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Constance Bennett
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Constance Bennett Profile

Constance Bennett's enduring reputation as one of the screen's great stars is remarkable considering that her greatest fame came early in her career and that she made so few films that are remembered as classics. Like most female stars of the 1930s, she alternated between suffering through soap operas and sparkling through romantic comedies. It was the latter genre in which Bennett, with her chic beauty, husky voice and offhand delivery, excelled. She is best remembered for her role as the glamorous, witty ghost of Topper (1937) and Topper Takes a Trip (1939).

New York City-born Bennett (1904-1965) was part of a noted theatrical family. Her father, Richard, was a matinee idol, and her sisters Barbara and Joan were actresses; Joan would have quite a film career of her own. Educated at private schools in New York and Paris, Constance made her movie debut at age 12 in a silent film starring her father, The Valley of Decision (1916). She began acting in earnest in silent films as a teen-ager and had achieved leading lady status by the time of her marriage to steamship/railroad heir Philip Morgan Plant. She "retired" from the screen in 1926 but returned after a divorce three years later, making her mark in talkies with a throaty, distinctive voice described by one fan magazine as "the last word in sophistication."

Bennett's comeback film, the comedy This Thing Called Love (1929), was a hit, and reviewers of the day felt that she stole her next movie, Son of the Gods (1930), from costar Richard Barthelmess. In The Easiest Way (1931), considered scandalous in its day, Bennett is a department-store clerk who gets ahead by sleeping around. Two Against the World (1932) has her suffering for the sins of a brother and sister and even taking a murder rap for the brother.

One of Bennett's best-remembered films is What Price Hollywood? (1932), the forerunner of all the versions of A Star Is Born. She plays a waitress who becomes a star and marries a famous actor (Neil Hamilton) -- although in this case it is a director (Lowell Sherman) who has the drinking problem that precipitates the film's climax. George Cukor directed what many feel is Bennett's best performance.

Bennett's other roles of the early 1930s include a fortune hunter on a Mississippi riverboat in Bed of Roses (1933); an unfaithful heiress in a film version of W. Somerset Maugham's Our Betters (1933); a Russian spy in After Tonight (1933); a destructive beauty in Outcast Lady (1934), a remake of Greta Garbo's A Woman of Affairs (1928); and a reporter tangling with editor Clark Gable in the romantic melodrama After Office Hours (1935).

Faced with dwindling popularity and sorely in need of another hit, Bennett had the good fortune to be cast opposite Cary Grant in Topper (1937), in which they play mischievous ghosts set on liberating a stuffy banker named Cosmo Topper (Roland Young). The comedy's success led to two sequels, Topper Takes a Trip (1939), in which Bennett returns in fine form without Grant; and Topper Returns (1941), in which neither star appears.

Merrily We Live (1938) was another successful comedy -- a variation on My Man Godfrey (1936) with Bennett as the madcap society girl and Brian Aherne as the butler who teaches her a thing or two. But Bennett's opportunities narrowed to "B" movies in the 1940s, when she appeared in such fare as Law of the Tropics (1941), a low-budget remake of 1935's Oil for the Lamps of China; and the Western Wild Bill Hickok Rides (1941), in which Bennett plays a gambling-hall proprietress. Bosley Crowther noted of the latter film that it "will be remembered as the one in which a Bennett sister slummed."

Bennett was billed fourth in the murder mystery The Unsuspected (1947) and eighth in the musical Centennial Summer (1946), although she stole most of her scenes in both films. Her last movie before a second retirement was a bit as herself in It Should Happen to You (1954), starring Judy Holliday. She unexpectedly returned for one more movie, the much-filmed melodrama Madame X (1966) in which, at age 61, she looked as youthful as 45-year-old Lana Turner, who played her daughter-in-law. Shortly after completing this role, Bennett died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Bennett, whose five husbands included actor Gilbert Roland, did some stage work late in her career and ventured in business with Constance Bennett Cosmetics.

by Roger Fristoe

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