“My Smart-Talking Gal Mystery Heroine: A Joan Bennett Birthday Tribute”
It’s only natural to honor Joan Bennett on her birthday by explaining her powerful influence on my writing. A lot of this influence goes back to my earlier years watching old movies. As a kid, I started out hooked on Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and the rest of the stable of Universal and RKO horror films – God Bless Val Lewton! The mystery and otherworldliness of black and white film, the smart dialogue, the clever twists of plot that other forties and thirties film genres shared with horror lured me into a liminal world like a perpetual deep summer night. I was further captured by classic films’ biting wit, challenging plots, and independent women – especially in what I came to know as film noir. And who showed herself the queen of this world? Above them all, Joan Bennett.
I must admit that I first came really to know Joan when she appeared in Dark Shadows. Her Elizabeth Collins Stoddard was formidable, reminding me of my mother when I was in deep trouble. How could vampires, werewolves, and witches withstand her powerful, regal stare? Still, like my Mom, there was deep feeling and love for her daughter and her family. However, only in film did I discover Joan displaying one of the traits I loved best about my Mom: that witty, smart-talking-gal sense of humor. In outright comedy, Joan could drop a clever line with style and intelligence, but even in some of her darkest dramas that wit came through. What a delight to see her wield that humor to put firmly in their places anyone trying to crush or bamboozle her. In The House across the Bay, she undercuts a smart-mouth chorine who harangued her, “Cheep, cheep, cheep” with “Where’s the birdseed?” When the obnoxious woman tries to go after her physically, Joan rakes her over the coals with, “Just a minute, Miss Dimwit. I was silly enough to apologize, but now that you want to make something of it, I’ll give you a good reason. You’re a phony, you’ve got a voice like four panes of cracked glass, and about as much appeal as a can of embalming fluid. I could go on, but that ought to give you a rough idea of how I feel about you.” Eight years later, when Paul Henreid tries to disparage her cynicism towards him in The Scar with a deprecating, “You’re a bitter little lady,” she puts him in his place with a world-weary but tough, “It’s a bitter little world, full of sad surprises, and you don’t go around letting people hurt you.” In The Man I Married, Joan’s not even daunted by Nazis, telling her husband-turned-fascist, “Heil heel” when he promises to dump her and take their son. Her feistiness isn’t limited to verbiage, either. Take a gander at this picture.
Like my Mom, Joan played women of wit, strength, humanity, and confidence – not just what the New York Times dubbed her gallery of “hydrochloric dames.”
So, in my twenties, when I decided to take my writing seriously than developing Victoria Holt knock-offs or spoofs of Dark Shadows, I turned to 1940s style mysteries to inspire my own adventures of romance, danger, suspense, and wit. Interestingly, as a writer influenced by film, I found I could better create distinct, believable characters by casting them as actors with whom I was familiar, blending their traits with some of the people I knew (including myself!). I also knew that I didn’t want my heroine to be wimpy, weepy, and inclined to faint in the final reel or pages, which, unfortunately, did often happen on the page or screen in the ’40s and ’50s. Guess who I saw as perfect for the role of Jessica Minton, a smart, independent, quick-with-a-quip forties gal? Someone who had a sensitive heart and a strong sense of responsibility, but didn’t take guff from anyone – and would smack said guff out of the ballpark with whip smart humor.
I do see a lot of myself in Jessica – and in Joan’s less nasty roles – or maybe an idealized version of myself, anyway. I know that mischievous banter with those I love and pointed barbs for those I don’t is something I share with Jess, which Joan plays to perfection. However, I doubt that like Jessica, I’d have the guts to hold onto a mysterious package left by a mysterious and handsome British stranger at the risk of being liquidated by Nazi fifth columnists – to disguise myself as a maid to get into a criminal’s apartment while he’s still there (!) to retrieve a gun used to frame a friend – to grab a gunsel by the lapels and threaten to turn him into a soprano if he ever threatened my cat again – to show up in a shadow-draped room and wittily bargain with a gun-toting femme fatale and her hired gun to trade stolen jade for my friends’ lives – or to slip into a cove and explore a beached and rotting ship while layers of ocean fog swept in around me. I might dare to weaponize a banana-cream pie, but I can’t guarantee my aim would be as good as Jessica Minton’s. I can guarantee you that any fans of our Joanie could picture her carrying off these adventures with verve and wit, though not without human trepidation.
Those of us who love Joan Bennett and appreciate her talents would also, as Sam Fuller writes, see her as “a sensitive actress” enough to also believe her playing Jessica’s distress at being torn between loyalty to an old boyfriend and to a new man who brings her adventure and love; a sister who gets annoyed with her older sibling’s foibles leading them into danger but sticking by her to the end (though not without a smart quip or two exchanged between them); a sweetheart waiting to hear news of a fiancé lost in the war, then a wife supporting her husband’s struggle with memories from that war. And Jessica loves her cat. I know Joan was a dog person, but heck, there’s still part of me in Jessica Minton. So, she’s a cat person!
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say on the subject, but if you’d like to take a peek at some passages from Bait and Switch or Letter from a Dead Man, click on the links on the titles and have fun picturing Joan working her magic as Jessica Minton. Oh, and by the way, I cast her sister Elizabeth as Rosalind Russell (and my sister-on-law). Can you imagine what a grand ride it would have been to catch Joan and Roz trading quips with each other, then marshaling their humor to take on Nazis, criminally corrupt American aristocrats, femme fatales, underworld crooks, and crooked cops? And I’ve got two more books on the way! Viva Jessica Minton and Joan Bennett!
If you love mysteries on the screen or on the page, especially centered on the golden era, click here to go to my web page where you can find lots of interesting stuff – including my Joan Bennett tribute page!
Photos: Author’s collections
About three weeks ago, my husband and I paid a visit to the Lake Winnipesaukee area. I was to be one of the reps at the Sisters In Crime booth at NELA in Burlington, Vt., so the day before we went north and visited the resting place of my favorite actor, Claude Rains. It was a beautiful weekend! The fall colors were in full flourish. On the way up, we stopped in Concord for lunch then proceeded to the small, country cemetery that Mr. Rains and his wife Rosemary made their final resting place.
You can see Red Hill in the background, much more of a mountain that a hill than some of the “mountains” that Yang and I have hiked. One of my knees was acting up from climbing one of those smaller mountains – that was still big enough to give me trouble – so we didn’t go up that day. I highly recommend the hike, though. It’s invigorating and beautiful. Anyway, that gave me more time for contemplation.
The stones for Claude Rains and Rosemary are beautiful shiny black Gothic arches. The script on them is also reminiscent of Gothic. I love the sentiment of faith and endurance on both. On Claude’s is: “All Things Once/Are Things Forever,/ Soul Once Living/Lives forever.” Rosemary’s says: “When I Am Gone My Dearest,/ Sing No Sad Songs For Me,” a variation on a poem of Christina Rossetti (one of my favorite poets). I wonder whether they picked their epitaphs or if a loving family member selected them.
It’s nice to see that we aren’t the only admirers of Mr. Rains. Yang and I left the pumpkins in honor of the autumn season of harvest. Someone else had also expressed his/her regard by carefully placing beautiful sunflower stalks, before the stones. In the center, you can also see some artificial flowers that have been set there in respect quite some time ago – we’ve seen them there over the years. Perhaps someone else in our group payed respectful visits?
This cemetery is beautiful. I’m glad Claude and Rosemary picked it. I have to share some lovely shots we got of the gorgeous New Hampshire foliage show.
I especially like the second one, because of the handsome guy in the shot: aka my husband who is always game for adventures in the wilds of the Northeast!
Finally, here are shots of the majestic farmhouse that Mr. Rains called his last home. I wonder what the inside is like? Isn’t the tree next to the house gorgeous?! We took three shots, but one came out too fuzzy. Not supernatural interference, just our not being able to get the best lighting since we wanted to be unobtrusive. Let no one calls those who honor Claude Rains stalkers! I think this one might be the best shot, the crispest, anyway. Below are some interesting links that tell you more about the cemetery and the farm house. Just remember: respect the privacy of others. But I don’t have to tell that to anyone in our illustrious group!
So long for now and happy belated Claude Rains’s birthday to all!
O.T.I.S. – a nice description of the graveyard and the house
So, Christmas noir? The opening of a lively chorus caroling and holiday cheering over Christmas cards displaying the credits evokes holiday spirit, except there’s always just the slightest manic edge to their liveliness creating a noir frisson. Then the chorus ends in a startled drop as the last card slips away to reveal a gun. Click here for a Silver/Ursini commentary on the opening.
When we went to Plainfield for me to participate in the Sisters in Crime panel on creating mysteries, we stayed over night in Plymouth, NH at one of our favorite places, the Red Carpet Inn. For years Yang and I, myself alone, or myself and a pal had stayed there for the Medieval and Renaissance Forum when it was at Plymouth State University. It’s always been pleasant. Look at the beautiful view we had from our window!
The next day, we drove over to the Red Hill Cemetery where Claude Rains is buried with his wife Rosemary. He has a beautiful epitaph: “All things once are things forever, Soul, once living, lives forever.” His wife’s is a variation on lines from Christina Rosetti’s “When I Am Dead” Sonnet – one of my favorite poems. We always try to pay a visit. Just a simple way of saying, “Thanks for the great celluloid memories.” It’s a special treat to know that my favorite actor is resting near me. It almost feels like we’re neighbors. Don’t they have a beautiful view? That’s Red Hill in the background, which Yang and I try to climb in good weather –– we’re tired afterward, but it’s worth it.
When we stopped in Center Harbor, I found a neat independent book store, Bayswater Book Co. (12 Main St.). Of course, I scoped out the lovely little shop –– and ultimately managed to make arrangements to give a reading and signing on Saturday, July 9th, from 1:00-3:00. Drop by and meet me. Bait and Switch‘s Dusty will be be on the lookout for you!
I always wonder if this pun carries exactly the right connotations to bring in customers. It must work, ’cause it’s been there for like 20 years!
So, to keep you entertained while you breathlessly await the forthcoming blogs on my appearance at The Book Lover’s Gourmet and my adventures at the Shakespeare of America Convention in New Orleans, here’s a link to an audio interview with me by Pat Driscoll for The New Worcester Spy. It contains more details on my interests in film noir and horror, on film and on the page, and even a little more on my background. Just click here. It’s what Dusty would want!
One of my friends was asking me about my inspiration for Jessica Minton and Elizabeth Hennessey in my novel Bait and Switch, and I explained that I love creating characters in the vein of those smart-talking gals from films of the 1940s (sometimes ‘50s and 30s, too)––especially film noir. Lots of ink has been devoted to the femme fatale/innocent girl split-personae of women in noir, but not enough has been devoted to the women whom writers and actresses created who could not be easily relegated to either the “whore” or the “Madonna” category. Sheri Chinen Biesen moves us in that direction, though, with her article “Manufacturing Heroines: Gothic Victims and Working Women in Classic Noir Fiction,” where she discusses “multi-faceted, working career women” as part of the film noir cast of characters. I can see definite overlapping between her working girls and my smart-talking gals. What I’d like to do is focus on several actresses who made careers out of playing the smart talking gal––and you can feel free to suggest and write about such actresses, yourself, in this page’s comments.
First, though, what is a smart-talking gal? She’s too sharp witted, independent, and experienced to be the virginal, innocent. Still, she has too much wit and class to be anyone’s moll. Further, she’s definitely not a femme fatale. She doesn’t so much use wiles as wit; and her strength, smarts, and experience serve to get at the truth, solve conflicts, and protect herself and those she just might let herself care about––if they prove they’re worth it. She has a heart, but hard knocks have taught her to armor it. She may be sexually experienced, she may not be; she’s definitely not an innocent. This type redefines what it means to be a “good girl.” Some actresses who best personify the smart-talking gal include Joan Bennett, Claire Trevor, Ella Raines, Ida Lupino, Veronica Lake, Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Rosalind Russell, and Lizabeth Scott. How about we look at a few of them at a time?
Joan Bennett: Joan has to be my favorite, and in many ways, she inspired the wit and independence of Jessica Minton in Bait and Switch. Now, Joan could play the evil femme fatale with the best of them. Think of Kitty March in Scarlet Street. Still, even some of her “hydrochloric dames” (as a NY Times critic put it) revealed genuine humanity behind caustic smart talk and ostensible manipulativeness. In The Woman in the Window, The Macomber Affair, and The Woman on the Beach, her characters act in defense against the bullying of men, and their seeming femme fatale status is a projection of a man’s fears and darker nature. However, in other films she’s a lot more fun––or at least clearly not the villainess. This is definitely more like Bait and Switch’s Jessica. In House Across the Bay, Joan’s a show girl not about to let anyone reduce her to a kept woman “dressed up in furs” who “takes a Pekinese for a walk around the block.” She’s also no pushover for a tough broad, either. When a jealous dame calls her, “Cheap, cheap, cheap,” she laughs back, “Where’s the bird seed?” And when that same dame pushes her luck further, Joan’s Brenda Bentley nails her with the rejoinder that she has a voice like “four panes of cracked glass.” The Man I Married finds Joan getting away with kicking Nazis in the shins and telling a German-born husband who has let German imperialism go to his head, “Heil, Heel!” In Confirm or Deny, she forestalls Don Ameche’s passes with dry humor and upholds national security with determination as the London blitz rages on. While in The Secret Beyond the Door, when faced with almost the same problems as the second Mrs. deWinter, rather than turning to whimpering mush, she uses common sense, humor, honesty, self-confidence, and a healthy dose of Jungian analysis to set everyone, including herself, straight. The Scar shows Bennett at her most incisive and tart, deflating Paul Henreid’s attempt to charmingly snow her with, “First comes you, second comes you, third comes you . . . . and then comes you.” When he later calls her “a bitter little lady,” she shoots back a cool, “It’s a bitter little world.” And yet Joan’s Evelyn Hahn has the heart to trust him when he finally does try to be on the square with her, only to have that heart smashed when fate, not his duplicity, makes it seem he has deserted her. In my film noir class, all the students, upon seeing her shadowed expression of resignation at the end of the movie, call for a rewrite.
Claire Trevor: Here’s another actress who can also hand you a dangerous femme fatale, but with NO redeeming traits. Her sexy villainesses in Johnny Angel; Murder, My Sweet; and Born to Kill all epitomize the characterization made by Anne Shirley’s character in Murder, My Sweet as “‘big league blondes.’ Beautiful, expensive babes who know what they’ve got . . . all bubble bath, and dewy morning, and moonlight. And inside: blue steel, cold––cold like that . . . only not that clean.” Nevertheless, Claire could deftly play the smart-talking gal with wit and warmth, as evidenced by her art critic in Crack-Up, Brian Donlevy’s seen-it-all secretary in The Lucky Stiff, the girlfriend who helps Dennis O’Keefe escape prison in Raw Deal (and gets one, herself when he dumps her for Marsha Hunt), and her government agent in Borderline. She’s particularly fun to watch in Crack-Up and Borderline. In the first, she helps a former “Monuments Man,” played by Pat O’Brien, evade the police when he’s framed for art theft and murder, while juggling Herbert Marshall’s British Intelligence agent and the police. Driving up and rescuing O’Brian’s fugitive art expert from being picked up by the police, she responds to his suspicion and lack of gratitude by pulling the car over and remarking with a neat blend of sharpness and warmth: “You can wait here. They’re going to put in a streetcar soon. Unless . . . unless you have some dim idea of what you’re doing and want me to help you.” Borderline finds Trevor as an undercover police woman trying to crack a narcotics ring by pretending to be part of a couple whom a drug trafficker will use to smuggle drugs. What she doesn’t realize is that her “husband” is also an undercover agent with a different agency, who is just as ignorant about her. The two have some wonderful exchanges, and their attempting to get each other to “cooperate” and go straight with each other’s agencies at the border is worth a chuckle or two.
Ella Raines: Ella Raines of the pert page-boy bob; the mischievous, knowing half-smile; and the clear green eyes that hint of something devilish up her sleeve is always a joy to watch. In The Phantom Lady, she’s Kansas, the faithful secretary who’ll move heaven and earth to clear the boss she unrequitedly loves of a murder frame-up. She’s tough enough to stalk a bartender to break his lying testimony (only to overplay her hand when she frightens him into running in front of bus rather than into telling the truth). She’s intrepid enough to doll herself up like a tart to try and pump a hyped up (or is it hopped up?) drummer for exculpatory info. Yet she’s compassionate enough to tread gently when she finally finds the fragile woman who holds her boss’s (and beloved’s) alibi in her broken mind. The Runaround finds Raines outsmarting two P.I.s hunting her down to bring her back to a father who doesn’t want his daughter marrying the man he believes a bounder, all with a knowing twinkle in her eyes. In The Web, she plays Noel Faraday, efficient and almost all-knowing secretary to shady Vincent Price––she doesn’t realize quite how shady Vincent is. All this while, initially parrying the come-ons of a brash lawyer played by Edmond O’Brien, replying to his claim that when he has “forty million” he’ll have a secretary that looks like her with: “Oh, my tastes are fairly simple. Twenty million would be quite enough.” Also check her out The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Impact, and White Tie and Tails. A neat web site on Raines can be found at: http://ellarainesfilms.blogspot.com/2013/01/ella-raines-in-web.html
Quotations from Claire Trevor’s movies can be found at “Claire Trevor,” on the IMDB, under quotations for the film. Quotation from Ella Raines’s film can be found at “Ella Raines,” on the IMDB, under quotations for the film. Quotations from the Joan Bennett films can be found in the films noted. I remember them. What can I say; I’m a movie geek––but I don’t live in my parents’ basement. So there! Photos of Joan Bennett from the author’s collection (mostly bought from Jay Perino’s The Mint); photos of Claire Trevor from unknown sources; and photos of Ella Raines from the ellarainesfilms.blogspot (second image) and unknown sources.
Whom do I see as the finest actor of the twentieth century? Claude Rains. Who else? Some of the younger folk, or just people who aren’t movie connoisseurs, will probably say, “Who?!” Well, if you’ve seen Casablanca, you’ll recognize Mr. Rains as the smoothly sardonic Captain Renault. You know, the fellow at the center of the following oft paraphrased exchange:
Renault: “I’m shocked, shocked to discover gambling going on here.”
Breathless employee: “You’re winnings, sir.”
Renault, “Thank you.”
And back to blowing the whistle on his raid, without missing a beat.
Rains could play it all, and all with that gravel-wrapped-in-velvet voice, thanks to being gassed in WWI trenches (an attack that “bestowed” similar satisfying tones on Ronald Colman). He could be magnificently dastardly as the villain of swashbucklers when going up against Errol Flynn in The Prince and the Pauper and The Sea Hawk. On the other hand, Rains could also play it quietly calculating, icily superior as a disguised Nazi in Sealed Cargo, an amorally inventive mystery radio host in The Unsuspected, or a hard-dealing man of [shady] business in Rope of Sand or Lisbon. And no one could go grandiosely maniacal like Mr. Rains does in The Invisible Man and Crime without Passion. Yet he could easily, and convincingly, switch gears to give us the tender and eccentric fathers of the Four Daughters films or White Banners. Still, this playing is layered. In Mr. Sceffington, he projected such quiet ferocity within his refusal to lose his daughter to his divorcing wife, that Bette Davis, playing the object of that hostility, reports he genuinely frightened her! Then again, in this movie and in The Passionate Friends, he gave his powerful captains of industry humanity by revealing a capacity for deep passion, tenderness, and forgiveness. Finally, he could play a wise man who could out-Yoda Yoda, with more wit and a far better grasp of syntax. Dr. Jacquith deftly guides Charlotte Vale to emotional stability and maturity in Now, Voyager through humor, penetrating insight, and shrewd devil’s advocacy. We see him providing similar help in This Love of Ours and Moontide, although the latter in a rather scruffy guise. Unfortunately, even Claude’s reasonable, thoughtful Sir John Talbot could not save his son Larry from going all werewolf about Universal Studio’s version of ye olde English village in The Wolf Man.
Though some of Rains’s very early roles have a tendency to an over-the-top quality typical of early sound films, the main quality that you do see in his playing is honesty, genuineness. He plays with the type of sincerity that you expect from a Spencer Tracy, a Vic Morrow, or a Vincent D’Ofrio. There are two good biographies of Rains. The one by David J. Skal and Jessica Rains (the actor’s daughter and an actress, herself) is Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice. The other is by John T. Soister and JoAnna Wioskowski, Claude Rains: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference to His Work in Film, Stage, Radio, Television and Recordings.