powered by AFI
"SHE WRITES THE RULES FOR EVERY MAN SHE MEETS!" screams a title card in the trailer for Law of the Tropics (1941). That dangerous "she" referred to Joan Madison, the sultry female lead played by Constance Bennett, but that description was true for the actress as well. In her fifty-seven movie roles spanning five decades, the glamorous blonde described by biographer Brian Kellow as "ravishing" and "reed thin" with a "sharp wit and ravishing personality" proved her knack for crafting a cool, impervious film presence while riding the tumult of her own personal life -- and always landing on her feet.
A remake of Oil for the Lamps of China (1935), starring Pat O'Brien and Josephine Hutchinson, Law of the Tropics switched settings from Asia to South America. Rubber company man Jim Conway (Jeffrey Lynn) stationed in the Amazon on business gets word that his American fiance has jilted him. Distraught, while drowning his sorrows he meets Joan Madison (Bennett), a torchy nightclub singer, who, for her own shady reasons, accepts $500 to tell all she's "Mrs. Conway". As the company's machinations grind down on the couple, they find strength in a love they didn't know they had.
Law of the Tropics was made towards the end of the apex of Bennett's career, after she'd made a name for herself first in "confession" pictures like What Price Hollywood? (1932), and then in screwball comedies like Merrily We Live (1938) and Ladies in Love (1936) . Her most iconic role was as Marion, the mischievous ghost paired against an equally spectral Cary Grant in Topper(1937) but the years since that creative triumph were difficult for the woman once considered one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. (Her reputation as a skilled money handler was earned after finagling a two-picture deal for $300,000 in the thick of the Great Depression, as well as asking for cuts of distribution gross and a percent of her film's profits. On another occasion, when the film company Gaumont-British slighted her, she successfully sued -- and won -- $65,000 for breach of contract.) Even though her role in Topper had cemented her reputation, she'd accepted it at a steeply discounted salary. Now, in 1941, despite entrepreneurial forays into a cosmetic company and a women's fashion business, she was having financial woes. (However, she dependably lined her pockets with income from all-night poker games, where her cool, unreadable expression helped her rake in money against the likes of David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn.)
1941 was a particularly tumultuous year in Bennett's personal life as well. She married her longtime lover, actor Gilbert Roland (her dalliance had started with him in the early 30s, when she was still married to Henri de la Falaise), and then quickly dropped her new husband for a fling with a nine-years-younger Air Force colonel who dumped his wheelchair-bound wife for Bennett. (Ironically, while she was happy to bed younger lovers, Bennett almost turned down the role of "Joan Madison" because she feared she'd look too old paired against the five-years-younger Jeffrey Lynn.) By year's end she'd also had another baby (with Roland). None of this slowed down her busy wartime support schedule packed with relief charities, benefit performances, and bond drives. But none of that fatigue is evident in Law of the Tropics. Even cast as a two-bit nightclub singer (Bennett had a lovely natural singing voice), she delivers the same sleek, all-knowing charisma that burnished every performance.
by Violet LeVoit
Kellow, Brian. The Bennetts: An Acting Family. University Press Of Kentucky, 2004.
Carman, Emily Susan. Independent Stardom: Female Stars and Freelance Labor in 1930s Hollywood. ProQuest, 2008.
Trimborn, Harry. "Hollywood Star Walk: Constance Bennett" Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1955.