Above: The Bennett Sisters in Hollywood – the ‘Sophisticate’ and the ‘Femme Fatale’
In the 1930s, the Hollywood studios had at least two pairs of sisters under contract – Joan and Constance Bennett and Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. I want to concentrate on the careers of the Bennett sisters in order to compare the image the two women represented on and off-screen, and whether the fact that they were siblings affected their star persona.
Above: Feature on The Bennett Sisters in Picture Show Annual 1934 (UK)
In contrast to Constance Bennett’s image of ‘ageless elegance’, which did not change throughout her acting career, Joan’s persona underwent three shifts, which roughly correspond to the decades of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s: that of ‘ingénue’, ‘femme fatale’ and ‘mother’.
It is for her femme fatale roles in her 1940s ‘noir’ films that Joan is best known today. Fan magazines at the time were quick in attempting to exploit the sibling relationship and suggest a rivalry between the sisters, with headlines such as “Joan Grabs the Bennett Spotlight: Sister Connie has our cover – here’s where Joan stars” (Harrison, in Levin, p. 26). However, although both sisters were blonde (to start with) with blue eyes and a small stature, they had very different personalities.
The Bennett sisters came from a theatrical family; their father, Richard Bennett, was a famous stage actor. Constance Bennett, who was older by 5 years, had already established herself as a Hollywood star in the late 1920s when Joan arrived on the scene. Constance has been described as “the embodiment of glamour on and off-screen” (Ringgold, p. 472), with a stubborn streak and a “devil-may-care frankness” (ibid), while Joan was “(f)itted by looks and temperament naturally shy” (Picturegoer, p. 6) and has admitted to looking up to her sister (Bennett and Kibbee, p. 89). While Constance, who seemed to place her social life above her acting career (Ringgold, p. 472), was born to navigate the studios to her advantage, Joan claims she only entered pictures out of necessity - as a divorcee at 18, with a young child, it was a useful way for her to support herself (Parish, 37). At the same time as “chic” Constance - the number two box office attraction after Greta Garbo in 1932 – showed her “natural gift for class” in melodramas about poor but glamorous women or socialites, her “magnolia-drenched little sister” portrayed the “pert, poised, vapid ingénue” (Parish, p.31). The two pictures below reveal the similarities between the sisters while emphasising their differences at the same time.
Through their hairstyle, dress and expression, Joan’s innocence and Constance’s sophistication are highlighted. Notably, Joan Bennett has stated that she always considered Constance to be the more beautiful (Bennett and Kibbee, p. 89), and it is clear from her autobiography that she felt inferior to her more glamorous sister.
In the early 1930s, both women suffered from being cast in, or, as in Constance’s case, choosing, too many similar roles within a short period of time, which led to the audience becoming bored of them (Balio, p. 245). However, in the late 1930s, while Constance’s career was only briefly enlivened by her appearance in two successful screwball comedies, Topper (1937) and Merrily We Live (1938), Joan moved towards the second and most fruitful part of her career, that of the brunette femme fatale. During preproduction for the film Trade Winds (1938), producer Walter Wanger noticed Joan Bennett’s similarity in looks to the highly popular Hedy Lamarr and decided to shoot half of the picture with Joan in a brunette wig.
This change of hair colour seems to have been the catalyst for Joan Bennett being seen in a completely different light, and, in the 1940s, she entered her most lucrative period in film. This is also the time in which her sister’s career dwindled, as Constance mostly starred in B-movies and turned her energy to other matters, such as hosting a radio show and putting her name to a fashion label (Ringgold, p. 487). Constance Bennett’s 1940s’ film career is most interesting for her role in the anti-Nazi film Paris Underground (19456), which she produced herself (ibid.). In contrast, the 1940s saw Joan Bennett notably working with famous directors such as Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang. The latter notably influenced Bennett’s career when he cast her first as a goodhearted prostitute in Man Hunt (1941) and then as the quintessential femme fatale in two films, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1946), in which she lures Edward G. Robinson to his doom. Being cast as a femme fatale showcased her new “enticing and alluring” persona, with a hint of “predatory malevolence” (Bowers, p. 329).
The change in Joan Bennett’s onscreen persona is in stark contrast to a remark made by Fritz Lang about Joan’s offscreen image, describing her as “a remarkable woman, a fine actress, runs her home well, is a lovely wife and the best mother I have ever known” (Bowers, p. 328). This comment emphasises the importance of Bennett retaining the role of ‘good wife and mother’ in her offscreen persona, which she had already established in the 1930s (Benjamin, p. 31). By contrast, Constance’s persona was more noteworthy for her quick temper, her independence and reputation for being a ’human dynamo’ (Levin, p. 29).
In the 1950s, while her sister was touring the country in a cabaret act and other plays, Joan “wisely moved into mother roles” (Parish, p. 86). Although her character in The Reckless Moment (1948) is a youthful mother with enough sex appeal to attract James Mason’s blackmailer, she is most remembered for her more conservative role as Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in Father of the Bride (1950). In this film, and others of the period, the mother is a secondary character, as the action revolves around the relationship between father and daughter. After Joan Bennett’s husband, Walter Wanger, shot her agent, Jennings Lang, in 1951, she claims to have become “a professional outcast” (Bowers, p. 331) and therefore moved to theatre roles for a while. Afterwards she alternated film roles with television and theatre parts. Her sister Constance died in 1965 after having completed the film Madame X (1966), her first film for 12 years, whereas Joan Bennett died in 1990, her last appearance on the big screen having been in Suspiria (1977).
I believe that one distinguishing factor between the two sisters lies the different ways in which they represented ‘femininity’; despite her feminine appearance, Constance showcased more masculine characteristics through her independence and reputation as the “shrewdest businesswoman in Hollywood” (Bennett and Kibbee, p. 206), as well as repeatedly sueing members of the press for misrepresentation. Although Joan’s most famous roles in the 1940s relied on her “sultry, dark-haired beauty” (Court, p. 22), she managed to balance her dangerous femme fatale image through her continued offscreen emphasis on wholesome feminine qualities around home life and family, which were later utilised onscreen in her mother roles. I also believe that a sense of vulnerability shines through most of Joan Bennett’s portrayals, whereas Constance was adored for being a “competent, industrious and finished portrayer of sophisticated roles her public demands” (McBride). Moreover, after initially leading a ‘wallflower existence’ in the shadow of her elder sister (Benjamin, in Levin, p. 176), Joan Bennett came into her own just as Constance’s star was beginning to fade, which could be more than just a coincidence.
Balio, Tino (1995) Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise (1930-39), University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
Benjamin, George “The Inside Story of Joan’s Divorce” in Levin, Martin (ed.) Hollywood and the Great Fan Magazines, Ian Allan Ltd., London, 1970, pp. 30-1, 176.
Bennett, Joan and Kibbee, Lois (1970) “The Bennett Playbill”. Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York.
Bowers, Ronald “Joan Bennett”, in Films in Review (June/July 1977), pp. 321-337.
Court, John “Connie’s Sister”, in That Certain Age (Nov. 1980), pp. 21-2.
Harrison, Helen “Joan Grabs the Bennett Spotlight!” in Levin, Martin (ed.) Hollywood and the Great Fan Magazines, Ian Allan Ltd., London, 1970, pp. 26-7, 175.
McBride, Mary Margaret (1932) The Life Story of Constance Bennett, Star Library Publications, New York.
Parish, James Robert and Stanke, Don E. (1975) The Glamour Girls, Arlington House Publishers, New Rochelle, NY.
Ringgold, Gene “The Films of Constance Bennett” in Films in Review, October 1965.
“Handicapped by Fame”, in Picturegoer (24th April 1948), p. 6.
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