Marjorie Bennett (1896-1982), from bathtubs to character roles

Above: Marjorie Bennett onstage and in the bath in Australia, in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1922).((Table Talk (Melb) 3 Aug 1922, P25 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove))
NEws Pilot 1924
The Five Second version
Marjorie Bennett, the younger sister of actress Enid Bennett, was born in York, Western Australia, in 1896. She travelled to the US in December 1916 to join Enid. Famous in later years for “cheerful, white haired woman” roles, by the time of her death she had over 200 film and TV appearances to her credit. (TCM and the IMDB provide lists of her screen appearances after 1946.) Much less well known is that before 1946 she had already enjoyed a long career as a stage actress, including a successful twenty-eight month performance tour back to Australia, where she  developed something of a reputation for “saucy theatre” in the process. When she died in June 1982, she was so well known that almost every notable US newspaper carried her obituary.[1]Australian papers did not report her death
Younger sister Catherine Bennett also briefly appeared in Hollywood films.  
Left: Marjorie Bennett as an ingenue, in the play The Taming of Bab, at the Royal Playhouse, California, 1924. [2]News-Pilot (San Pedro, CA)  4 Oct 1924, P5. Via Newspapers.com

The Bennett family

The Bennett girls from Western Australia – Enid (born 1893)[3]Western Australia, BDM document 1325/1893, Marjorie (born 1896)[4]Western Australia, BDM document 2741/1896 and step-sister Catherine (born 1901)[5]Western Australia, BDM document 5122/1901 all ended up living and working in California’s booming film industry. However all three women had a different experience – Enid preferred screen work, Marjorie spent twenty years on stage before returning to film, while Catherine briefly tried stage and screen and then rejected both.

Enid Bennett was the first to go the United States – in June 1915, appearing on stage in New York later that year.[6]Cock O’ the Walk opened in New York at George M Cohan’s Theatre on December 27 1915, but it appears to have opened as early as October in Scranton, Pennsylvania This followed several years performing in Australia with the Fred NibloJosephine Cohan Troupe, and appearances in two Australian films directed by Niblo. Her Australian story is told here.

Enid Bennett and Fred Niblo, about the time of Marjorie’s return from Australia. c1923. By this time the couple were married and well established in Hollywood – Enid as a popular screen player, and Fred as one of its leading directors. Author’s collection.

While Enid’s path to the stage and screen is well documented, Marjorie’s is less so. It was US film critic Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times who gleaned much information from Marjorie while she was alive.[7]See Kevin Thomas articles in The Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio) 28 Aug 1977, P49 and The Journal Herald (Ohio) 3 Jan 1978, P30, via Newspapers.com Reading these accounts today, one gains the impression she was a woman with a strong sense of self, a healthy sense of humour and held in high esteem by many in the industry. In 1977, Rick Rosner, a producer and writer for the popular TV series CHiPs told her “you are the sun on a cloudy day. When you arrive everything becomes beautiful.” A nice compliment for an 80 year old, still hard at work.[8]Kevin Thomas (Los Angeles Times) via Asbury Park Press (New Jersey), 4 Sept 1977, P52, via Newspapers.com

Enid, Marjorie and Catherine’s mother was Nellie nee Walker. After the death of her first husband Francis Bennett in 1898 and second husband Alexander Gillespie in 1903,[9]Both husbands were school principals Nellie Gillespie moved her family from Western Australia back to Sydney, to the comfortable suburb she had been born in – Woollahra, where she apparently ran a boarding house at No 20 Newcastle Street, Rose Bay.[10]Now No 34 according to the 1917 Sands Directory of Sydney In response to letters from a homesick Enid in Hollywood, Marjorie was sent to keep her older sister company. Marjorie arrived in the US in December 1916 on the SS Ventura, accompanied by just two pieces of luggage and on a tourist visa. She recalled that she didn’t want to go to the US and certainly “didn’t want to be an actress.”[11]Kevin Thomas, The Journal Herald, (Dayton Ohio), 3 Jan 1978, P30, via Newspapers.com By this time, Enid had already appeared on stage and in her first Thomas Ince film, A Princess of the Dark and her star was rising.[12]Motion Picture News, 21 October 1916, P2523, Via Lantern Media History Digital Library The sisters lived together in an apartment in Los Angeles and there is some evidence they had a jolly time of it, socialising with various celebrities and sometimes the other Australians working in Hollywood.[13]see for example a photo of the Bennetts with Sylvia Breamer in Ralph Marsden’s (2016) Who Was Sylvia? There are also reports of the Australian girls forming a “Kangaroo Club” for … Continue reading Soon after, Marjorie was also convinced to appear in a film for Ince, reportedly The Girl, Glory, where Enid had a leading role.

Marjorie and Enid reunited in late 1916. This newspaper report suggested the sisters were twins.[14]San Francisco Call, Volume 100, Number 153, 26 December 1916, via UCR California Digital Newspaper Collection

The family together in the US

Nellie Gillespie arrived in the US in January 1918, with her younger children Catherine and Alexander. Several dramatic events had impacted the family at this time. One was the tragic death of Francis or “Reg”, the oldest of the Bennett children and a Lieutenant in the Australian Army, killed in action in Belgium in October 1917[15]The location of Reg Bennett’s grave was lost soon after his burial in the field, a fact that must have caused the family great distress. See https://www.guildfordanzacs.org.au/anzac/45 The second, a happier piece of news, was the impending wedding of Enid and Fred Niblo. The couple married in February 1918.[16]Josephine M Cohan had died in July 1916 Niblo went on to become one of Hollywood’s leading directors while Enid’s fame as a star soared. By the early 1920s the couple were very well known figures in the industry – perhaps “Hollywood royalty” might be the term.[17]See for example, a very inaccurate profile piece on Enid in Picture Show Jan 8, 1921, P8. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library

An ad for for the film Naughty Naughty in late 1918.[18]The Bulletin (Pomona, CA) 13 Oct 1918, P10. Via newspapers.com

Touring with Julian Eltinge and a return to Australia

Unlike Enid, it is difficult to find Marjorie showing any interest in acting while growing up in Australia. It appears she owed her entree to Hollywood films entirely to her sister Enid and the counsel of Fred Niblo.[19]In this 1921 report in Australia, Marjorie specifically mentioned Niblo giving career advice to her – Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Marjorie appeared in three films in 1918, including Naughty Naughty with Enid. Motion Picture directories of the time listed her as a suitable ingenue type. And then, as she recalled when interviewed by Kevin Thomas, she gave up the screen to try the stage.[20]The Journal Herald (Dayton Ohio) 3 Jan 1978, P30 via Newspapers.com In fact, for the next eight months she performed with famous female impersonator Julian Eltinge(1881-1941), touring throughout the US.

Marjorie (left) heads off on tour with Julian Eltinge in 1919 [21]The San Francisco Examiner, 10 Jan 1919, P11, The Seattle Star, 1 Feb 1919, P10, Los Angeles Evening Express, 22 Dec 1918, P37. Via newspapers.com

Eltinge was very well known in the US and had appeared successfully in vaudeville, several films and musical theatre by the time of the tour.[22]Mark Berger’s short documentary on Eltinge can be seen here, which also explains the origins of Eltinge’s act. In vaudeville, Eltinge spectacularly “revealed his male identity at … Continue reading His 1919 revue was firmly in the vaudeville tradition and included Marjorie and fellow Australian Arthur Shirley (1886-1967) in the cast. Historians Cullen, Hackman and McNeilly estimate that Eltinge may have been earning $3,500 per week before the tour, an enormous sum for a performer at the time,[23]About $65,000 per week in 2022 money which possibly indicates how lucrative working with him was for Marjorie. But given that female impersonators soon came to be regarded as thoroughly improper entertainment, it is hardly surprising that later biographies of the careers of Marjorie Bennett and Arthur Shirley don’t make mention of this lengthy tour, while the memory of Julian Eltinge has also been buried.[24]As Mark Berger indicates, Eltinge’s act was part of a long tradition that disappeared with the decline of vaudeville, and is far removed from what we might expect from a female impersonation … Continue reading

Marjorie Bennett in Nightie Night in Australia in 1921.[25]Critic (Adelaide) 2 Nov 1921, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In the later part of 1920, the Australian theatre firm JC Williamsons, enticed Marjorie back to Australia to perform with another import – Joseph Coyne (1867-1941) – in farces including Nightie Night, My Lady Friends and Wedding Bells. Clearly someone representing Williamsons, probably Hugh Ward, had seen her perform in the US and thought highly enough of her to bring her back.

The Coyne company tour of major cities in Australia and New Zealand was a success. Coyne left for England in December 1921, but Marjorie stayed on. She then performed in another string of farces and comedies – Johnny Get Your Gun, The First Year and Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, in company with other visiting actors brought in by JC Williamsons, including Louis Bennison and Phillips Tead.

Although she often spoke to reporters of her “home” now being in California, in August 1922 she told Table Talk that she didn’t want to go back to the US just yet. “All the rest of the family is in California, and mother keeps writing to ask when I am going back; but I want to make good in my native country before I leave it. I never realised how fascinating Australia is until I left it… There’s nothing like seeing other countries to make one appreciate one’s own.” The comment was the sort Australians liked to hear and was shared nationwide.[26]Table Talk (Melb) 17 Aug 1922, P17, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Significantly, she also expressed her preference for the stage very clearly, despite Enid’s success on the screen back in Hollywood.[27]Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In Australia, Marjorie felt confident enough to speak publicly occasionally about Hollywood matters – including the death of Virginia Rappe in September 1921, after news broke.[28]She claimed to know both Rappe and “Fatty” Arbuckle. This is possible – and Rappe had appeared in a Julian Eltinge film in 1920. See Newcastle Sun (NSW) 21 Sept 1921, P7 via … Continue reading Finally, in late March 1923, she boarded the SS Sonoma for California.

Trouble with Getting Gertie’s Garter

If Australian newspapers thought Parlor, Bedroom and Bath was a bit “saucy,”[29]The Daily Telegraph (Syd), 12 Jul 1922, P10, SYDNEY SHOWS, via National Library of Australia’s Trove this was not the case with Marjorie’s first play on returning to Los Angeles. While the reports surrounding the court appearance of the cast of Getting Gertie’s Garter created a blaze of publicity – and what wonderful publicity – it seems likely the play really was pulled for “indecency” several weeks after the start of its run at the Frank Egan Theatre in 1923.[30]The Los Angeles Times 6 Sep 1923, P19, via Newspapers.com Changes were apparently made to the script by order of the court.[31]The Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 27 Oct, 1923, P5, via Newspapers.com

The cast, not looking very worried about a court appearance, with Marjorie, fourth from the right. Note fellow Australian cast member Gwen Burroughs in the big hat,[32]The Los Angeles Times 7 Sep 1923, P9, via Newspapers.com

Of course, this was an era of publicity stunts and outrageously silly stories – all in the interests of self-promotion. For example, reports about Marjorie’s newly arrived Australian friend and costar Gwen Burroughs (1888-1968) made much of her reputation as a film star “vamp” (and impending divorce from Lewis Willoughby),[33]The San Francisco Examiner 10 Apr 1923, P13, via newspapers.com yet she had only appeared in one Australian film and none in the US. Consider also the very dramatic story about Lotus Thompson and the “acid” on her legs stunt, which surfaced in early 1925 and continues to dominate accounts of her life, even 100 years later.

Marjorie back on the US stage as a “scarlet woman.” [34]Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 16 Feb 1924, P16, via Newspapers.com

Only a few months later, another newspaper report suggested that Enid was concerned with a part Marjorie had taken in the play The Adding Machine, as a “scarlet woman,” and insisted she withdraw. Possibly. But the story has all the hallmarks of another publicity stunt.

Marjorie’s stage performances over the next twenty years were many – and in a variety of theatre styles, but they reflected the popular tastes of the time, such as the romantic comedy Loose Ankles, which opened at Los Angeles’ Playhouse Theatre in early 1927. In the 1930s she was also in one act plays for the Writers Club [35]Daily News (LA)16 December 1930, P20 via, radio dramas and occasionally more traditional plays – including a stage version of A Tale of Two Cities in 1933 and the drama The Shining Hour at the Beverley Hills Little Theatre in 1937. Comedies and bedroom farces prevailed however – as a quick survey of titles suggest – Wedding Night (1941), Two in a Bed (1944) and Motel Wives (1945).

Marjorie with Nancy Carroll in Loose Ankles in 1927. [36]The San Francisco Examiner, 29 Jan 1927, P11 and Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 8 Jan 1927, P9. Via Newspaper.com

Unfortunately, we have few clues regarding the reason for her steady twenty-year preference for the stage whilst living in the midst of Hollywood’s thriving film industry – or her sister Catherine’s rejection of both stage and screen as a career in 1926 (see Note 1 below). It is noteworthy that in the 1940 US census she described herself as a “motion picture actress.” By contrast, in the 1930 US census, she had stated her occupation and industry as the “legitimate stage.” Unfortunately, US journalists, even the diligent Kevin Thomas, tended to brush over Marjorie’s activities for the entire period 1924-46. Perhaps Marjorie did some very mundane extra work in films in the later 1930s and early 40s, that has yet to be discovered.

Marjorie Bennett in a brief role in Universal’s Dressed to Kill (1946). Screengrab from a copy at the Internet Archive.

200 screen characters

Marjorie Bennett’s first known later-in-life film role was an uncredited appearance as a shop assistant in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes film Dressed to Kill (1946). Here, she portrayed a cheerful white haired woman character for the first time. With her white hair usually tied in a distinctive “crown braid,” she repeated this role numerous times over the next thirty years. Why she re-embraced the screen as a career at this time is unknown, but it was a successful move and by the 1970s – with more than 200 appearances behind her, she was so familiar for US audiences that she was also being used in television commercials – for Ford cars and Kentucky Fried Chicken.[37]Kevin Thomas, The Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio) Aug 28, 1977, P49, via Newspapers.com

On her passing, Kevin Thomas wrote that she was the “classical little old lady with a mischievous gleam in her eye.[38]The Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 Jun 1982, P88. Via Newspapers.com But this writer is of the view her success was not simply because she was effective at playing a stereotyped older woman. She was also versatile – as shown by her appearance at the end of Have Rocket, Will Travel with the Three Stooges. Here, she dances cheerfully with Joe and then neatly pulls a punch thrown at Nadia Sanders. All those years learning stagecraft had paid off.

Marjorie Bennett in the 3 Stooges film Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959) with Larry Fine and Joe DeRita. In the party scene shown at right, Marjorie’s character is about to slap a tall girl, played by Nadia Sanders. Via the Internet Archive.

Marjorie also displayed versatility with her accent. In Limelight (1952), her second film with Charles Chaplin, she played landlady Mrs Alsop, sporting (what sounds like) a broad Australian accent. Set in London but filmed in Hollywood, most viewers probably heard Mrs Alsop as a working class Londoner. Yet in her many TV guest roles of the 50s and 60s, such as Lassie, The Real McCoys and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis her accent had changed to sit comfortably alongside a variety of American accents.

At left – Marjorie in The Real McCoys, Episode “Three is a Crowd”(1958). At right, as the troublesome customer in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Episode “Deck the Halls”(1959) Screengrabs from copies mounted on Youtube.

Of the examples of her screen work reviewed by this writer, the trademark of her performances seems to have been an irrepressible good humour.

According to her many obituaries, she had finally retired in 1980, aged 84, due to failing health. She died two years later in June 1982. In May 1933, in Tijuana, Mexico, she had married Bill Cady, a singer, with whom she had occasionally performed. The couple had no children of their own but seem to have enjoyed close relationships with their nephews and nieces.

Marjorie’s recollections of Hollywood in the late 1910s, 1920s and 1930s appear in the press interviews she gave in the 1970s and her obituaries. Her accounts of meeting the likes of Valentino, Mary Pickford, mentoring a young Robert Taylor, and working with Charles Chaplin are generally based on real events, even if there are some errors in detail and timing.[39]See for example Dion Thompson’s obituary in The Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1982, P28

Marjorie Bennett late in life.[40]The Philadelphia Inquirer 20 Jun 1982, P88 via Newspapers.com

Note 1: Catherine Bennett (1901-1978)

Catherine Fanny Bennett (or Gillespie) was a step sister to Enid and Marjorie Bennett. Born in Perth, Western Australia on 17 January 1901, she arrived in the US with her mother and brother Alexander in early 1918.[41]Alexander was born in 1903. Western Australia BDM document 6179/1903. Confusingly, both Catherine and Alexander variously adopted Bennett as a surname

Catherine Bennett with Stan Laurel in When Knights Were Cold (1923). Screengrabs from a clip on youtube. The film is part of a compilation available from http://www.flickeralley.com

After some extra work in Robin Hood in 1921, Catherine appeared in a leading role in a Stan Laurel short, When Knights Were Cold in 1923. But her few public comments reveal an ambivalence about a career in acting and suggests that she had little desire to try to copy Enid’s success.[42]Picture-Play Magazine Sep 1923-Feb 1924, P74. Street and Smith. via Lantern Media History Digital Library Despite showing “a great deal of dramatic talent” [43]Photoplay 1925-12, Vol 29 Issue 1, P84, via Lantern Media History Digital Library and being heralded as a new MGM ingenue, by late 1926 she had left it behind, and taken up secretarial work in a studio – in some accounts she was also described as a scenario writer.[44]Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Although romantically associated with producer John Considine for a while, she did not marry. She died in 1978.

Catherine and Enid Bennett, c 1924. [45]Photoplay magazine, July-Dec 1924, P57. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library

Enid, Marjorie and Catherine’s younger brother Alexander Gillespie (1903-1978) used the surname Bennett for much of his life and married silent actress Frances Lee (1906-2000) in 1933.[46]See his marriage certificate 1933 here via Family Search While he is often described as an Assistant Director in Hollywood, his 1931 US naturalisation papers reveal he was an auditor-accountant.


Nick Murphy
April 2022


References

Text:

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press
  • Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper (1980) Australian film 1900-1977, P224-226. Oxford University Press/AFI
  • Eric Porter(1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  •  Charles Fox and Milton Silver’s (eds)(1920) Who’s who on the screen, Ross Publishing, New York. Via the Internet Archive.

Media
Some of Marjorie Bennett’s screen appearances are now in the public domain, including the following;

Newspaper & Magazine Sources

Primary Sources

  • Familysearch.com
  • Ancestry.com
  • Western Australia, Births, Deaths and Marriages

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Australian papers did not report her death
2 News-Pilot (San Pedro, CA)  4 Oct 1924, P5. Via Newspapers.com
3 Western Australia, BDM document 1325/1893
4 Western Australia, BDM document 2741/1896
5 Western Australia, BDM document 5122/1901
6 Cock O’ the Walk opened in New York at George M Cohan’s Theatre on December 27 1915, but it appears to have opened as early as October in Scranton, Pennsylvania
7 See Kevin Thomas articles in The Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio) 28 Aug 1977, P49 and The Journal Herald (Ohio) 3 Jan 1978, P30, via Newspapers.com
8 Kevin Thomas (Los Angeles Times) via Asbury Park Press (New Jersey), 4 Sept 1977, P52, via Newspapers.com
9 Both husbands were school principals
10 Now No 34 according to the 1917 Sands Directory of Sydney
11 Kevin Thomas, The Journal Herald, (Dayton Ohio), 3 Jan 1978, P30, via Newspapers.com
12 Motion Picture News, 21 October 1916, P2523, Via Lantern Media History Digital Library
13 see for example a photo of the Bennetts with Sylvia Breamer in Ralph Marsden’s (2016) Who Was Sylvia? There are also reports of the Australian girls forming a “Kangaroo Club” for social events in 1918
14 San Francisco Call, Volume 100, Number 153, 26 December 1916, via UCR California Digital Newspaper Collection
15 The location of Reg Bennett’s grave was lost soon after his burial in the field, a fact that must have caused the family great distress. See https://www.guildfordanzacs.org.au/anzac/45
16 Josephine M Cohan had died in July 1916
17 See for example, a very inaccurate profile piece on Enid in Picture Show Jan 8, 1921, P8. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library
18 The Bulletin (Pomona, CA) 13 Oct 1918, P10. Via newspapers.com
19 In this 1921 report in Australia, Marjorie specifically mentioned Niblo giving career advice to her – Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
20 The Journal Herald (Dayton Ohio) 3 Jan 1978, P30 via Newspapers.com
21 The San Francisco Examiner, 10 Jan 1919, P11, The Seattle Star, 1 Feb 1919, P10, Los Angeles Evening Express, 22 Dec 1918, P37. Via newspapers.com
22 Mark Berger’s short documentary on Eltinge can be seen here, which also explains the origins of Eltinge’s act. In vaudeville, Eltinge spectacularly “revealed his male identity at the end of his act…” while in musical comedy and his early films he generally “played a young male hero who had to assume a woman’s disguise in order to prevail or right some wrong.”(Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly(2007) Vaudeville Old and New Vol 1. P353-355. Routledge)
23 About $65,000 per week in 2022 money
24 As Mark Berger indicates, Eltinge’s act was part of a long tradition that disappeared with the decline of vaudeville, and is far removed from what we might expect from a female impersonation act today
25 Critic (Adelaide) 2 Nov 1921, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
26 Table Talk (Melb) 17 Aug 1922, P17, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
27, 44 Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
28 She claimed to know both Rappe and “Fatty” Arbuckle. This is possible – and Rappe had appeared in a Julian Eltinge film in 1920. See Newcastle Sun (NSW) 21 Sept 1921, P7 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
29 The Daily Telegraph (Syd), 12 Jul 1922, P10, SYDNEY SHOWS, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
30 The Los Angeles Times 6 Sep 1923, P19, via Newspapers.com
31 The Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 27 Oct, 1923, P5, via Newspapers.com
32 The Los Angeles Times 7 Sep 1923, P9, via Newspapers.com
33 The San Francisco Examiner 10 Apr 1923, P13, via newspapers.com
34 Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 16 Feb 1924, P16, via Newspapers.com
35 Daily News (LA)16 December 1930, P20 via
36 The San Francisco Examiner, 29 Jan 1927, P11 and Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 8 Jan 1927, P9. Via Newspaper.com
37 Kevin Thomas, The Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio) Aug 28, 1977, P49, via Newspapers.com
38 The Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 Jun 1982, P88. Via Newspapers.com
39 See for example Dion Thompson’s obituary in The Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1982, P28
40 The Philadelphia Inquirer 20 Jun 1982, P88 via Newspapers.com
41 Alexander was born in 1903. Western Australia BDM document 6179/1903. Confusingly, both Catherine and Alexander variously adopted Bennett as a surname
42 Picture-Play Magazine Sep 1923-Feb 1924, P74. Street and Smith. via Lantern Media History Digital Library
43 Photoplay 1925-12, Vol 29 Issue 1, P84, via Lantern Media History Digital Library
45 Photoplay magazine, July-Dec 1924, P57. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library
46 See his marriage certificate 1933 here via Family Search

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