Day 5 of Noirvember: Noirish Scandals
Joan Bennett was the youngest child of a family renowned for its dramatic accomplishments. She began her lengthy career in the shadow of her famous father and her flamboyant sister, Constance, but she would ultimately emerge to become a star in her own right.
While she is perhaps best remembered by movie-goers as the level-headed matriarch of Father of the Bride and its sequel, Bennett left a lasting impression in four highly acclaimed films noirs: The Woman in the Window (1945), Scarlet Street (1946), The Scar (1948), and The Reckless Moment (1949).
Bennett also was involved in one of the biggest scandals of the 1950s – and that’s the focus of today’s post.
Let’s start at – or near – the beginning.
Bennett got married – for the first time – when she was 16 years old, to handsome 25-year-old John Marion Fox, whom she’d met on a cruise ship to Cherbourg. After just two years, the union was over.
Then in the early 1930s, Bennett married Gene Markey, an MGM screenwriter who was 15 years her senior. Over time, the couple’s relationship dissolved into what Bennett later termed “a kind of dull, lusterless routine,” and the union was further rocked by insistent rumors that Hollywood producer Walter Wanger – who’d signed Bennett to a term contract – was interested in the actress romantically. In June 1937, Bennett filed for divorce, and three years later, she married Wanger.
Just three months after the wedding, the actress claimed that she was “on the point of divorcing [Wanger] for a romantic dereliction,” and when she later became ill during one of her husband’s frequent absences from home, Bennett asked her new agent, Jennings Lang, for assistance with medical help. In her memoirs, Bennett recalled, “Suddenly, I was offered the sympathy and gentleness I found lacking at home. I turned to Jennings more often after that with feelings that went beyond our business relationship.”
By the early 1950s, following a series of flops, Walter Wanger was close to involuntary bankruptcy, and Bennett’s relationship with Lang had become the subject of much Hollywood gossip. The Wanger-Bennett union grew more contentious, typified by frequent arguments: “Daily, the circle of discontent widened between us,” Bennett later wrote.
Finally, in 1951, in an effort to help the couple with their financial troubles, Jennings proposed several money-making ventures, including a possible television series to be produced in Manhattan. Wanger objected, however, considering it to be a “challenge to his position as head of the household,” Bennett recalled. Wanger told his wife on several occasions that he would kill Lang if Bennett continued to see him, and later that year, he nearly made good on his threat.
On December 13, 1951, Bennett and Lang met in the parking lot of the MCA talent agency, where Lang was employed, and drove off together in Lang’s car for what Bennett termed a “business lunch.” What they didn’t know was, while they were – ahem – eating their meal, Walter Wanger had spotted Bennett’s car and was waiting in the parking lot for her to return. When his wife drove up with Lang, Wanger waited patiently while they exited the car and Lang walked Bennett to hers. Suddenly, Bennett looked up and saw her husband standing a few feet away from them, with a gun in his hand. Lang tried to reason with Wanger, holding his hands up and telling him, “Don’t be silly.” But it did no good. Wanger fired two shots – the first one missed, but the second one ricocheted off the pavement and his Lang squarely in the groin.
Whoa! Way to make a point.
A short time later, Wanger turned himself into police, announcing, “I’ve just shot the son of a bitch who tried to break up my home.” Lang, who made a speedy recovery after emergency surgery, publicly forgave his attacker several days later, but Wanger was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to four months in jail.
Because of the incident, Bennett became a pariah in the Hollywood community and, after a film career that had lasted nearly a quarter of a century, she was unable to find screen work. “It was a slight scandal – today it would have been nothing. In fact, if it happened today, I would be in great demand!” Bennett said several years later. But at the time, she stated, she was a “professional outcast. Everybody sort of thought I was taboo.”
Bennett’s first screen appearance after the shooting incident was in 1954, in the poorly received Highway Dragnet, a low-budget picture that Variety panned as being “strung on a plot that will not bear close inspection.” In 1955, however, her film career got back on track when she appeared with Humphrey Bogart in We’re No Angels. “Bogie, who also lived on the same street that I did, insisted that I be in We’re No Angels or he wouldn’t do it,” Bennett recalled. “That is a good friend.”
As for Wanger and Bennett, the couple resumed living together when Wanger was released from jail, but “from then on, our lives were separate,” Bennett said. “We preserved the amenities only for the sake of [our children].” The couple would stay married until 1965, when Bennett obtained a Mexican divorce.
(Incidentally, Bennett finally found lasting love with her fourth husband, newspaper publisher David Wilde, to whom she remained married from 1978 until her death in 1990. After her death, Wilde wrote that he was “among the luckiest of humans to have been able to share so many enviable years at her side.”)
And how was YOUR day?!?!
Join me tomorrow for Day 6 of Noirvember!!!!