Family & Companions
One of a trio of sisters who first brightened movie screens during the tail end of the silent era, Constance Bennett was considered to be the most beautiful of the Bennett siblings. The eldest of the girls, Constance was followed by Barbara, who had the shortest career, and Joan, who was the most successful, but she was the first to really make her mark in Hollywood. She easily made the transition to talkies and quickly became a popular star in features for MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO, notably "What Price Hollywood?" (1932) and "Bed of Roses" (1933). While not among the most gifted actresses of her generation, Bennett was an able comedienne and more than competent when it came to the sort of dramatic plotlines she was assigned. Additionally, she was simply stunning to look at with her trademark slim figure and eye-catching blonde pageboy. The New York City native was also a tough negotiator who refused to be pushed around by the men in her life. "Topper" (1937) and "Two-Faced Woman" (1941) provided enjoyable showcases for her comic talents, but by the time the latter hit theatres, Bennett's career was starting to decline and it eventually took a backseat to other pursuits in her life. Although sibling Joan ultimately had the longer and brighter career, Constance Bennett made the most of her time in the upper echelon of Hollywood and still impressed viewers decades later with her seemingly effortless beauty and sophistication.
Constance Campbell Bennett was born in New York City on Oct. 22, 1904. Her father, Richard Bennett, was a noted stage performer who eventually graduated to movies, and mother Adrienne Morrison was a literary agent who briefly acted in silent features. Richard Bennett was a notorious firebrand, perhaps as well known for his drinking and unrestrained temper as his accomplishments as an actor. His three daughters all tried their hand at show business with varying degrees of success and Constance most resembled him in her force of personality and refusal to be cowed. She attended Miss Chandor's Prep School in Manhattan and it was during that time that she first expressed a genuine interest in following in her parents' footsteps. Upon continuing her education at Mrs. Merrill's Boarding School for Girls in Westchester County, Bennett made her acting debut via a small role in a production of the play "Everyman" and she joined sisters Joan and Barbara in the film "The Valley of Decision" (1916), which had been written by their father. It was hoped by her mother that Bennett would become an admired member of high society, but the increasingly glamorous and beautiful teenager soon proved much too wild and rebellious. At age16, she eloped and got married, a union that was annulled two years later.
Now approaching her twenties, Bennett had a series of small roles in New York-produced silent features like "Reckless Youth" (1922) and "Into the Net" (1924), but it was her Hollywood bow in the drama "Cytherea" (1924) that really opened doors and led to further roles in such productions as "The Goose Hangs High" (1925), "The Goose Woman" (1925) and "Sally, Irene and Mary" (1925). "Rich People" (1929) was Bennett's first sound film and she had no trouble adjusting to the demands the change in format imposed on the era's performers. She quickly scored a string of hits, including the drama "Common Clay" (1930) and the romantic comedy "Sin Takes a Holiday" (1930). Joan and Barbara had also established careers in the movies by that point, but the latter soon exited the business so that she could concentrate on raising a family and supporting the radio career of her husband, Morton Downey. Bennett had been through two short-lived marriages - the second of which produced a son - by the time she wed director Henri de la Falaise in 1931, who had finalized his divorce from actress Gloria Swanson only days earlier. Bennett and her new spouse formed their own production company, which went on to make a pair of features with de la Falaise at the helm. Acting remained Bennett's primary focus, however, and her career really launched into high gear with the dual successes of "Born to Love" (1931) and "The Common Law" (1931). She also entered into an affair with up-and-comer Joel McCrea, her co-star in both pictures.
With those hits to her credit, Bennett negotiated a highly lucrative deal with Warner Bros., but did more noteworthy work for cross town rival RKO as a waitress-aspiring actress in George Cukor's drama "What Price Hollywood?" (1932), widely regarded as the inspiration for "A Star is Born" (1937), as well as in "Bed of Roses" (1933), where she once again played opposite off-screen lover McCrea. By that point, Bennett's star status and assertiveness had earned her a high degree of respect and she was even allowed to join in the various poker games that rich husbands utilized to avoid their spouses for hours on end. Although she was not at the very top of the Hollywood register, Bennett was certainly one of the best compensated for her work and a significant draw. Bennett's best remembered credit, the fantasy-comedy "Topper" (1937), found her co-starring with Cary Grant as a couple killed in a car accident who become a pair of uncommonly attractive and witty ghosts. Bennett's flare for both verbal and physical comedy was well showcased in that breezy box office hit and she was equally appealing in "Topper Takes a Trip" (1938), which hit theatres a year later. She also provided amusing support in Greta Garbo's final effort, "Two-Faced Woman" (1941), and some critics suggested that Bennett stole much of the film from her more famous co-star.
That year, Bennett wed her fourth husband, dashing Mexican-born movie star Gilbert Roland, and the couple had two daughters together. Despite her fine work in "Two Faced Woman," Bennett was cast in less than inspiring projects like "Wild Bill Hickok Rides" (1942) and "Sin Town" (1942). After finishing "Madame Spy" (1942), she worked intermittently on radio, including hosting the talk show "Constance Bennett Calls on You" (1945-46) for a year, but largely spent her time contributing to the war effort by entertaining American troops. Following World War II, Bennett's career started to slip further and she was eclipsed by youngest sister Joan, who had solidified her reputation in thrillers like "The Woman in the Window" (1943) and "Scarlet Street" (1945). Seeking to have more control over her projects, Bennett co-produced and starred in the modestly-budgeted war drama "Paris Underground" (1945), which was shot in England and revolved around an American woman who inadvertently becomes involved with French partisans. It turned out to be a one shot venture, however, and she was reduced to a supporting assignment in the unremarkable musical "Centennial Summer" (1946).
After her marriage to Roland ended that year, Bennett next tied the knot with air force officer General Theron J. Coulter. Fortunately that relationship ended up being her happiest and longest lasting. She also reaped the benefits of business success via a cosmetics firm she had founded. Bennett continued to act on occasion, but films like "The Unsuspected" (1947), "Angel on the Amazon" (1948) and "As Young as Your Feel" (1951) made little impact and her income declined considerably. In order to maintain her lifestyle, Bennett used money that had been set aside for her son's trust fund as part of a previous legal agreement. When it was all gone, he threatened to sue and Bennett was forced to turn over her house in recompense. Bennett made her sole trip to Broadway starring opposite Herbert Evers in the farce "A Date with April" (1954), but it failed to excite the public and closed after only 13 performances. Following a brief appearance in the Judy Holliday comedy "It Should Happen to You" (1954) and a handful of television guest appearances on shows like "The Philip Morris Playhouse" (CBS, 1953-54) and "Robert Montgomery Presents" (NBC, 1950-57), Bennett largely abandoned show business, though she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. Not long after finishing her first movie role in over a decade, Bennett died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 24, 1965. In recognition of the contributions she and Coulter had made to the American military, Bennett was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The film in question, Universal's remake of "Madame X" (1966), finally opened in theatres a year after Bennett's passing.
By John Charles
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Had bit part in medium-length film, "The Valley of Decision," directed by father Richard Bennett
After a bit in "Reckless Youth," began acting career in "Evidence"
Last film under RKO contract, "After Tonight"; begins free-lancing
Co-starred with Cary Grant as the ghostly George and Marian Kerby in her best-remembered film, "Topper"
Stage debut in Noel Coward's "Easy Virtue"
First film as producer (also actress), "Paris Underground"
Formed Bennett Productions to make "Smart Woman" (also actress)
Last film, "Madame X"