Remember pretty and pert Amy March in 1933's Little Women? Remember darkly seductive Kitty "Lazy Legs" March in the 1945 classic noir film Scarlet Street? Both were played by beautiful actress Joan Bennett. Bennett essentially had two phases in her nearly 50 year feature film career. The first as a pretty blonde in mostly lightweight fare during the 1930's and the second as a raven haired vamp in some of the best examples of the film noir genre of the 1940's. Surprisingly, the 180 degree career change took place quite by accident.
In 1938 Joan Bennett had been a popular blonde ingenue in Hollywood for a decade, already appearing in over 30 films, like Disraeli and George Cukor's Little Women. Her career had been steady if uneventful. In late summer she began work on a romantic comedy called Trade Winds with Fredric March. The films producer, Walter Wanger, had put Bennett under personal contract after seeing her in Little Women (Bennett and Wanger would marry in 1940). In the film, Joan's character changes her hair color from blonde to brunette as part of a disguise. Earlier that year Wanger had produced Algiers, which featured Austrian beauty Hedy Lamarr in her successful American debut. He and Trade Wind's director Tay Garnett noted the uncanny resemblance the brunette Joan had to Lamarr. The change was popular with film goers and according to Bennett she began getting better parts. Her new sultry look was so appealing she decided to keep it (Cole Porter even noted the hair change in the song "Let's Not Talk About Love" with the lyrics "Let's speak of Lamarr, that Hedy so fair; why does she let Joan Bennett wear all her old hair?" ).
One producer who took notice of the "new Joan" was friend David O. Selznick. He was so impressed with Bennett's new sultry look that he had her test for the highly coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. She became one of the four leading contenders for the role along with Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur and Vivien Leigh, who eventually won the part.
Even though she continued in a few less than demanding roles in films like The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), eventually filmmakers began to appreciate Bennett's darker countenance and her career took a dramatic turn. In 1941 she was cast as a streetwalker in the espionage drama Man Hunt. It was the first of four films she would make for German director Fritz Lang. Her next two Lang films, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) were excellent examples of the film noir genre that had become popular with wartime and post war audiences and cemented Bennett's persona as a femme fatale. Joan Bennett never went back to being a blonde, either personally or professionally, and capped off her career as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in the gothic vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows.