joan bennett

Joan Bennett: Hollywood’s Shimmering Vagabond – Episode 16

In episode 16 we focus on the ‘quiet Bennett’ compared to her volatile film star sister Constance. Joan was fiery in a more subtle way, she didn’t think much of her film career and felt more at home on the stage like her father, the legendary Richard Bennett. She quoted him often in her autobiography ‘The Bennett Playbill’, one of her favourite lines being “We are vagabonds to the heart and we are not ashamed of it”. She said “Well, I’m still a “vagabond” and I’m shamelessly proud of it.”

Her film career was not a long one and she made a little over 70 films but she made a lasting impression, especially in her noir work with Frtiz Lang. We’ve chosen for this episode Private Worlds (1935), Scarlet Street (1945) and The Reckless Moment (1949).

Bennett, J. (1970) The Bennett Playbill: Five Generations of the Famous Theater Family (with Lois Kibbee). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Kellow, B. (2004) The Bennetts: An Acting Family Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

Private Worlds (1935) Dir. Gregory La Cava [DVD] Paramount Pictures.

Scarlett Street (1945) Dir. Fritz Lang [YouTube] Universal Pictures.

The Reckless Moment (1949) Dir. Max Ophüls [DVR} Columbia Pictures.…9s-scarlet-street


Scene Dwellers – #10: Women in Work – Private Worlds (’35)

#10: Women in Work – Private Worlds (’35)

Among various scenarios that reoccur in woman’s pictures, the most satisfying often revolve around work. Women installed in fabulous careers never cease to fascinate. Hollywood would ruin a grand movie about a working woman by sneaking in a love story that halted our heroine’s career trajectory. I’d much rather see Joan Crawford run a trucking company (They All Kissed the Bride); Jane Wyman found a department store (Lucy Gallant); Joan Blondell as the boss of a crime syndicate (Blondie Johnson); Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins compete as rival best-selling novelists (Old Acquaintance); Ginger Rogers as magazine editor (Lady in the Dark); Barbara Stanwyck’s cattle queen rancher (The Furies and Forty Guns); Rosalind Russell as an advertising executive (Take a Letter, Darling); Ruth Chatterton, head of an automotive plant (Female); Vivien Leigh play a fashion designer and spy (Dark Journey); Loretta Young as a Colonel in the Air Force (Ladies Courageous) then shift focus to the romantic angle that narrowed the dimensions from the public to the private. A lady with a great job holds far more interest than another variation upon tall, dark and handsome.

private worlds

Gregory La Cava’s Private Worlds (’35) stands out as a perfect gem exactly because we never lose sight of Claudette Colbert’s work as a doctor in a psychiatric hospital. In every scene, she’s characterised by professional accomplishments and reputation. The backstory emphasises her brilliant research into mental illness, how she upholds a commitment to therapeutic treatment over the horrors of the Victorian madhouse, and that she’s Joel McCrea’s respected colleague. While the head matron counsels solitary confinement and punishment, Colbert’s Dr Jane Everest remains a steadfast practitioner of the talking cure. Colbert’s doctor can reach men cut off and disconnected from reality and help them grasp reason.

When the new superintendent arrives—smoking hot Charles Boyer—and announces that he doesn’t believe in women doctors, viewers gasp at his bigoted point of view, one that can erase the value a woman’s lifework in an instant. He tosses off his opinion as though it were on par with an offhand distaste for something like a goat cheese and beet pairing. Boyer’s ‘I don’t care for it’ response functions as a non-sequitur regarding a woman’s prestigious career. Colbert maintains a chin-up amiability in the wake of such backward presumption and a demotion, from supervising the male ward to tending to the outpatients. Before long, Boyer revises his opinion during a pivotal scene where she saves his neck from a patient on a rampage. In this thrilling scene, viewers are treated to a sight we are starved for—a woman as the most competent person in the room.

private worlds

At the start of the scene, Colbert watches from the sidelines as Boyer prays with a man in Arabic. No one else in the hospital could answer the man’s request for company in prayer until the worldly Dr Monet arrived. We have the opportunity to see a moment of compassion from the lady doctor hater and recognise how he has a capacity to reform judgment. A patient in the room reacts violently to the screen Boyer places around the dying man’s bed and lunges at hot French doctor, clutching his throat and forcing him by the arm to the ground. Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams plays the patient, Jerry. He’s so enormous he holds Boyer’s arm like it’s a piece of kindling to snap over a campfire.

While all heck breaks loose, as the male patients howl the rafters down, three orderlies struggle to fell the giant, but Jerry’s having none of it. Boyer recovers on the sidelines as Colbert has a turn being thrown to the floor, the sleeve of a lovely frock torn in the process. The quickest way to show a woman has been attacked lies in ruining an otherwise fabulous ensemble. Rather than cower in the corner like the *cough-cough* superintendent, Colbert springs up and persists with a gentle-voiced appeal to Jerry. She reminds him that they’re friends and why would he want to hurt them? Jerry switches from fighting off the men in white coats and latches on to Colbert’s voice as though it were a lifeline. He goes limp and the room quietens, thanks to Colbert’s courage.

private worlds

When they move to an examination room, so Colbert can X-ray and bandage Boyer’s fractured arm, we’re gifted with another rarity: a man telling a woman that he was wrong and she was right (are you dizzy yet?). First, he thanks her for saving his life. Colbert questions if he realises he instigated with the screen. He admits culpability and compliments her intervention with Jerry. They share a moment. She’s not rubbing his face in it: ‘When people go cold and hard on me, I tend to meet them halfway.’ Colbert depends upon everyday transformations. Then Colbert gets to watch as he chews out the matron and asks for her notice when she disparages women doctors.

A romance develops (hello, Charles Boyer was an irresistible swoon master in the mid-‘30s) although it simmers on the back burner while the real business of a woman’s work as psychiatrist takes the forefront of the plot. Private Worlds contains many pleasures, despite the fact that two women are punished for Joel McCrea’s wandering penis. Claudette Colbert encourages fist-pumping and lighter-flicking allegiance. Charles Boyer makes women sighhard (this was his star vehicle in America). And Joan Bennett looks about 12 and has a delightful turn as a woman unravelling. You can find it online—required viewing for the woman’s picture devotee.



The Melodramas Part 1: John M. Stahl – From Back Street to Heaven – Episode 11

Episode 11! Part 1 of a 2 part series on the melodramas of the ’30’s and ’50’s starting with the films of John M. Stahl. Stahl directed some of the most popular films of the romantic melodrama genre through the 1930’s, some of which would go on to be remade in glorious technicolor by Douglas Sirk in the 1950’s. He was forgotten in film history for many decades mostly due to the lack of availability of any decent prints. A resurgence of interest in his work was sparked by the Universal Pictures under Laemmle Jr retrospective in MoMA last year. For the first time since their release audiences were able to experience the pristine and slow burning beauty of Stahl’s films, where women were the centre of action and interest.

We also discuss the other forgotten man of that time, Laemmle Jr.

Charles Boyer is discussed in loving detail in our He’s a Keeper segment.

The Melodramas Part 1: John M. Stahl – From Back Street to Heaven – Episode 11 by Any Ladle’s Sweet

Episode 11! Part 1 of a 2 part series on the melodramas of the ’30’s and ’50’s starting with the films of John M. Stahl. Stahl directed some of the most popular films of the romantic melodrama genre through the 1930’s, some of which would go on to be remade in glorious technicolor by Douglas Sirk in the 1950’s.

An Affair to Remember (1957) Dir. Leo McCarey [YouTube] Twentieth Century Fox.

Back Street (1932) Dir. John M Stahl [YouTube] Universal Pictures.

Back Street (1941) Dir. Robert Stevenson [Daily Motion] Universal Pictures.

Bawden, J. and Miller, R. (2016) ‘Interview with Irene Dunne’ in Conversations with Classic

Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Gaslight (1944) Dir. George Cukor [DVD] Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer.

Hold Back the Dawn (1941) Dir. Mitchell Leisen [DVD] Paramount Pictures.

Imitation of Life (1934) Dir. John M Stahl [DVD] Universal Pictures.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) Dir. John M Stahl [DVD] Universal Pictures.

Le Bonheur (1934) Dir. Marcel L’Herbier [Internet Archive] Universal Pictures.

Liliom (1934) Dir. Fritz Lang. [YouTube] Fox Film Corporation/ Fox Europa.

Love Affair (1939) Dir. Leo McCarey [YouTube] RKO Pictures.

Magnificent Obsession (1935) Dir. John M Stahl [DVD] Universal Pictures.

Only Yesterday (1933) Dir. John M Stahl [YouTube] Universal Pictures.

Swindell, L. (1983) The Reluctant Lover: Charles Boyer. New York: Doubleday.

The Earrings of Madame de … (1953) Dir. Max Ophüls [DVD] Gaumont (France)Arlan (US).

When Tomorrow Comes (1939) Dir. John M Stahl [DVD] Universal Pictures.…/#.V69xApgrKM9…irks-interlude/…carl-lammle-jr/

Closing music from Where Does Love Go (1966) ‘La Vie En Rose’ sung by Charles Boyer


Scene Dweller #9: ‘The nearest thing to heaven’ Charles Boyer v Cary Grant

#9: ‘The nearest thing to heaven’ Charles Boyer v Cary Grant

Delmar Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart’s script for the final scene of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (’39) remains almost identical in the director’s remake, An Affair to Remember (’57), but the scenes vary dramatically in each leading man’s delivery. As Nicky Ferrante, Cary Grant plays the scene in an altogether different emotional pitch from Charles Boyer’s Michel Marnet. Close up, there’s little to recommend Grant’s vanity-riddled performance over the rich affective panoply Boyer gifts to viewers. Grant renders elevator music from Boyer’s grand symphony.

Deborah Kerr, as Terry McKay, settles alone on a sofa with a book when Grant turns up at her door. Cary Grant paces Terry’s flat like he owns the place, trying to dominate the space and overwhelm the supine lady under a blanket. Aggrieved and bitter, Grant’s crabby demeanour casts a gloomy lover’s reunion. He’s sarcastic with those little huh-huh- huh exhalations that call the lady out as a liar, one who’s not to be trusted. The old ‘will he slap or kiss her?’ tone from a spurned lover holds limited appeal in a woman’s picture. Ham-fisted actors such as Spencer Tracy and Fredric March use glib anger as their default setting for any blip in what they anticipate as a plot’s romantic trajectory. When a lady fails to behave as expected, they embroil an angry attitude—a choice that just seems like a lazy response to affairs of the heart. How did women tolerate playing next to men who acted hell-bent on socking them when it was time for a tête-à- tête? More to the point, an irascible stance indicates a coward. If you just smother a range of emotional responses with hot-headed shorthand for masculinity, women in the audience know they’re sold a cheap bill of goods. Grant apologists might argue that he plays the scene in this manner in order to create dramatic tension for the unravelling, when he realises the truth about why she didn’t keep their rendezvous. In other words, Grant sets himself up to be the bad guy so we develop more empathy for Deborah Kerr’s character. But Grant’s reaction to the painting in her bedroom, which identifies Kerr as a poor woman in a wheelchair, belies a promise of emotional crescendo in the moment.


When Grant opens the bedroom door and sees his own painting, his reaction conveys a fatal flaw: he not only looks away and closes his eyes, he keeps them shut for a few seconds, as if to demonstrate that he can’t bear the sight of Terry’s misfortune. He protects himself from her pain with his eyes shut tight. Women in the audience should object to Grant’s refusal to witness Terry’s plight. A measure of pure vanity, Grant’s closed-eye response makes what happened to Terry all about him, which by the way remains anathema to the spirit of woman’s pictures. Viewers are robbed of the scene’s emotional veracity. Grant denies us the spectacle of male emotion; instead of empathy for Terry’s anguish or an expression of remorse for his selfish behaviour, he avoids it lids down, an inconstant lover’s ploy. He rushes through reaction and moves out of the bedroom in a hasty manner. The whole segment in Terry’s bedroom passes in less than twenty seconds. Even though An Affair to Remember runs thirty minutes longer than the original, the final scene’s truncated form feels like a cheat.


Charles Boyer, by contrast, offers a revelation in display of male emotion. Boyer’s stalwart performances in woman’s pictures exist without true rival. (Be sure to listen back to Ep. 11 when he’s featured in our He’s a Keeper spotlight.) When Boyer enters Irene Dunne’s modest flat, he looks wistful. Boyer’s not angry; he’s gutted. Clearly, he still loves her. He doesn’t want to hide behind wounded pride. His eyes stay riveted on Dunne’s Terry McKay, and slide down covertly to her legs as a signal that he realises what prevented Terry from keeping their date on top the Empire State building. Boyer’s eyes are as expressive as any of the grand dames of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and he knew how to draw viewers in with them, rather than rely on scenery chewing or physical distraction.


In the lady’s bedroom, when he looks at the painting, Boyer’s face registers a full array of reactions to what must have happened to Terry. He has difficulty swallowing. Boyer’s emotional spectrum includes shock, remorse, shame, guilt, empathy and deep regret for her suffering. His eyes flutter and we can see that he’s chastened for thinking of himself, for being petty and self-absorbed when Terry couldn’t walk. Boyer’s head issues a bare suggestion of a shake from side to side in self-recrimination. We can hear his thoughts. ‘You fool!’ he thinks. ‘She was stuck in a chair—alone!’ Waves of emotion stir across his face. Since Terry had been brave and soldiered on, he would bear it. Head on. Eyes open. He’ll be present for Terry. Boyer contemplates Terry’s fate for nearly 45 seconds without flinching or shielding himself from the truth about her injury. He isn’t afraid to have and show feelings. When Dunne as Terry tells him she was struck down while looking up at the top floor where they were to meet and adds ‘it was the nearest thing to heaven. You see, you were there.’ We can only agree through tears: ‘you said it, sister.’

love affair

The final scene in Love Affair –

The final scene in An Affair to Remember –

NEXT >> #10 Women in work – private worlds (’35)

Scene Dwellers – #6 When Tomorrow Comes

#6 Exploitation and rebellion in When Tomorrow Comes (’39) [episode 11]

When Tomorrow Comes (’39) opens with whispers among wait staff for the time and location of a secret union meeting vote on whether to call a strike against their employer, Karb’s, a cafeteria franchise in New York City. In the next scene, set during the meeting, women appear thrown in sharp relief, in contrast with the regulation waitress uniform.


Viewers don’t register the full measure of Karb’s uniform until we see what the women assembled for industrial action look like in their own clothes. Repeat the restaurant scene for a revelatory gander at a wretched, demeaning garment. Women who work under precarious, hardscrabble conditions seem further belittled by a uniform that infantilises. Karb’s ticks every box of nursery fashion: giant four-fold hair bow; a puerile gingham print; hyper-puffy sleeves; a useless, sheer apron tied in back to bustle effect; moreover, although we don’t see their feet for long, they seem to be shod in white toddler kicks and ankle socks. Karb’s invites patrons to exercise a Lolita-fetish over a blue plate special. Not satisfied with blatant exploitation of their wait staff by docked wages for broken dishes, paid spies to keep employees under surveillance, or ignored complaints about sex-pest customers, the hash house management mocks women’s labour and dignity outright through a ridiculous uniform. They take no such scornful liberties with the bus boy’s required ensemble, it’s worth noting, which looks as though it could serve as gear for hospital orderlies, milk men, barbers, or many other respectable jobs performed by adult men.


Unity Hall, crammed full of women in pursuit of justice, provides an opportunity for a thrilling spectacle for both the potential of self-expression through style and collective action. Vera West and Orry-Kelly produce an exquisite line up of working women’s fashion. With so much chic eye candy on display, the scene demands numerous rewinds. Clad in various conceptions of muliebrity’s design, the waitresses manifest creativity, probity, and sartorial acumen. On a tight budget, women who can expect, as Irene Dunne’s character notes ‘a plug nickel’ for a tip, meagre wages nonetheless turn themselves out with flair. A duplicate hat doesn’t materialise among their crowd. Verily, women at the time augmented a limited wardrobe with fresh collars and cuffs, as made evident in the scene. Collars trimmed with pinking shears, or embellished with scalloped edges, a zig-zag design complement dresses, blouses and skirt suits. Flashy buttons liven up an otherwise staid frock. Jaunty floral, geometric or whimsical patterns offer distinction to women who feel hard done by or lost on social ladder.

The waitresses have material needs that make a strike risky. Individually, they rise from seats to worry over sick mothers, caring for children and grandchildren, spouses killed in previous labour negotiations, fear of unemployment, lost wages, layoffs, handsy customers—a full barrage of grievances against their employer..

— What chance have we got? A bunch of girls against a strong outfit like Karb’s?

— We ain’t a bunch of girls. We’re a union standing together.


Because it’s a woman’s picture, the male union delegate fails to rouse strike consensus—that’s left to Irene Dunne. Her barn-burner includes a golden nugget of feminist wisdom: ‘But we want the right to stand on our own feet. To enjoy life. To feel like free human beings. And you just can’t go on hoping for those things’. If Dunne’s speech isn’t enough to garner a fist pump or lighter flick, perhaps the scene’s ending, where Charles Boyer puts the swoon atop the triumph of watching ladies ripe to raise Cain. Boyer’s unbridled enthusiasm for Dunne’s address supplies what we seldom see onscreen—a man who admires a woman for what she says and does, rather than her appearance.

— You were superb! I’ve never heard anything like it! You were marvellous. Simply marvellous! You were wonderful […] I’ve never met a woman before who could make speeches, call strikes, make pancakes and look beautiful all at the same time.


Boyer’s aspect signifies awe and respect much more than the throwaway bit about her beauty at the end. He’s sighworthy in his praise for Dunne. Even though the room buzzes around them, their shared recognition mutes the squall of protest, so that their locked eyes spark a charge between them, which arrests the nascent picket line. When love sweeps you up, nothing else—however important—matters in comparison. Everything recedes, cast to periphery.