Charles Bennett (1891-1943) – From Pollards to ‘Citizen Kane’

Above: Charles Bennett in his uncredited role as the song and dance man, in Citizen Kane (1941). An RKO Radio Pictures, publicity still, photographer Alexander Kahle. Via Wikimedia Commons. [The scene in question is about 40 minutes into the film]

Charles as a tenor 1916
The 5 second version
There are few actors whose lives and careers are as muddled up in online accounts as Charles Bennett (1891-1943). He is regularly confused with others of the same name (see Note 1 below).
Charles Bennett was born in New Zealand, his wife Dottie Brown (1890-1981) in Australia and their son Mickey Bennett (1915-1950) in Canada. This thoroughly imperial family owed their presence in North America to Pollard’s Opera Company, an Australian theatrical institution of young touring actors. Like many of the Pollards performers, Charles and Dottie had stayed on in the US. Dottie retired from the stage in the 1920s. Charles Bennett continued to appear in light opera, vaudeville and then early sound films, although in the latter he was usually consigned to minor and uncredited roles. Dottie and Charles’ son Mickey became a child star of note in the 1920s and 30s. Charles’s brother Norman Bennett (1903-1984) also worked in the US film industry. 
At left: 25 year old Charles Bennett while performing with “The Bostonians” at the Saskatoon Empire Theatre, The Star-Phoenix (Saskatchewan, Canada) 22 Nov 1916, P5, via newspapers.com

Above: The USA was one of the first nations to introduce detailed recordkeeping and the use of photographs for entry and naturalisation. These photos are taken from separate US naturalisation applications for Charles Bennett (1933), his brother Norman (1939), and son Mickey Bennett (1937- by then an adult) The corresponding photo for Dottie Brown seems to be missing. Via US National Archives, via ancestry.com and Family Search.

Charles Joseph Bennett was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1891, to Charles Bennett a jeweller- watchmaker, and his wife Louisa nee Potter. In 1892, the Bennetts and their three children relocated to Melbourne. A few years later they settled down at 69 Elm Street Northcote, then a suburb on Melbourne’s northern fringe. The family lived there for thirty years and three more children were born in Melbourne. There is evidence that the Bennett family fostered musical interests amongst their children, and in time, Charles came to prominence as a singer, elocutionist and comic while touring with several concert companies in eastern Australia in 1911-12. In the 1920s, Charles’ youngest brother Norman also developed a reputation as a singer.

With the Pollards

In mid 1912, Charles signed up with Nellie Chester for what would be the final Pollards Juvenile Opera performance tour of North America. Following the Pollards disastrous tour of India in 1909, Australian labour laws now restricted children from performing overseas and thus most of the performers were in their late teens or early twenties (and therefore could no longer called “Lilliputians”). Some in the company were well established Pollard performers who had travelled to North America before – including Ted and Nellie McNamara, Ethel Naylor and “Dottie” Brown.

Dottie Brown had been born Ellen (or Eileen) Brown in Melbourne in 1890, and had performed with Pollards and other juvenile groups for almost ten years, first travelling with the company on one of their lengthy tours in 1903. Compared to Charles, her profile is more typical of the young people from working class inner Melbourne who joined the company. Parents of Pollard performers were usually in unskilled jobs, and were apparently more accepting of their child’s lengthy absence on extended overseas tours. Dottie’s father was a cab driver, but in later years a painter and decorator.

Above: “Spokane Chronicle”. 23 December 1913. Some of the performers in Nellie Chester’s final Pollard’s troupe. . Via Newspapers.com.

In the grainy photo above, Nellie Chester, dressed in black, stands at the centre rear, while standing beside her is the troupe’s leading comic performer Ted McNamara. Charles Bennett may be the hatted man, at rear on the right. Unfortunately Dottie cannot be identified with confidence. She was sometimes credited as the troupe’s “Dance Mistress” although records show she also performed. Following Pollards established practices, the troupe travelling across towns and cities in Canada and the US, their repertoire including popular musicals – The MikadoThe Belle of New York, Sergeant Brue, The Toy Maker and La Belle Butterfly. Welcomed by local press who already knew the Pollards as a “first class road company”, they were a success everywhere they went.

A number of the Pollard performers on this tour married – including Dottie and Charles in late 1914. At about the same time, the couple left Pollards. This was not unusual, and the Pollards Juvenile troupe continually changed composition as it toured North America through to its eventual demise in 1919. However in February 1915 Charles took Pollards to court over two weeks wages – reported to be $40, and the cost of the fare back to Australia – $105.00, as allowed in his original Australian contract. The matter was settled, and Charles was forced to admit he didn’t want to return to Australia.

Above; While Charles and Dottie were performing in North America during World War One, these were the family homes in Australia – left: The Brown home at No 96 Carlton Street, Carlton, overlooking Carlton Gardens and right, the Bennett family home at No 69 Elm Street, Northcote – where the Bennetts lived for about thirty years.

Charles and Dottie after Pollards

It was while living in Victoria, British Columbia in 1915 that a son, Charles John Berkley (Mickey) Bennett was born. Charles had joined Victoria’s Allen Players at the time. In late 1916, Charles, Dottie and Ethel Naylor, another ex-Pollard performer, joined The Bostonians, another well established touring company specialising in musical comedies, like The Rose of Honolulu. Their move was again greeted with enthusiastic publicity – doubtless generated by the company itself. Newspapers reported that Charles was the only leading male in the company and “a tenor of rare ability”. Dottie had once been the “premier danseuse” of Australia it was (incorrectly) claimed.

Above: Charles Bennett with Iva Mitchell appearing for the Bostonians. Independent-Observer (Montana) 24 May 1917, P8. Via newspapers.com

On and off between 1918 and 1923 – Charles Bennett featured with Earl Christie in the vaudeville turn Two Boys from Virginia, also known as Two Southern Gentlemen in some US states. He can be found performing in vaudeville, with less and less frequency, through to the late 1920s. Unfortunately Dottie Brown’s later career is much more difficult to trace. She may have performed on tour in the US as late as the mid 1920s, although there were more than a few dancers called Dottie Brown or Dottie Bennett at work in variety at the time.

Above: Charles Bennett working with Earl Christie in Two Boys from Virginia in a Decatur, Illinois vaudeville lineup in 1918. Herald and Review (Illinois) 21 Jan 1918, P10 via Newspapers.com

Mickey the child star

We know that Charles and Dottie decided to include their young son in their theatre life at a young age, as “Mickey” (as he was already nicknamed), was included in a stage performance of Chu Chin Chow in Victoria BC, in late 1920. He was 5 years old at the time. It has also been suggested that he appeared soon after in a small role in the film Cappy Ricks (1921), but as only part of this has survived, it is impossible to verify.

The great critical and financial success of Charlie Chaplin‘s The Kid (1921), which also featured 7 year old Jackie Coogan, inspired other studios to make films featuring real child actors, as opposed to adults (like Mary Pickford) pretending to be children. Mickey was one of a number of child stars who emerged in the 1920s, in films that featured them as scamps, vagabonds and members of cheeky children’s gangs. The following puff-piece illustrates the efforts studios were going to in the wake of Chaplin’s success with The Kid. Here, a Photoplay article inferred that Mickey, a featured player in Paramount’s Big Brother (1923), really was a tough street kid, who wouldn’t “work with them sissies.” Readers were also assured he was “entirely different from Jackie Coogan”. Allan Dwan was reported to have said Mickey was the “most remarkably quick and responsive child actor he has ever worked with.”


Above: Screen grabs of Mickey Bennett in two comedies; left – No Father to Guide Him, with Charley Chase (1925), right – It’s the Old Army Game with WC Fields (1926). Via copies on youtube.

The problem for child stars, even for the very successful Jackie Coogan, is that they soon ceased to be children. Mickey Bennett featured in several memorable roles as he grew into his early teens, appearing in the musical Swing High (1930) and the James Cagney reform-school drama The Mayor of Hell (1933), his last role of substance. He was 18 years old by this time.

However, by 1935 he was usually consigned to very minor roles and as his IMDB credit list shows, there were an increasing number of uncredited “bellhop” parts. He had well and truly lost his currency.

In 1936 he turned to directing, working successfully for Universal as a Second Unit and Assistant Director – on films including Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1947) and the Audie Murphy western Sierra (1950), directed by Alfred E Green. Unfortunately, only some of this work is documented.

Charles’ screen career

There is also difficulty in documenting accurately the film parts played by Charles Bennett, except in his case, this is also because his name was shared with several other people in the entertainment industry. (See note 1 below).

The only solution to this today is to watch all of the available films credited to actors called Charles Bennett and to compare their appearance, an inexact activity at best. Doing this suggests Charles’ first noticeable roles in film were in the early 1930s, although it is likely that there are other films we do not know of. Overwhelmingly, his appearances were passing roles – sometimes as a featured extra, often playing a cockney type, as so many Australians found themselves doing during Hollywood’s golden age. By far the clearest footage of Charles Bennett in any of his films found thus far, is his appearance as the telegraph officer in Gunga Din (1939). Charles appears in closeup, and his expression freezes as he realises why the morse code message has stopped.

Above: Screen grab of Charles Bennett as the shocked telegraph operator in Gunga Din (1939). Author’s collection. The film is widely available on DVD.
Above: Screen grab of Charles Bennett as a singer in the pub, in Mysterious Mr Moto (1938). In addition to leading actor Mary Maguire, a number of other Australian-born extras appeared in this film – Billy Bevan, Frank Hagney, Harry Allen, Jack Deery, Sam Harris, Dick Rush and Clyde Cook, and New Zealand-born actor May Beatty, all of them playing cockneys. Via copy on youtube.

This audio clip from the scene above in Mysterious Mr Moto (1938) is the only example the author could find of Charles Bennett singing, on this occasion in his best cockney accent. Via copy on youtube

There appear to have been at least two dozen films in which Charles Bennett was an extra. Sadly, another reason for the poor documentation of the careers of Charles Bennett and his son Mickey is that they both died unexpectedly in mid-career. Charles Bennett died suddenly in early 1943, as a result of a stroke, working almost to the very end. Mickey also died very suddenly as a result of a heart attack – in September 1950. He left a wife and young daughter – he was only 35 years old.

Norman Bennett goes to Hollywood

In October 1928, 25 year old Norman Bennett – the youngest of the Bennett family, decided to leave the comfort of the home at 69 Elm Street, Northcote, to pursue his musical interests in the United States. A well known tenor in Australia, his departure was publicly acknowledged by farewell concerts. Percy Grainger had apparently agreed to watch over his career and Norman’s stated intention was to study in Chicago. Within a few years he was appearing regularly on radio in the US. But Norman soon ended up in California and by 1938 Australian newspapers reported that he was music director at RKO, and he is credited with arranging and composing music for films well into the 1950s. Norman also appears to have had a small part in RKOs Flying Down to Rio (1933). A online commercial image archive holds a photo that shows Norman, credited as a music advisor, with Orson Wells on the set of Citizen Kane.

Above: Mickey Bennett meeting his Australian uncle Norman. The Herald (Melb) 6 June 1929, P35. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

After a long career in California, Norman returned to Australia, retiring to Sandringham, a southern suburb of Melbourne, where he died in 1984. Dottie had stayed on in California, and died there in March 1981.


Note 1 – All those other actors called Charles Bennett

Many online accounts of Charles Bennett merrily jumble up the careers of the following individuals.

  • Charles Bennett (1899-1995), a British actor, director and screenwriter, well remembered for his work with Alfred Hitchcock.
  • Charles R Bennett, a New York musician or agent and possibly actor, who allegedly married US actress Patricia “Boots” Mallory in New York on 15 August 1928. The couple divorced in 1933 – Boots insisted they had never legally married.
  • And there was another Charles Bennett, very active on the stage in the late C19th and in the early years of US film. In his 2010 book Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, Brent E Walker warns against confusing this actor, whose date and details of birth remain elusive, with the Charles Bennett born in New Zealand. (See Walker, P488). Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened, as the current pages on Wikipedia and the IMBD show.
Above left: Screen grab of Charles Bennett the stage actor (at right) as the returned Uncle in Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), with Charlie Chaplin (foreground) and Marie Dressler. Above Right: Screen grab of Charles Bennett the stage actor (at right) as a sailor at the bar in The Face on the Barroom Floor (1914) also with Charlie Chaplin.

Nick Murphy
November 2021


References

Text

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By... University of California Press
  • Lucy Fisher (Ed) (2009) American Cinema of the 1920s; Themes and Variations. Rutgers University Press
  • Clifford McCarty (2000) Film Composers in America: A Filmography, 1911-1970. Oxford University Press
  • Brent E. Walker (2013) Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies. McFarland Incorporated

Victoria (Aust) Births Deaths and Marriages

  • Ellen Brown birth certificate. 4 May 1890
  • Charles Bennett (father) death certificate, 13 Aug 1937
  • Norman Wills Bennett death certificate, 14 Sept 1984

New Zealand Births Deaths and Marriages

  • Charles Joseph Bennett birth certificate, 13 April 1891

Websites

Ancestry.com and family search

  • US census, Shipping manifests and naturalisation applications
  • Charles Joseph Bennett death certificate, California, 15 Feb 1943
  • Charles Joseph Bennett and Eileen Brown marriage certificate, British Columbia 9 Oct 1914
  • Victoria, Australia, voting rolls.

State Library of Victoria

  • Sands and McDougall Directories, Melbourne, 1900 and 1910

Newspapers.com

  • The San Francisco Call, May 4, 1908 P16
  • The Province (Vancouver, BC) 10 Aug 1912, P17
  • The Alaska Daily Empire, 8 Oct 1913, Wed · P3
  • Spokane Chronicle, 23 Dec 1913, P1
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria BC) 13 Feb 1915, P13
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria, BC) 15 Feb 1915, P10
  • Saskatoon Daily Star (Saskatchewan) 18 Nov 1916, P21
  • Star-Phoenix (Saskatchewan) 21 Nov 1916, P5
  • Star-Phoenix (Saskatchewan) 22 Nov 1916, P5
  • The Billings Gazette (Montana), 4 Apr 1917, P5
  • Independent-Observer (Montana) 24 May 1917, P8
  • Herald and Review (Illinois) 21 Jan 1918, P10
  • The Victoria Daily Times (Victoria, BC), 10 Nov 1920
  • Palladium Item (Ind) 17 May 1924. P17
  • Anaconda Standard (Mont) 25 Nov 1926, P16
  • Chicago Tribune, 27 March 1927, P44
  • The Pasadena Post (Cal) 19 Jun 1929, P20
  • Los Angeles Evening Citizen News, 17 Feb 1943, P2
  • The Los Angeles Times, 8 Sep 1950, P48

National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • Townsville Daily Bulletin 14 Aug 1907, P7
  • Advertiser (Adel) 3 Feb 1911, P11
  • Referee (Syd) 8 Jan 1913, P15
  • Herald (Melb) 12 June 1924, P22
  • Herald (Melb) 27 Aug 1925, P23
  • Herald (Melb) 23 Aug 1928, P6
  • Herald (Melb) 6 June 1929, P35
  • Herald (Melb), 3 February 1938, P30

Papers Past (New Zealand)

  • Evening Post, 13 June 1924, P5

Lantern, Digital Media Project

  • Moving Picture World, 3 July 1915
  • Photoplay, Jan-June 1924

This site has been selected for archiving and preservation in the National Library of Australia’s Pandora archive

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