Saturday, May 10, 2014

From Hollywood to Collinwood

Speaking of Joans, as we seem to have been doing lately, I've long been an admirer of movie and television star Joan Bennett (1910-1990), whose allure and style I first encountered when I watched 1970s syndicated reruns of Dark Shadows.

After a successful career as the beautiful leading lady of such classic films as Man Hunt and Scarlet Street, surely no one expected Miss Bennett, in her mid-fifties, to take the no-frills job of starring in a daily ABC-TV soap opera. As documented in Brian Kellow's fine book The Bennetts: An Acting Family, Joan had recently lost her real-life love, actor John Emery, and was frustrated in her attempts to find a suitable Broadway role. Of her dormant film career, she told interviewer Don Royal in 1968, "You reach a certain age in Hollywood and, if you're a woman, there's a shortage of glamor parts. A man can play leading roles until he is 60 -- Cary Grant seems to be going on forever -- but not a woman."

Largely because she needed a steady income, Joan reluctantly agreed to the TV role in 1966. For a decidedly unglamorous $333 per episode, Joan played regal Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in the Gothic serial, which after a low-rated start became a popular phenomenon upon introducing tormented vampire Barnabas Collins. Playing in a soap opera was no easy task even for a well-trained actor; Joan learned pages and pages of dialogue each week, too near-sighted to rely on the teleprompter that bailed out most of her co-stars when they forgot a line. Although shot on videotape, the show was performed as if live, flubs and all, since editing tape was then so cumbersome and costly that it required the OK of a high-level network executive to make changes. Against the odds, Joan stayed with the show until its end in 1971, and achieved a new popularity with younger viewers, many of whom didn't even know her reign as a movie star.

Some Dark Shadows purists think those early, pre-Barnabas episodes a little tame and dull, compared to what came later in the show's run. But when I first watched reruns thirty-odd years ago, it was those early episodes that captivated me. Joan Bennett was a big part of the reason why.

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