SPOTLIGHT: Cunning Pre-Code Bennett (I)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the start of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unjustly neglected Constance Bennett (1904-1965), whom we’ve never featured here before on Film Friday! We’re kicking our month long series off today with…

 

The Easiest Way (1931)

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A slum girl discovers the joys of life as a kept woman until she falls in love. Starring Constance Bennett, Adolphe Menjou, and Robert Montgomery. Adaptation by Edith Ellis. Based on the play Eugene Walter. Directed by Jack Conway.

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“Growing up in a poor working-class family, Laura decides not to marry the boy-next-door and instead accepts wealthy, older Will Brockton’s invitation to move in with him. After falling in love with young up-and-coming newsman Jack Madison she leaves Brockton to wait for Madison’s return from a long assignment. She runs out of money and becomes desperate, returning again to Brockton who, upon learning of Madison’s sudden arrival, tells Laura she must inform Madison of her living situation or he will.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of IMDb.)

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If you’ve never seen a Constance Bennett picture, you’re in for a treat. Most popular in the talkies before World War II, her career has sort of been overshadowed by her sister, Joan Bennett, who transitioned from film to TV, becoming known for her role in Dark Shadows (1966-1971, ABC). But Constance, who boasts a much stronger Pre-Code showing, is a performer of an entirely different sort. There is perhaps no other actress who can so effortlessly manage the balance between the image of herself as a sophisticated woman of the world with a simultaneous existence as the winsome girl next door. Playing both — often in the same film, at the same time —  the oldest Bennett girl is consistently believable, and always a fascinating screen presence.

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The Easiest Way gives Bennett an ideal opportunity to showcase her unique talents, as her character goes from poverty to wealth, saint to sinner, lover to leaver all within the course of an hour and 15 minutes. Furthermore, (and I think this will appeal to modern viewers), Bennett seems completely averse to chewing any scenery, so everything is underplayed in a naturalistic style that makes for an effectively understated performance and gives critics little opportunity to find fault. This skill will become more pronounced, and much more powerful, as we examine some of the later films in this blog series.

I won’t kid you; this isn’t an outstanding film. The story is built around mature characters with performers who supply them with ample nuances, but the writing is noticeably devoid of elements that we’ve come to expect from Pre-Codes: flashy dialogue, witty rejoinders, and electric characters. It’s a very ordinary, and as a result, believable, script, but it is without ample excitement. Furthermore, the film’s stakes, while inherent in the premise, never seem to rise to the necessary urgency. While some of this can be attributed to the atypical low-key performances of our leading lady, much of this critique comes as a result of the film’s pacing, which is lacking in that devil-may-care Pre-Code spark. Sure, our characters are put in some interesting situations and arc in mostly satisfying ways, but it’s unlike some of the more entertaining films of a similar genre.

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Of course, The Easiest Way has many things to enjoy. In addition to Bennett’s surprising performance style, the picture is blessed with turns by some of wonderful talents — particularly a young and overly moralistic Clark Gable, who turns his back on Bennett, his sister-in-law, when she becomes a kept woman, and a scenery-chewing Marjorie Rambeau as Bennett’s older and wiser gal pal. Meanwhile, the film, thanks to Bennett, does a nice job of setting up the contrasts between her relationships with both Menjou and Montgomery (although she admittedly lacks sexual chemistry with both) in a clear, but profound way. It’s a common love triangle, but nobody is truly villainous — one of the marvelous recurring structural motifs of these types of Pre-Codes. Again, The Easiest Way is a tale of mature characters. Unfortunately, it’s not palpable enough to be excellent. So I recommend the film to scholars and cinephiles — and anyone who desires a little Constance Bennett!

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Come back next Friday for another Constance Bennett Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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