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In the 1932 Lady with a Past, Constance Bennett plays a shy, bookish New York heiress who's so awkward she's having trouble finding a beau. Spurned by a good-looking society boy who at first pretends to take an interest in her (played by David Manners), she decamps to Paris and persuades a wily new acquaintance (Ben Lyon) to act as a gigolo of sorts: He'll squire her around the city, introducing her to all of the most eligible men, even as he helps her increase her mystery quotient. The point is that she'll be more attractive to the opposite sex if she's made to seem like a "lady with a past."
Forget for a moment that Bennett, one of the most spirited stars of the 1930s, might not seem to be the best choice to play an awkward bookworm. With that gently upturned nose and chic tousle of satiny blonde hair, she's such a glamorous, lively presence that it's hard to believe she could ever be believable as a wallflower. But perhaps by sheer force of will, she pulls it off in Lady with a Past, a picture that represented a departure of sorts for the actress.
In earlier pictures like The Easiest Way (1931) and Sin Takes a Holiday (1930), Bennett had often played desperate or somehow compromised characters. Lady with a Past was different: For one thing, it was a comedy and not a melodrama. And for another, Bennett's character, despite her social awkwardness, is clearly a woman who simply doesn't realize how much control she has over her own life - or over the men around her. Even her name, Venice Muir, has a subtle, exotic pull. Watching Venice discover her powers of attraction is one of the great pleasures of the movie, and of the performance: At the beginning of the picture, she's a woman with a penchant for spending lots of time alone in her room. ("I talk so much to myself that I'm all worn out when I meet people," she laments.) By the end of the picture, she's in a position to forgive the fellow who previously rejected her, but she doesn't give in to him easily, and her gently glowing self-confidence, newly won, is surprisingly convincing.
But if Bennett was playing a meek kitten who learns to roar, the story in real life was something different. Bennett was an extremely sought-after star; in the early 1930s, Hollywood columnists claimed she was one of the highest-paid actresses in the movies. (Her salary for Lady with a Past was $112,000, a hefty percentage of the movie's $541,000 production cost.) According to biographer Brian Kellow, Bennett took advantage of her star power, dictating camera angles and lighting specifics and even, at times, calling for certain crew members to be replaced if she didn't like them. She was unforthcoming with the press, and when she did talk, she made it clear that she had little but contempt for the movie industry. Her reputation was well known: When Katharine Hepburn was just starting out at RKO, costume designer Walter Plunkett warned her against being too demanding, using Bennett as a negative example: "From the way you are starting," he said, "you'll soon be [worse] than Constance Bennett."
Bennett, it seems, was simply so confident in her abilities and her stature that she could get away with bad behavior. She had come from a family of actors: Her father, theater actor Richard Bennett (possibly best known to movie fans as Major Amberson in The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942), and her mother, silent film actress Adrienne Morrison, raised three future actresses, Barbara, Constance and Joan. Constance launched a successful career in silent films, only to "retire" after her marriage, in 1925, to railroad heir and playboy Philip Morgan Plant. After divorcing Plant in 1929, she resuscitated her career and found even greater success in talkies.
In Lady with a Past, you can see why. At the time of the movie's release, New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall was suitably charmed: "This Lady with a Past is a bright and entertaining production, somewhat unconvincing at times, but nevertheless enjoyable," he writes. "It is a handsomely staged affair, with many amusing incidents and particularly clever dialogue." And as Kellow notes, this new type of role brought out something fresh in Bennett. "She has a special glow," he writes. "In her past films, she had exhibited a kind of toughness that made her seem a somewhat synthetic personality - but in Lady with a Past, she is relaxed and luminous, as if the opportunity to play the bungling Venice, forever unsure of herself, had released a certain warmth that she had never before fully revealed." It's possible, also, that Bennett never looked lovelier, swathed in an assortment of drapey velvet gowns and fur-trimmed evening coats. Her glamour quotient in Lady with a Past is off the charts; she gives hope to shy bookworms everywhere.
Producers: Harry Joe Brown, Charles R. Rogers
Director: Edward H. Griffith
Screenplay: Horace Jackson (screenplay), Harriet Henry (novel)
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Charles Craft
Cast: Constance Bennett (Venice Muir), Ben Lyon (Guy Bryson), David Manners (Donnie Wainwright), Don Alvarado (Santiagos), Albert Conti (Rene), Merna Kennedy (Ann Duryea)
by Stephanie Zacharek
The New York Times
Brian Kellow, The Bennetts: An Acting Family, The University Press of Kentucky, 2004