Hollywood in the 1920s and found major success there. Constance became the highest-paid actress of the early 1930s, earning as much as $30,000 a week in melodramas. Later she reinvented herself as a comedienne in the classic comedy Topper , with Cary Grant.. After a slow start as a blonde ingenue, Joan dyed her hair black and became one of the screen’s great temptresses in films such as Scarlet Street . She also starred in such lighter fare as Father of the Bride . In the 1960s, Joan gained a new generation of fans when she appeared in the gothic daytime television serial Dark Shadows . The Bennetts is also the story of another Bennett sister, Barbara, whose promising beginnings as a dancer gave way to a turbulent marriage to singer Morton Downey and a steady decline into alcoholism. Constance and Joan were among Hollywood’s biggest stars, but their personal lives were anything but serene. In 1943, Constance became entangled in a highly publicized court battle with the family of her millionaire ex-husband, and in 1951, Joan’s husband, producer Walter Wanger, shot her lover in broad daylight, sparking one of the biggest Hollywood scandals of the 1950s. Brian Kellow, features editor of Opera News magazine, is the coauthor of Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell . He lives in New York and Connecticut.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-xiv

When I was a student at Oregon State University, the English Department sponsored an every-Friday-night International Film Series. There I first encountered many marvelous foreign-language films of the period, including Bread and Chocolate, Spirit of the Beehive, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, and Seven Beauties. ...

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pp. 1-6

“There are only three great actors still alive in America today, ”Richard Bennett told a reporter in the early 1930s. “Maude Adams, Feodor Chaliapin, and Lionel Barrymore. Four if you count me!” Bennett could afford to be immodest—at the time he made that comment, he had racked up a record of achievement that few other ...

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Chapter One. 1870–1900

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pp. 7-22

Long before he was famous for being the father of Constance and Joan Bennett, Richard Bennett had been famous for the intensity of his stage performances, his heavy drinking, his brushes with the law, his long-winded curtain speeches, and perhaps most of all, for his incendiary temper. He unleashed it freely and often, until it became ...

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Chapter Two. 1900–1904

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pp. 23-30

From the time they met during rehearsals of A Royal Family, Mabel Morrison was one woman Richard Bennett consistently failed to dominate. No doubt this first-generation actor was somewhat intimidated by Mabel’s distinguished theatrical pedigree. Her father, Lewis Morrison, was one of the most successful actor-managers of ...

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Chapter Three. 1904–1914

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pp. 31-50

Throughout her career, Constance Bennett delighted in confusing the public, friends, and even family about the exact year of her birth. She carried it to extremes, as if it were somehow a point of honor. After they had both become successful Hollywood stars, Joan often remarked that Constance had started out the oldest sister, ...

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Chapter Four. 1914–1920

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pp. 51-70

With Damaged Goods, Richard had overturned conventional notions about what American theatrical audiences would accept. For his next Broadway vehicle, he chose another Brieux play, Maternity. Although it too dealt with a risky subject—legalized abortion—it made its way to the stage with few obstacles. Again, Richard ...

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Chapter Five. 1920–1924

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pp. 71-94

In the summer of 1920, after two years in Greenwich Village, the Bennetts moved to a large apartment at 950 Park Avenue, at Eighty-second Street. It was the grandest address they had had up to that time, and as tangible a sign as any of Richard’s increasing professional stature. Barbara and Joan were enrolled in Miss Hopkins’s ...

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Chapter Six. 1925–1927

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pp. 95-106

By mid-1925, Richard had reached the peak of his career, while hist wo oldest daughters were just beginning to make their presence known. Despite, or because of, Philip Plant’s continued objections, Constance seemed at last to have settled on an acting career. Since Cytherea, she had gone from one film to another, appearing in a ...

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Chapter Seven. 1927–1929

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pp. 107-120

Jack Fox’s job with the Stock Exchange was short-lived. One nigh the told Joan that a hot theatrical prospect awaited him in London, the kind of opportunity he had been waiting for and that was guaranteed to launch him successfully in the business at last. Joan was skeptical, but at the last minute weakened and let him go, while she ...

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Chapter Eight. 1929–1930

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pp. 121-132

On January 20, 1929, Sarah Savina Armstrong, a twenty-eight-year-old Belfast housemaid, checked into London’s Royal Free Hospital. The following day, she gave birth to a robust and beautiful boy, whom she named Dennis Arthur Armstrong. The baby’s father was Arthur Hewitt, an English laborer, whom Miss ...

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Chapter Nine. 1930–1931

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pp. 133-156

While Constance and Joan flourished in Hollywood, Richard wandered around New York, complaining to anyone who would listen that Broadway was in its death throes. The Depression had unquestionably caused business to decline. A total of 239 productions in 1929–1930 fell to 187 the following season, and the numbers ...

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Chapter Ten. 1931–1932

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pp. 157-172

Joan’s years as a contract actress with Fox Films were busy and prolific. She worked steadily, both for the studio and on loan-out, but it is doubtful whether any young actress was ever stuck with such a miserable run of films. In the next two years, she would complete ten pictures, nearly all of them worthless. Fox tried her ...

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Chapter Eleven. 1933–1935

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pp. 173-186

Early in 1932, Joan had rented a two-story, white stucco, Spanish-style house at 1121 Tower Road, in Benedict Canyon, and Gene joined her there. Diana, who had never known her own father, was delighted to have Gene in her life and immediately took to calling him Daddy. Every night, when Diana was ready for bed, Gene drew ...

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Chapter Twelve. 1934–1937

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pp. 187-206

When he first came to Hollywood in 1931, Richard had tried to give the impression that filmmaking would fill the void left in his creative life after he had turned his back on Broadway. By 1934, he could no longer preserve this illusion, for himself or anyone else. With the exception of Arrowsmith and If I Had a Million, a 1932 ...

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Chapter Thirteen. 1937–1940

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pp. 207-238

Following her departure from MGM, Constance waited around for another decent contract offer to materialize. When none did, she signed a two-picture deal with Gaumont-British, a studio known for its Alfred Hitchcock thrillers and Jessie Matthews musicals. The first film was a World War I drama called, Everything Is Thunder, adapted ...

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Chapter Fourteen. 1941–1943

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pp. 239-270

With her retirement from acting and marriage to Morton Downey in 1929, Barbara had chosen her place out of the sun—seemingly, without regret. Her quiet life as a Connecticut housewife and mother had given her a distinction all her own: while Constance and Joan had each had three husbands by the time they turned thirty, the ...

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Chapter Fifteen. 1944

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pp. 271-280

There is a scrap of dialogue in Robert Wise’s 1947 thriller Born to Kill that might serve as an epitaph for the film noir genre as a whole. The picture concerns a divorcée, Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), who must confront her own corrupt nature when she falls for Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) whom she knows to be a psychopathic ...

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Chapter Sixteen. 1945–1947

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pp. 281-308

The Woman in the Window signaled the beginning of Joan’s most rewarding period as an actress. She always gave Lang all the credit for the fact that Hollywood suddenly began to take her more seriously. No matter that he obsessively dictated every detail of her performances. If being treated like a puppet was the price of doing ...

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Chapter Seventeen. 1948

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pp. 309-324

On July 4, 1948, Joan and Walter’s second daughter, Shelley, was born. To outsiders, the Wangers’ lives seemed satisfying and complete: the independent producer, married to the independent star, both at the peak of their careers and respected members of the Hollywood establishment, at a time when much of the industry ...

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Chapter Eighteen. 1949–1950

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pp. 325-344

By 1949, Walter was again desperate for a hit, and he hoped Tulsa and Reign of Terror (also known as The Black Book) would change his luck. As always, he earned the respect of his colleagues by researching his films meticulously: no detail of the sets or costumes escaped his attention. But with the changes in Hollywood at the ...

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Chapter Nineteen. 1951–1952

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pp. 345-366

One of the sobering truths faced by many of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s golden age was that their time at the top would not last very long without extraordinary luck or determination. The 1950s were particularly trying times for actresses. A few were lucky: Katharine Hepburn was able to continue finding scripts ideally ...

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Chapter Twenty. 1953–1958

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pp. 367-396

By early 1953, the Coulters had been transferred to Washington, D.C., where John was to work on the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. They rented a three-story brick townhouse at 1513 Northwest Thirtieth Street in the affluent Georgetown neighborhood. After the years of relative isolation in Germany, Constance ...

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Chapter Twenty-One. 1959–1965

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pp. 397-420

Following the demise of Love Me Little, Joan began taking serious steps toward getting out of California altogether. The only Hollywood offers she received were occasional guest shots on television—hardly reason enough to stay. There was plenty of reason to relocate to New York: the difficulties of the past few years seemed more ...

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Chapter Twenty-Two. 1966–1971

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pp. 421-434

Late in 1965, Joan left Ninety-sixth Street for a new apartment at 150 East Seventy-second Street, just east of Lexington Avenue. With the help of interior designer Airey Mays, she turned it into another bright and colorful reminder of her years in California. The foyer sported white-and-green wallpaper in a kind of trellis pattern, with ...

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Chapter Twenty-Three. 1972–1990

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pp. 435-450

“Scarsdale,” said Diana Anderson, “is where you go to die.” Joan would not have assessed it so harshly; nonetheless, it was clear to many friends and family members that moving to Westchester County was not the easiest transition for her to make. “She was not cut out to be a suburban housewife,” said Melinda Markey. ...

Feature Films

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pp. 451-478

Selected Television Appearances

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pp. 479-482


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pp. 483-508

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 509-514


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pp. 515-530

E-ISBN-13: 9780813171920
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813123295

Page Count: 576
Publication Year: 2004