We found ourselves recently recounting the “favorite tv moms” of all time, and discovered that at least three classic movie figures turn up in the listing: Donna Reed, Jane Wyatt and Lucille Ball (and let’s not forget to mention Florence Henderson).
After taking a look at a tidy little film noir, 1949’s The Reckless Moment, directed by Max Ophuls, we should note that none other than Joan Bennett may have established the maternal mold so successfully pursued by the tv moms cited above. We may exaggerate a tad, but not by much.
In the movie Bennett plays a resolutely upper-middle class woman, residing in Balboa, California with her two children, her husband (away on business throughout the movie), her crusty father-in-law and a family servant. The house is quaint and well furnished.
But this being film noir, the domestic situations that Bennett confronts are not of the usual tv sitcom sort — blackmail, murder, the concealment of a dead body and managing a self-sacrificing hood (James Mason).
As an aside, we note that The Reckless Moment may have been a bit closer to Bennett offscreen than at first imagined. For her marital life was anything but tranquil.
Her third husband (of four), producer Walter Wanger, had the nagging feeling that Bennett was cheating on him with Jennings Lang, then her agent. A parking lot encounter in 1951 ended with Wanger shooting Lang in the groin (other accounts are more specific) while he sat in his car.
Wanger spent some time in prison before reuniting two years later with Bennett, but the couple divorced in 1965 after twenty-five years of marriage and three years before his death. In any case, The Reckless Moment was produced by Wanger with his wife in the lead two years before the parking lot brouhaha featuring Lang (not to be confused with director Fritz with whom Bennett often worked).
Back to The Reckless Moment. The thorniest situation confronting Bennett’s upper-middle-class Mom is, typically, her teenage daughter (Geraldine Brooks), who falls for a sleazebag smoothie who tries to blackmail the family. (The part is played by, of all actors, Shepperd Strudwick.)
After his demise, Mom hides the body underneath a bay-front pier. More trouble ensues when police discover compromising letters between the daughter and her accidental victim. Police look into murder possibilities.
While matters become complicated, Bennett’s resolute Mom makes certain that her daughter is protected at all costs.
The central irony of (Bennett’s situation) is not in her actual guilt or innocence but in her stereo-typical middle class backround…(Mom) protects (her daughter) because her middle class values cannot accept such an unforseen and precipitous diruption of her nuclear family, opine Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, co-editors of the indispensable Film Noir Encyclopedia.
Bennett is excellent as the protective Mom. And, take away the sinister developments beseiging her brood, she could well be the heroine of a tv sitcom. Life With Mother.