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This Week on TCM: Constance Bennett Month Begins
November 4, 2012

Constance Bennett

TCM’s Star of the Month is Constance Bennett, with a focus on her films every Tuesday in November. Probably best known today for Topper, where she was the fun-loving female half of the ghost couple, I’ve found her lesser-known movies quite enlightening about far-gone mores as well as enjoyable.

Tuesday night starts off with Lady With a Past (1932), which I’ve talked about before. It plays with the idea that a smart, nice woman isn’t as desirable as a scandal-laden flirt, until Constance’s character Venice figures out how to work the system. Bennett does a good job playing both rich, attractive socialite and nice girl at heart.

Let’s note that this was only one of four films she made that year. She made as many in 1931 and again in 1930. Five more from that period are shown as part of this evening’s slate. Lady With a Past is followed by Sin Takes a Holiday (which I’ve also previously mentioned), in which she’s a secretary who marries her boss to protect him from another woman. It feels a lot more old-fashioned than the previous, and as soon as I describe the premise, you can likely guess the ending.

Robert Montgomery, Constance Bennett, and Adolphe Menjou in The Easiest Way

Robert Montgomery, Bennett, and Adolphe Menjou in The Easiest Way

The next two tackle that favorite of pre-Code cinema, the “kept woman”. The Easiest Way co-stars Robert Montgomery and Adolphe Menjou in a story about Constance shacking up with an older man to get out of poverty only to be trapped in the relationship when she falls in love with someone else. There’s also a small, early role for Clark Gable. I think modern viewers may be surprised by how forthright 1930s movies can be about love not being enough when it comes to needing to eat; at the same time, there’s a sentimental appreciation for doing things “the right way”. The movie is available from Warner Archive.

The other film with a similar subject is The Common Law, in which Bennett works as a nude model for artists in Paris, a truly shocking occupation at the time. The movie opens with her walking out on her live-in boyfriend. As I said before, the film “promises to be scandalous but really reinforces the social contract” once she and the artist (Joel McCrea, who turns out to be a slumming high-class rich boy) decide to get married.

Joel McCrea and Constance Bennett in The Common Law

Joel McCrea and Constance Bennett in The Common Law

The other two, Son of the Gods and Born to Love, I haven’t seen, but they sound a little more adventurous, a little less society romance. The former, also available from Warner Archive, involves an Asian man passing for white. Bennett is the woman who falls in love with him until her racism tears them apart.

Born to Love reteams Constance with Joel McCrea as wartime lovers. When he’s presumed dead, she marries another, although she’s carrying McCrea’s baby. Modern viewers will be surprised by how divorce was treated back then, what with the need to establish fault and the idea that a rich man can take a child completely away from his mother if she’s to “blame” for the marriage ending.

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