By: Megan McGurk
Whenever an article talks about a New York ‘It’ girl, I automatically figure they must mean Joan Bennett. She did not match her sister Constance’s fame or salary, but because she flew a bit lower on the radar, she earned a cooler status than Constance could reach. Something in Joan’s wry manner—aloof but keen, a tell-tale squint that indicated missing glasses and bookish habits, along with an imperviousness toward Cary Grant’s mugging in Big Brown Eyes and Wedding Present (both from 1936), suggest a woman who knew her onions and could navigate any encounter with surefooted nonchalance. Joan Bennett, with her boarding school education and theatre denizen bona fides from a family tradition on the stage dating back to the mid-19th century, seems like the type who has read books you don’t know, owns records you don’t have, and hangs with people who would never invite you for cocktails.
By strange coincidence, Joan Bennett boasts more credits featuring plots about artists than any other women of the silver screen, probably since she manifests a bohemian sensibility that naturalises close circles with the brush and palette set. Cast next to characters who paint, she looks a dab hand to assume an artist role, and even appears more convincing in the creative role.
Despite the misleading title of Artists and Models Abroad (1938) which applies a loose definition of ‘artist’ to connote the stage rather than garret studio, if the film had concerned painters, viewers would assign the role to Bennett rather than her co-star, Jack Benny. Fans of woman’s pictures discern an equanimity Bennett possesses as the hallmark of an artistic temperament. Benny doesn’t look like he could be quiet or stand still long enough in front of an easel to finish anything. And how many socialites ran off to Paris to study art over the years? It would have been a plausible script for a plot that flounders except for a stunning makeover sequence.
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