Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Joan Bennett in STAGE DOOR, 1937

As an actress, Joan Bennett's calling was always the silver screen.

Her career was almost inevitable. The daughter of Richard Bennett, a world famous star of the "legitimate theatre," Joan's mother Adrienne Morrison and sisters Constance and Barbara were also actors. Unlike her father, though, Joan never had much interest in live theater. At the age of 18 she appeared on stage with her father in JARNEGAN, which ran for more than 130 performances on Broadway. Despite that success, though, almost a decade would pass before she'd agree to appear in another live stage production.

The opportunity presented itself with STAGE DOOR, a collaboration between Algonquin Round Table members George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. The early history of the play was turbulent: STAGE DOOR opened in 1936 and made headlines when actress Margaret Sullivan "deserted Hollywood" to take a lead role in the Manhattan production. It abruptly closed 22 weeks later when Sullivan became pregnant.

RKO Pictures then bought the screen rights to the film for $125,000 and cast Kathryn Hepburn and Ginger Rogers as the leads. By the end of 1937, STAGE DOOR was revived for the stage as a traveling production for Joan Bennett.

The offer to star in STAGE DOOR arrived shortly after Bennett's divorce from screenwriter Gene Markey. In her memoirs "The Bennett Playbill," Bennett said she accepted the role because it offered her a temporary escape from Hollywood. She soon found out there was no escape from the press, though. A young, attractive celebrity has a way of drawing attention without distinction, which earned her some occasionally creepy headlines. In October, 1937, The Harvard Crimson published a stalker-esque news brief about a sighting of the actress:
Star of "Stage Door" Was Traced Surreptitiously to Copley Hotel
October 25, 1937 
A wandering gentleman-in-the-making took his girl slumming in the Ritz Saturday night only to have her spot Miss Joan Bennett standing on the stairway resplendent in white fox. Miss Bennett, accompanied by a friend entered a cab and swirled off down Arlington Street pursued by the slummers in their own car. The quarry alighted at the Copley.

Knowing her whereabouts on lonely evenings, any red-blooded Freshman may now avail himself of this information.

"It sacred me half to death," Bennett wrote, "but I loved every minute of it. For me, there was another important factor, a factor that most Hollywood actors had to cope with, and that was the strong desire to make good on a medium from what they've been absent for a long time or had never tried."

Bennett joined the touring company two weeks before opening in Hartford, Connecticut. The tour lasted six months, with the final four weeks spent in Chicago. "The management asked me to extend the run, but there were some professional and personal reasons that called me home," Bennett wrote.

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