February 27 marks what would have been the 100th birthday of screen actress Joan Bennett, who died at age 80 in 1990. When she first caught attention, as a blond and beautiful (but rather awkward) ingenue in major early talkies such as Disraeli and Bulldog Drummond, both from 1929, she was best known as the daughter of stage star Richard Bennett and the younger sister of Constance Bennett (whose movie-star shadow she would be in for most of the 1930s). Neither of the Bennett actresses were first-rate talents, but Joan managed to have a very long career, continuing well after most of the public had forgotten Constance or their daddy. Joan was good at reinventing herself, a necessary talent for anyone who wants to last decades in the movie industry.
She was a lovely blond leading lady of the 1930s, then the raven-haired beauty of four Fritz Lang melodramas of the 1940s, making her a key femme fatale of film noir, with The Woman in the Window (1944), opposite Edward G. Robinson, the best of her films for Lang. At 40, she moved into the 1950s as the epitome of the upper-middle-class American housewife in Father of the Bride (1950) and its 1951 sequel Father’s Little Dividend. And in the 1960s, she thrived on the small screen in the one-of-a-kind horror soap Dark Shadows.
Bennett had first shown glimmers of talent in Raoul Walsh’s snappy, wisecracking comedy Me and My Gal (1932), opposite Spencer Tracy, her future Father of the Bride husband. She showed a likably deadpan approach to comedy. In Little Women (1933), a massive hit and an instant classic, she was Amy, and director George Cukor got some lovely and charming moments from her, though hers is the least accomplished performance among the “women.” A breakthrough for Bennett came in Private Worlds (1935), a rarely seen drama I was lucky enough to catch a few years ago at a screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Released a decade and a half before The Snake Pit (1948), it has been called the first major Hollywood film set in a mental institution. Starring Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer and directed by the estimable Gregory La Cava, Private Worlds is an admirable drama remarkably free of easy answers, and it’s further striking for its feminist streak, with Colbert as a great psychiatrist, the equal of her male colleagues. (The film never resorts to putting her in her “place.”) Boyer plays the new boss, and he has a low opinion of female doctors. He eventually comes around. The film is unfortunately loaded with soapy plot turns, including the arrival of Boyer’s murderous sister Helen Vinson, who begins an affair with doctor Joel McCrea, who is married to a fragile Bennett.
Colbert received an Oscar nomination, a year after winning the award for It Happened One Night. With her characteristic ease, warmth, and intelligence, she is radiant. Boyer fares less well in a sketchier role, but McCrea is as wonderfully natural as always, even though the script undermines him by turning him into a heel. (Colbert and McCrea, cast as pals and peers here, would take their obvious rapport and turn it into pure gold when they starred in Preston Sturges’ comic wonder The Palm Beach Story seven years later.) The surprise here is Bennett, in one of her best performances, tender and sympathetic, showing new confidence in her acting ability and making a strong and touching impression. She plays a woman who feels she is nothing without her husband, and she handles this aspect of the character with restraint and delicacy.
La Cava uses overlapping dialogue and spontaneous-feeling injections of humor, just as he would so famously in his Stage Door two years later. The most memorable and startling sequence is Bennett’s breakdown while a storm rages outside. The visual and aural elements put you inside her mind as she mentally disintegrates and falls down a staircase.
Despite its flaws, Private Worlds is ambitious and affecting and made with great care. It may be uneven and abbreviated, but it’s a movie that keeps you rooting for it. I hope there will be more opportunities for it to be seen. Its invisibility is a crime, especially considering the major artists involved. And it contains what is probably the best performance ever given by the blond Joan Bennett, long before she became a dark temptress or raised Elizabeth Taylor or trafficked in vampires.