Enid Bennett (1893-1969) – The Australian who kept her accent

Above: Enid Bennett in Fred Niblo’s Strangers of the Night (1923). She was at the height of her Hollywood popularity. Sadly it is a lost film. Via Wikipedia Commons. See below for full length photo.

The 5 second version

Born Enid Eulalie Bennett, York, Western Australia, Australia, 15 July 1893,
Died Malibu, California, USA 14 May, 1969. Busy on stage in Australia 1910-1915. Also appeared in Fred Niblo’s two Australian films before working in the US. Most active in Hollywood between 1917-1927, during which time she gained great attention. Some later minor roles in sound films and worked until her death for the Christian Science Church. Married to Fred Niblo 1918-48.

Enid Bennett, a young Australian who arrived in the US with Fred Niblo and Josephine Cohan in June 1915, hardly qualifies as “a forgotten Australian actor.” She received widespread publicity in the early 1920s and was, at the time, one of Hollywood’s premier stars. Many of her films still exist and she has been the subject of numerous biographies since her death in 1969. However, there are several special reasons for including her on this website.

Although most famous as a silent star, what interests this writer is her accent, as evidenced by her voice in the talkies she appeared in between 1931 and 1941. It is not the broad and theatrical accent often heard when an “Australian voice” is used in Hollywood films, but the authentic accent of many middle class Australians living on the coastal fringe.

Why accents evolve and vary as they do is well beyond the scope of this article, but it is safe to note that Bennett’s accent is a feature of her ethnicity, social standing and education. Desley Deacon has also established that middle class girls like Bennett often attended schools of acting and elocution as a first step on the path to acting on stage and screen. Yet her accent is clearly still one of middle Australia.

It is also notable that Enid Bennett plays essentially the same role in all these films – usually an earnest and thoroughly decent mother figure. Here are some examples:


The Big Store (1941)

In this well known Marx Brothers comedy,  Bennett plays an unnamed store clerk in the millinery department. Nasty Miss Peggy Arden (played by Marion Martin) makes life very hard for her. (Harpo Marx then plays a clever trick on Miss Peggy – which is the point of the scene.)

The Big Store 1941
Above: Screen grab of 48 year old Enid Bennett in her final film role – the Marx Brothers film The Big Store, of 1941. The film is widely available on DVD. Author’s collection.

Strike Up the Band (1940)

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland star in this cheerful Busby Berkeley musical. In this scene Bennett is welcoming Jimmy, although he soon learns he is not allowed to play at her daughter Barbara’s birthday.

strike up the band

Above: This is Rooney as Jimmy Connors, with Enid Bennett playing Mrs Morgan and June Preisser as her daughter Barbara Morgan. Strike Up The Band, 1940. Author’s collection.

Meet Dr Christian (1939)

This is the first of six Dr Christian films made between 1939 and 1941, starring (and partly written by) Danish actor Jean Hersholt, as the sensible small town Doctor. Enid Bennett plays the Mayor’s wife, but her role is not reprised in the later films. In this scene she is talking to her husband.

Enid Bennett in Meet Dr Christian

Above: Screen grab of Enid Bennett as Mrs Hewitt in Meet Dr Christian. This film is widely available, and apparently now  in the public domain. Author’s Collection.

Waterloo Bridge (1931)

Waterloo Bridge was based on the play of the same name by Robert Sherwood. In this scene Mrs Wetherby (Enid Bennett) welcomes her son Roy’s new girlfriend Myra (Mae Clarke) and insists she stays, not yet knowing she is really a prostitute. When Myra admits this later to Mrs Wetherby, she is unbelievably nice about it, although naturally she doesn’t think marriage is a good idea.

waterloo bridge 1931

Above: Screen grab of Enid Bennett from Waterloo Bridge (1931). The film is still available from TCM. Author’s Collection.

Skippy (1931)

Director Norman Taurig won the Academy Award for Best Director for this film. Jackie Cooper‘s character might be regarded as tiresome today, but in 1931 the film was immensely popular. Enid Bennett plays Skippy’s mother and Dr Herbert Skinner’s wife. A sequel was made with many of the actors reprising their roles, including Bennett.

This is a sound clip from the beginning of the film, where the Skinners are having breakfast while Skippy is still lying in bed upstairs pretending to get dressed.

Skippy 1931, Breakfast scene
Above: Screen grab of Willard Robertson and Enid Bennett as Skippy’s parents, in the breakfast scene that begins the film. Skippy is available from TCM. Author’s Collection

Did she retire? Well, not exactly. By 1930, Enid Bennett was an active Christian Scientist, in company with many Hollywood actors – including Mary Pickford, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell.

She remained so to the end of her life, and there is plenty of evidence she devoted much of her time and expertise in front of the camera and microphone in the cause of the church, particularly after the death of her first husband Fred Niblo, in 1948. She regularly appeared on radio and TV, sometimes credited as Enid Bennett Niblo, hosting short Christian Science programs on healing, including Light of Faith and How Christian Science heals. She died in May 1969.

Melbourne Age Aug 18 1956
Above: The Melbourne Age, 18 August 1956, reporting on Enid’s work as a Christian Scientist but already seriously muddled up about her connection to Australia. (If she ever lived in St Kilda, Melbourne it wasn’t for very long.) Via newspapers.com

In case you don’t know who she was !

Below: Enid Bennett photographed by May and Mina Moore, C 1910, about the time she began to develop a reputation in Australia.  State Library of Victoria, via National Library of Australia’s Trove. 

enid bennet about 1910She was born Enid Eulalie Bennett to Francis Bennett and Nellie nee Walker at York, Western Australia in 1893. She had an older brother  – Francis Reginald (born 1891) and a younger sister Marjorie Esme (born 1896). Having attempted to open his own school in the inland town of York, about 100 kms east of Perth , Western Australia, her father Francis Bennett became the founding Principal of Guildford Grammar School in 1896. It wasn’t for very long unfortunately. He apparently took his own life in 1898 while suffering the increasingly debilitating effects of locomotor ataxia. Nellie, who seems to have been the school matron, then married the school’s new Principal Alexander D Gillespie in 1898. Two children were born of this union – Catherine Fanny (born 1901) and Alexander David (born 1903). But Gillespie also died only a few years later.

Enid Bennett’s career can be traced through early performances first in Western Australia and then under the tutelage of Julius Knight. In 1910 visiting US performer Katherine Gray had also encouraged her to pursue a career on stage. In the eastern states she performed in Everywoman with British actress Hilda Spong and another up and coming Australian, Dorothy Cumming, in 1911. However, her major breakthrough was to find work with Fred Niblo and his wife Josephine Cohan, on their extended tour of Australia. About the same time Nellie moved the family back to Sydney, where she had been born, eventually settling down in Rose Bay. 

Below left: Enid Bennett as featured in a US comedy she performed with Niblo, Excuse Me.  From “The Lone Hand”, 1 August 1913. Centre Fred Niblo and right Josephine Cohan. Prompt Scrapbook, Vol 10- 1. via the National Library of Australia’s Trove.

Lone Hand 1913FRed Niblo Prompt scrapbook   Josephine Cohan


Niblo was effusive about the Australian performers in his company, and young Enid Bennett in particular. In early 1915 he told Perth’s Sunday Times; Miss Enid Bennett is a splendid actress, and the Perth people will watch her career with interest and pride,” noting how well she had filled in for Josephine Cohan when she was (often) indisposed. The Niblo-Cohan troupe traveled Australia for three years, despite Josephine’s declining health. In June 1915 Niblo, Cohan and 22 year old Enid packed up and headed for the US on the Matson liner Ventura. Before they departed, Niblo quickly made two filmed versions of popular plays for J.C.Williamson’s – Get Rich Quick Wallingford and Officer 666.  According to film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, the surviving reels of Officer 666 “reveal a crude production doggedly faithful to the stage.” These were Niblo’s first efforts as a director – he was to significantly refine his skills in Hollywood. Watch a clip from Officer 666 here

Soon after arriving in the US, Enid Bennett appeared in a supporting role in Henry Arthur Jones‘ comedy Cock O’ The Walk, a vehicle for popular comedian Otis Skinner being performed in east coast US cities, including New York. At about the same time she also appeared in her first film, A Princess of the Dark for Thomas H. Ince and Triangle Studios.

A princess of the dark

Above: Thomas Ince marketing his latest star in March 1916. “El Paso Times”, 2 March 1916. Some commentaries incorrectly date this to a release in 1917. Via Newspapers.com

Enid Bennett first play in US

Above: Enid Bennett in her first US play, Cock O’ the Walk, with Janet Dunbar and Rita Otway, in early 1916. Author’s Collection

Enid’s sister Marjorie was to claim that the family pressured her to join Enid in the US, to keep her company.  But the early years in Hollywood appear to have a degree of excitment about them even if the transition to work in the US was tough. Sylvia Bremer‘s biographer Ralph Marsden reproduces one photo showing a happy Bremer, Enid and Marjorie Bennett swimming at California’s Arrowhead Springs, in 1917. According to Theatre historian Desley Deacon, the success of these young Australian women inspired others, including Judith Anderson.

In Australia in late 1917 Nellie, Catherine and Alexander received some catastrophic news. The family’s oldest son, Frank Reginald, had been killed in fighting at Passchendaele, Belgium on 9 October 1917, not long after being promoted to Lieutenant. Nellie’s few letters held in Frank’s Australian military file reflect the deep grief the family must have felt. Soon after, Nellie and Enid’s two step-siblings packed up and departed for the US on the SS Ventura.

Enid and Fred Niblo married in late February 1918 – his first wife Josephine Cohan had died in July 1916. The impending wedding was almost certainly the main reason for the Bennett family’s arrival in the US a few months before. But there the family stayed, all building careers for themselves in the US. For a few years in the early 1920s, Catherine enjoyed a career in comedy films, often with Monty Banks. Alexander Bennett is reported to have become an accountant. Marjorie, the reluctant actress, would eventually build a remarkable career in Hollywood character roles from the late 1940s, after a long career on stage, including two years performing back in Australia (1921-23).

Fred Niblo’s first US directing experience was The Marriage Ring, with Enid in a leading role, in 1918. He had learned a lot since the days of his Australian film experience; he went on to direct until the early 1930s and the first years of sound film. Kevin Brownlow has documented Niblo’s work on one of his most famous films – Ben Hur, a Tale of the Christ made in 1925. Like Enid, he also took on small acting roles in sound films later in life. He died in 1948.

Enid Bennett was busy – her most prolific period was the ten years between 1917-1927. There were some stand-out roles in films that still survive. These included Robin Hood in 1922 with Douglas Fairbanks, The Sea Hawk with fellow Australian Mark McDermott, and The Red Lily with Ramon Novarro, both in 1924, the latter also being directed by Niblo.

Enid and Fred had three children in the 1920s – Loris, Peter and Judith. They also parented Niblo’s son Fred Junior, from his marriage with Josephine. Late in life, Enid married family friend and former film director Sidney Franklin. But Enid Bennett’s ashes were interned next to Fred Niblo’s after her sudden death in May 1969.

Marjorie Bennett outlived all her siblings. She died in Hollywood in 1982, working almost to the end of her life.

1923 comedy silence of the night

Above – The author’s favourite photo of Enid Bennett as  she appeared in Fred Niblo’s Strangers of the Night (1923). Via Wikipedia Commons  (which has more than 50 public domain images of her).

Nick Murphy
February 2020

Further Reading

Online

  • Film – Robin Hood 1922 – on Youtube and Internet Archive
  • Film clip –Officer 666 National Film and Sound Archive
  • National Library of Australia – Trove.
    • May and Mina Moore Collection
    • The Daily News, 3 Aug 1910. Page 3
    • The Lone Hand, 1 August 1913. Pages 326-7
    • The Leader, (Vic) 30 Dec 1911. Page 27
    • Sunday Times  21 Mar 1915. Page 25
    • The Catholic Paper – Freeman’s Journal, 10 Dec 1931. Page 3
    • The Age, 18 August 1956. Page 11
  • Peter Niblo (2006) –Remembering My Father, Fred Niblo  The Silents are Golden website
  • Australian Live Performance Database
    AusStage – Enid Bennett
    Austage – Majorie Bennett
  • Newspapers.com
    • Boston Globe. 13 July 1916. (This extraordinary newspaper article attributes Josephine Cohan’s death to “Too much dancing” rather than heart disease, which it was)
    • New York Tribune. 2 August 1915. P9
    • El Paso Times 2 March 1916 P9
    • Los Angeles Times. 30 Oct 1935. P13

Text

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By. University of California Press.
  • Desley Deacon (2008) “Cosmopolitans at Home: Judith Anderson and the American aspirations of J C Williamson’s Stock Company Members” in Robert Dixon, Veronica Kelly (Eds) Impact of the Modern: Vernacular Modernities in Australia 1870s-1960s. University of Sydney.
  • Desley Deacon (2013) Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies. Vol 18, No 1 “From Victorian Accomplishment to Modern Profession: Elocution Takes Judith Anderson, Sylvia Bremer and Dorothy Cumming to Hollywood, 1912-1918
  • Desley Deacon (2019) Judith Anderson: Australian Star, First Lady of the American Stage. Kerr Publishing.
  • Al Kemp, Tina Kemp (2002) Enid Bennett A Forgotten Star : Life of a Jazz Actress
    Pen Productions Media/Publishing. [Book could not be sourced for this narrative]
  • Ralph Marsden (2016) Who was Sylvia? An autobiography of Sylvia Breamer. Screencrafts Productions.
  • Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford University Press
  • Hal Porter (1965) Stars of Australian Stage and Screen. Rigby
  • Scott Wilson (2016) Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons.  Third Edition. McFarland and Co.