It feels like it’s been forever since I’ve properly participated in a blogathon, even if it’s actually only been a few weeks. One would think that the summer would bring about lots of fun and exciting events for classic movie fans to participate in, but whether there are fewer blogathons in general or simply fewer that I’m eager to be a part of, I’ve found that there just haven’t been enough interesting subjects to go around these last few months. That’s why I was absolutely thrilled when I found out that Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood was hosting The Joan Bennett Blogathon, honoring one of the least talked about actresses of the golden age of cinema. I have to start off by admitting that while I’ve watched and enjoyed many of Joan Bennett’s films such as Man Hunt (1941), Scarlet Street (1945), and Father of the Bride (1950), Joan herself hasn’t really blown me away as a screen personality. Something about her has always seemed pretty average to me, and while I’ve had nothing against her personally, I’ve simply found myself gravitating towards others stars of her era. However, I always enjoy expanding my horizons, especially when I have the chance to write about discovering new-to-me films. So, when I found out recently that Joan essentially had another side to her as a blonde in romantic comedies from the late 1930s, not unlike her sister Constance, I knew that I had to find one of the pictures from this part of her career and give it a try.
After much deliberation, I finally settled on Two in a Crowd (1936) for two reasons. Primarily, I was impatient to watch it because Joan stars opposite Joel McCrea, who I’ve recently developed a gigantic crush on. Any opportunity to watch a movie of Joel’s that I haven’t seen before is one that I’ll gladly take, and in addition, the plot of Two in a Crowd (1936) is utterly charming. The film begins on a snowy night on New Year’s Eve, where we see a wealthy gangster throwing a party for his friends. We watch as he drunkenly throws money to his female admirers as if it were handfuls of confetti, and we witness one particular woman, not feeling grateful for her gift, tearing her thousand dollar bill in two and throwing it out of the window. Down below, Larry Stevens (Joel McCrea) and Julia Wayne (Joan Bennett) are two lost souls who are down to their last dimes, and in one of the most sickeningly sweet meet-cutes I’ve ever seen, they each find one half of the bill in the snow and bump into each other amongst the crowd. Realizing that neither of them will get very far with half of a torn note, they decide to go to a local ritzy restaurant to piece the bill back together and discuss how to go about spending it.
We soon learn that both of them have their own reasons for taking the entire sum rather than splitting it. Larry desperately needs to pay back rent before he’s kicked out of his apartment, and he hopes to spend the rest of the dough on giving his jockey friend Skeeter (Elisha Cook, Jr.) a job while also entering Hector’s Pal, a promising racehorse who he admires, into an upcoming race with a $25,000 cash prize. At the same time, we find out that Julia is a struggling actress from a small town who spent the money that her fiancé gave to her to buy her trousseau on dramatic school. She believes that she is unable to face her future husband or her family again until she pays him back in full, and she hopes to use the rest of the thousand dollars to support her uncle. As the two reach an impasse on what to do with the money, Larry and Julia end up moving in together. As they fall in love, they focus on making their unique situation work by using the money for Larry’s purposes, hoping to get a big return on their investment while still supporting Julia’s acting aspirations. Meanwhile, neither of them realize that the thousand dollar bill is actually stolen from a recent bank robbery and that the police as well as the gangsters who took it are hellbent on retrieving it.
Two in a Crowd (1936) was made during a pivotal time in Joan Bennett’s career. At the time, she was married to actor Gene Markey while also being under contract to producer Walter Wanger, who would shortly become her next husband. This film was one of a string of successful comedies that established Joan as a formidable leading lady in witty romantic comedies and musicals opposite stars like Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Fred MacMurray, and even George Raft. This era of her career was short lived, however, once Wanger and director Tay Garnett convinced Joan to ditch her natural blonde locks in favor of a brunette hue for Trade Winds (1938), which not only changed Bennett’s physical appearance, but soon changed the types of roles that she was apt to play as well. Once this shift in her career was complete, audiences found out that Joan was not only fit for comedy and romance, but also excelled at captivating costume dramas such as The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) and The Son of Monte Cristo (1940), and even in noir films like Scarlet Street (1945) and Hollow Triumph (1948).
I find it amusing that these latter works were her attempt to play against type, yet to a modern classic movie fan like myself, it’s movies like Two in a Crowd (1936) that seem vastly different from the Joan that I know. This picture was such a refreshing change compared to other films of Bennett’s that I’ve seen, and while there are features from the latter part of Joan’s career that I adore, I must admit that escapist romantic comedies from the mid-thirties are much more appealing to me, and I’m glad that I got the chance to see her sparkle in an image and genre that I prefer. Her chemistry with Joel McCrea is off the charts, which makes me feel sorry that this was their second of two films together. This outstanding pair is complemented perfectly by their supporting cast, which includes a strikingly youthful Elisha Cook Jr. as Larry’s friend and jockey and Reginald Denny and Donald Meek as two bumbling small-time fianciers in Larry’s horse. If you’re like I was and you’re still on the fence about whether you’re a fan of Joan Bennett’s or not, I’m delighted to report that you don’t know Joan until you’ve seen her in this movie. It just might change your mind!