Childhood & Early Life
Joan Bennett was born Joan Geraldine Bennett on February 27, 1910, in Palisade, New Jersey, to actor Richard Bennett and Adrienne Morrison. Joan’s parents later divorced in 1925. Bennett was youngest of her three sisters; her older sisters Constance and Barbara were also actors.
At the age of 6, she worked with her family in the silent movie, ‘The Valley of Decision,’ adapted from her father’s play. Bennett studied at ‘Miss Hopkins School for Girls,’ Manhattan. Later, she attended a boarding school ‘St. Margaret’s,’ in Waterbury and then went to a finishing school ‘L’Hermitage,’ in Versailles, France.
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Bennett made her stage debut in 1928 in a play ‘Jarnegan’ and received acclaim. In 1929, she worked in several movies, including mystery-thriller talkie ‘Bulldog Drummond’ in the role of ‘Phyllis Benton,’ and biopic ‘Disraeli’ as ‘Lady Clarissa Pevensey.’
In the early phase of her film career, she appeared as blonde, which was her natural hair-color. Bennett essayed the role of ‘Dolores Fenton’ in the musical ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ (1930) and in ‘Moby Dick,’ she portrayed ‘Faith Mapple.’
Signing a contract with ‘Fox Films Corporation,’ she appeared as ‘Jane Miller’ in ‘She Wanted a Millionaire’ (1932), and as ‘Helen Riley’ in ‘Me and My Gal’ (1932), among others. In 1933, she played ‘Amy’ in George Cukor’s ‘Little Women.’ After this movie, film producer Walter Wanger signed a contract with her and also managed her career.
In the 1935 film, ‘Private Worlds,’ she essayed the role of a psychiatrist’s wife (Sally MacGregor). It was followed by a musical comedy ‘Vogues of 1938’ (1937).
On the suggestion of Wanger and director Tay Garnett, Bennett changed to a brunette for her role of ‘Kay Kerrigan,’ in the comedy film ‘Trade Winds’ (1938). With raven-hair, she got a new screen persona of a glamorous femme fatale and according to her, this brought in better roles.
After starring in ‘The Housekeeper’s Daughter’ (1939), she played ‘Princess Maria Theresa’ in 1939’s ‘The Man in the Iron Mask,’ and portrayed the ‘Grand Duchess Zona of Lichtenburg’ in ‘The Son of Monte Cristo’ (1940). She was one of the four actresses finalized for the role of ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ in ‘Gone with the Wind.’
Bennett’s role as ‘Brenda Bentley’ in the 1940 crime-drama, ‘The House Across the Bay,’ and also as ‘Carol Hoffman’ in anti-Nazi film ‘The Man I Married’ fetched her accolades.
Along with her husband, Wanger, and director Fritz Lang, she formed a production company named ‘Diana Productions’ and worked under Lang’s direction in 4 film noir – as ‘Cockney Jerry Stokes’ in ‘Man Hunt’ (1941), as a model ‘Alice Reed’ in ‘The Woman In the Window’ (1944), as blackmailer ‘Katherine March’ in ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945), and ‘Secret Beyond the Door’ (1948). She is remembered for her performances in these films.
Her other notable movies and roles include – ‘The Macomber Affair’ (1947) as a shrewish wife ‘Margaret Macomber,’ ‘The Woman on the Beach’ (1947) as the deceitful wife ‘Peggy,’ ‘The Reckless Moment’ (1949) as blackmail victim ‘Lucia Harper,’ and many more.
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Around this time, Bennett changed her screen image as an elegant wife and mother, evident especially in Vincente Minnelli’s two classic comedies – ‘Father of the Bride’ (1950) and its sequel, ‘Father’s Little Dividend’ (1951). In both these movies she played ‘Ellie Banks,’ wife of Spencer Tracy and mother of Elizabeth Taylor. Her performances in these films received much appreciation.
Bennett also performed on a number of radio programs, such as ‘Duffy’s Tavern,’ ‘The Jack Benny Program,’ ‘Ford Theater,’ anthology series – ‘Screen Guide Theater,’ and made guest appearances on TV shows ‘Sid Caesar,’ and ‘Imogene Coca’s Your Show of Shows.’
A scandalous incident on December 13, 1951, adversely affected Bennett’s career. Suspecting an affair between Bennett and her agent of 12 years, Jennings Lang, her husband, Walter Wanger, shot Lang in the groin. Lang later recovered in the hospital and Wanger was sentenced to 4 months imprisonment. Bennett vehemently refuted the charge of an affair, but this episode damaged her image irreparably, and as a result of which she was not offered many projects.
Bennett returned to the stage with ‘Bell, Book and Candle.’ she toured with the stage productions, including ‘Once More,’ ‘Susan and God,’ ‘With Feeling,’ ‘Never too Late,’ among others. One of her last movies was ‘We’re No Angles’ (1955).
Bennett also worked in TV shows, such as ‘Climax!’ (1955), ‘Playhouse 90’ (1957), and ‘Too Young to Go Steady’ (1958). She received an ‘Emmy Award’ nomination for her portrayal of ‘Elizabeth Collins Stoddard,’ in the gothic TV soap opera ‘Dark Shadows’ (1966-1971). She reprised her role in the 1970 film adaptation of the series.
In 1970, she published her autobiography, ‘The Bennett Playbill,’ which was written with Lois Kibbee. Bennett received a Star on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’ at 6300 Hollywood Boulevard.
Bennett appeared in 5 TV movies during the 1970s and early 1980s. She played ‘Madam Blanc’ in the horror-thriller ‘Suspiria’ (1977), which earned her the ‘1978 Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress’ nomination.
Family & Personal Life
At the age of 16, she married John Fox on September 15, 1926, in London. They had one daughter, Adrienne Ralston Fox (born February, 1928). The marriage did not long last due to her husband’s drinking problem and they divorced on July 30, 1928.
She married film producer/screenwriter Gene Markey on March 16, 1932, in Los Angeles. On her birthday, February 27, 1934, she gave birth to their daughter, Melinda Markey. This marriage, too, did not last long and the couple divorced on June 3, 1937.
Bennett got married for a third time to Walter Wanger in Phoenix on January 12, 1940. The couple had two children – Stephanie (born June 26, 1943) and Shelley (born July 4, 1948). Even after the 1951 shooting scandal, the couple remained married, but divorced in September 1965.
In 1949, at the age of 39, Bennett became a grandmother.
On February 14, 1978, she married retired publisher/film critic David Wilde in White Plains, New York. They remained married till her death on December 7, 1990, when Bennett died of heart failure at her home in Scarsdale, New York. Her resting place is Pleasant View Cemetery, Lyme, Connecticut.