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.

Wanger and Bennett in better days.

Wanger and Bennett in better days.

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.”

Cracks in the foundation.

Cracks in the foundation.

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.

Bennett and Bogart relax on the set of We're No Angels.

Bennett and Bogart relax on the set of We’re No Angels.

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!!!!

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 5, 2015.

14 Responses to “Day 5 of Noirvember: Noirish Scandals”

  1. This is brilliant stuff, really enjoyable and fascinating to read. I wonder how much personal life experience she brought to her role in SCARLET STREET, one of those biting femme fatale parts that she seemed to fit perfectly.

  2. I never get tired of reading about this story.

  3. So interesting. Such a talented beauty. I about fell off my chair when she showed up in “Dark Shadows” in the 60s!😀

  4. Yes, she is right. If that scandal had happened today, it would be a huge boost for her career. Fascinating story. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Reblogged this on clawkent.

  6. This is the first time I have been contacted with a ‘Noirvember’ post. How fun! Please keep ’em coming. I’m a enormous fan of old film (film noir in particular) as well as scandals! Actually, I’ve been involved in parodying many of my favorites.

    • Thanks, Kimberly! I share your love of noir and scandals! Where and how have you been parodying your favorites?

      • I am sorry to just be replying to your message but I only noticed it tonight. To answer your question (which you may well have forgotten), as to where I parody old films, I am part of a writing group on one of the Amazon discussion boards. Nearly seven years ago, I was looking for an old film on Amazon and noticed that there were discussions going on regarding classic films. Eager for somebody new to share my near-obsession with old movies, I joined in on various conversations. After several months, I realized what good writers these folk were and I suggested that we start parodying our old movie favorites.

        Since our first foray into these unchartered waters, we have worked over “Rebecca,” “Maltese Falcon,” “Rear Window,” “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Uninvited,” and so on. Mind you, none of us have met and we’re stretched out all over the map. But it’s been a lot of fun and we have developed great friendships over time.

        I used to live in Atlanta and I tried to get TCM interested in showcasing what we had started on Amazon to its viewers as a way to get as many as interested in film to have a chance to leave their mark on their favorites. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a call back from Ted Turner! Or, Robert Osborne, for that matter.

        I truly am enjoying your daily postings!! Thank you.

  7. This is a real treat! Please keep these Noivember treats coming!

  8. I’m surprised you didn’t mention her later success on “Dark Shadows”- aside from her successes as a film noir icon, THAT’s what people remember Joan Bennett for today!

    • Hi, Charles. I guess it depends on the individual. I, for one, never watched Dark Shadows. I’m sure that she had many fans from her appearance on that show, though. Thanks for reading!

  9. […] cry is at the film’s close when she’s been released from her predicament. Incidentally, there’s a great piece on Bennett’s real-life shenanigans over at Shadows and Satin; it’s well worth a read, […]

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