“The finest actress in Australia”- Gwen Day Burroughs (1888-1968)

Above: 22 year old Gwen Burroughs while in the Nellie Stewart Company, in 1910.[1] The Mirror (Perth, WA) 21 Jan 1910, P15. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Fred Niblo described her as “the finest actress in Australia” according to the Los Angeles Times.[2]The Los Angeles Times, 8 Aug 1923, P27 via Newspapers.com
Gwen Burroughs c 1908.[3]Punch (Melb) 29 Oct 1908, P17, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
 
The Five Second Version
Gwen Burroughs (or Gwen Day Burroughs more often in later life) was born into a non-theatrical family in Melbourne, Australia.  She was on stage for JC Williamsons, the Australian theatre monopoly, from her late teens, usually in ingénue roles. She made close friendships with Enid Bennett and Fred Niblo, and benefitted by appearing in support of touring players Nellie Stewart, Marie Tempest and Ethel Irving. She travelled to the US to perform in 1923, and although she returned to Australia, her 1930s New York stage work established her reputation. After 1936, she worked continually in radio in Britain, with only occasional returns to the stage. She appeared in one 1915 Australian film that has not survived.
She was probably engaged to actor Lewis Willoughby, but the couple parted company in 1918, and Gwen announced her intention to “divorce” him in 1923. Fred Niblo’s ringing endorsement about her skills as an actor dates from the same time.
Interviewed in 1947 for Radio Who’s Who, she listed one of her recreations as “sea travel,” which was fortunate, as she is amongst the best travelled Australian actors of the era. She died in London in 1968.

 


Australian career

Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1888, she was named Gwendoline Helena Burroughs at birth, adopting “Day Burroughs” later in life.[4]Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages, Gwendoline Helena Burroughs, Cert 23469/1888 Her mother was Lizzie nee Harwood, her father was Thomas Melbourne Burroughs, a successful ship chandler (supplier) who turned his hand to being a grazier in 1906. Gwen attended Methodist Ladies College in Kew, where she appears to have excelled in the creative arts.

At the age of twenty she was associated with amateur theatricals at Melbourne’s Savage Club,[5]The Argus (Melb) 31 Oct 1908, P20 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove and by 1909, she was appearing professionally on Nellie Stewart’s (1858-1931) long Australian tour, playing (she later recalled) “in the funniest little out of the way places imaginable”[6]Sydney Mail, 29 Mail 1912, P21 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove – in Sweet Kitty Bellairs – where she reportedly also understudied the star. While Nellie Stewart’s own hefty autobiography contains only passing reference to Gwen, the young actor’s exposure to her – and then British actress Ethel Irving (1869-1963), was profound.[7]Irving toured Australia with the London Comedy Company in 1911-1912 “You have no idea what encouragement I have received from those two women,” she said. Early interviews also noted the influence of theatrical entrepreneur George Musgrove (1854-1916) on her career.[8]See The Sun (Sydney) 5 May 1912, P15, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Gwen as Iras in Ben Hur, a 1912 play based on the Lew Wallace novel.[9]The Town and Country Journal, 8 May 1912, P27, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Gwen’s great success in ingénue roles made her a regular subject of newspaper interviews early in her career. At 1.72cms (5’8″) in height she was taller than many of her contemporaries, with flashing dark brown eyes and black hair, and a clear, well modulated voice suited to the stage, almost certainly the product of elocution lessons that middle class Australians so valued. By 1913, some newspapers went so far as to predict this “modest Australian” would someday “be a star.”[10]see for example The Mail (Adelaide) 29 March 1913, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Like so many Australian actors of the era, she was also developing plans to go to overseas to work, “some day, soon.”[11]Sydney Mail, 29 Mail 1912, P21 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove That plan appears to have been delayed by the outbreak of war in 1914 – but she stayed very busy. The Ausstage database entry for Gwen, which is not definitive, lists about twenty stage shows in Australia between 1911 and 1918.

Fred Niblo’s production of the farce The Seven keys to Baldpate in Melbourne in 1915 included his future wife Enid Bennett and Gwen Burroughs. The two women became friends.[12]J.C. Williamson scrapbooks of music and theatre programmes, 1905-1921.PROMPT Scrapbook 8 – Vol 3, P41, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Sylvia Bremer, Enid Bennett and Fred Niblo were colleagues and friends in the Australian theatre world and their assistance would be invaluable when she tried to establish herself in the US.[13]See her glowing comments about them in The Lone Hand, 7 April 1919, P23, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Gwen as the wicked blackmailer Myra, with Fred Niblo, in The Seven Keys to Baldpate, 1915.[14]Theatre Magazine (Syd)1 Oct 1914, P20-21 a two page spread – hence the crease, Via State Library of Victoria

Gwen’s one Australian movie appearance was in Monte Luke’s 1915 For Australia, a now lost film made by JC Williamson’s. Loosely based on the sinking of the German raider SMS Emden by the Australian ship HMAS Sydney in late 1914, film historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper note that despite the topicality of the script, it was not a success.[15]Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977 P74. Oxford University Press/AFI The JC Williamson film studio was an experiment and it closed later that year.


Enter Lewis Willoughby 1915

Sometime in late 1914 or early 1915, Gwen met newly arrived English [16]or possibly Canadian born actor Lewis Willoughby.[17]Not to be confused with Australian theatre manager George Willoughby (Dowse) (1869-1951) Interviewed at length by Melbourne’s Table Talk in late 1914,[18]Table Talk (Melb)19 Nov 1914, P32-33, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Willoughby had a great deal to say about acting and many other things, but was also intrigued by the young democracies of Australia and New Zealand – where women could vote. Did they exercise their right to vote? And what was the attitude of Australian women to the suffragette movement, he wondered.[19]At the time, women could not vote in the UK He spent the next three years touring and performing in Australia and New Zealand – sometimes with Gwen.[20]See for example, reports in The Sydney Morning Herald 8 Apr 1916, P19 and The Register (Adelaide) 17 Jan 1917, P6 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In April 1917, after a successful tour of New Zealand, Gwen and Lewis joined Marie Tempest’s (1862-1942) company in Melbourne.[21]Sunday Times (Sydney)1 Apr 1917, P17 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove Tempest was then part the way through a world performance tour. A few years later, Gwen acknowledged Tempest as one of her mentors in a long, self authored article for Australia’s Triad magazine, although her commentary on Tempest’s and Ethel Irving’s various concerns with their weight was not entirely diplomatic.[22]The Triad 11 Apr 1921, P35-36, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Lewis Willoughby and Gwen Burroughs, c 1915. Photos by May and Mina Moore, copyright held by the State Library of Victoria. [23]State Library of Victoria

Gwen and Lewis’ marriage was first mentioned in a newspaper report in September 1915.[24]See The National Advocate (Bathurst, NSW) 10 Sep 1915, P1. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove It would be easy to dismiss this as a muddled up account, except that shipping manifests in 1918 indicate the couple reported each other as dependent spouses when travelling to the US that year.[25]See shipping manifests – SS Sonoma, 9 Jan 1918 for Lewis Willoughby and SS Ventura 13 May 1918 for Gwen Willoughby via Ancestry.com Yet there appears to be no corresponding marriage certificate in Australia or New Zealand, suggesting that while they may have intended to marry, they never actually did so. See also Note 1 below, regarding Lewis’ English wife and family


Establishing herself internationally

In early 1918, Gwen and Lewis Willoughby apparently reached a decision to work in the US – and Lewis went first.[26]Variety 26 April 1918, Vol 50 Issue 9, P39, via the Internet Archive He found employment quite soon after arriving in California. In March 1918, Moving Picture World announced he would be appearing in the film Treasure of the Sea, with Edith Storey (1892-1967) – this marked the start of his modest film career as an actor and director.[27]Moving Picture World, 23 March 1918, P1682, via Lantern Digital Media History Project 30 year old Gwen “Willoughby” then arrived in California in May 1918, determined to seek work in films – in “Vampire” parts, it was reported. [28]This may have been intended to be “Vamp” roles. See Table Talk (Melb) 2 May 1918, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove But she only stayed in the US for a few months – returning home in August. It seems this was also the end of her relationship with Willoughby (See Note 1 below). Over the next decade she continued to use the name Willoughby when travelling to the US, which probably relates to the documents she first presented.

On stage in Sydney again, she was soon proving herself a well established favourite with audiences and demonstrating considerable versatility – for example, in early 1919 she was performing Ibsen and musical comedy at the same time.[29]The Mirror (Sydney)17 Jan 1919, P10 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Gwen – well enough known to advertise Rexona soap for almost a decade. Note the use of Day Burroughs as a surname.[30]The Bulletin, Feb 14, 1914. P47. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In 1921, she met Enid Bennett’s younger sister Marjorie Bennett, who had been enticed back to Australia by JC Williamson’s to perform in farces and musicals, and the two performed together with English comedian Joseph Coyne in His Lady Friends.[31]The Sydney Morning Herald 28 Feb 1921, P4 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove They also appeared together in Johnny Get Your Gun.[32]New Zealand Theatre and Motion Picture, 22 May 1922, P37, Via The Internet Archive Probably with encouragement from the Bennetts, in March 1923, she made a second trip to California, arriving there at about the same time as Marjorie.[33]Sunday Times (Sydney) 18 Mar 1923, P27, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Although she again travelled using the name Gwen Willoughby, this time the passenger list contained no contact details for a husband. Instead, a pencilled annotation on the passenger list shows she was to stay with Enid Bennett and family. And soon after arrival she announced again that she planned to get roles in films, and that she was also looking forward to “getting a divorce” from Willoughby. She hoped this would “give me a new start all around.”[34]The San Francisco Examiner 10 April 1923, P13, Via Newspapers.com. However, as with a marriage certificate, no records of a divorce have been found. In her 1921 piece for The Triad, she made the following unusual comment about publicity that actors sometimes face – that hangs awkwardly at the end of the article: “any divorce case, any breach of promise case, is dissected to the most minute detailPeople are inclined to forget that the same unfortunate occurrences may thrust themselves into the very best regulated families…”[35]The Triad 11 Apr 1921, P35-36, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove But the article made no direct reference to Lewis Willoughby.

In California there were no film offers, but she was offered a role in the bedroom farce Getting Gertie’s Garter, with Marjorie Bennett, probably courtesy the rousing endorsement from Fred Niblo – who announced that Gwen was “the finest actress in the whole of Australia.” [36]Los Angeles Evening Express 4 Aug 1923, P12. via Newspapers.com. The Billboard however, quoted him as saying she was “an excellent actress” See The Billboard 25 August 1923, Vol 35 Issue … Continue reading However, after running for 11 weeks at the Egan Theatre, the play ended up in court for its “indecency.”[37]Variety 13 Sept 1923, Vol 72 Issue 4, P12, via the Internet Archive It was also very good publicity – and in the photo below, none of the cast look very worried. Changes were apparently made to the script by order of the court.[38]The Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 27 Oct, 1923, P5, via Newspapers.com The play then ran on for another four weeks.

The cast, not looking very worried about a court appearance for alleged obscenity, with Gwen Burroughs in the big hat, fifth from the left.[39]The Los Angeles Times 7 Sep 1923, P9, via Newspapers.com

In 1924, Gwen toured up and down the US east coast, some of the time appearing in the popular mystery The Last Warning, the entertaining tale of a haunted theatre. In June she appeared in One Helluva Night on Broadway with a group of actors calling themselves the “Cheese Club”. It was a one-night comedy performance, their intention was to run a play so bad it would be entertaining, and according to the New York Times the Cheese Club achieved this object – “a play so crazy in spots that it is funny.”[40]The New York Times Theater reviews. 1920-1926, P392. Via The HathiTrust But it was not funny enough to run again, apparently.

Gwen returned to Australia again in March 1926.

Gwen – second from the left in a big hat, again, on her return to Australia. February 1926.[41]Newcastle Sun, (NSW) 27 Feb 1926, P58, via National Library of Australia’s Trove

In Australia she toured in another string of JC Williamson’s productions, including The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and Brown Sugar. Then, in late 1927 Gwen Day Burroughs[42] as she now usually was titled travelled to London by the ship Cathay, apparently still restless, or determined to test out new opportunities. By 1928 she was in a supporting role in the comedy Her Past, first at the Lewisham Hippodrome, and then moving to the Shaftesbury and Prince of Wales Theatres in 1929.[43]See The Stage Thursday 29 November 1928, P18 and JP Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel P646, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers But then, again, there was another change. In October 1930, Gwen “Willoughby” arrived in New York, with a contract to appear in a US version of the Frank Harvey play The Last Enemy – which opened at the Schubert Theatre in November. Reviews were mixed and the play only ran for a few nights. Not so Ivor Novello’s The Truth Game, which opened in New York a month later, with Gwen in a supporting role. It ran for over 100 performances, and was described by one journalist as “a nice clean, diverting evening in the theatre.”[44]See New York’s Daily News, 29 Dec 1930, P174, via Newspapers.com Active on the New York and US east coast stage for six years, she was now usually described as a “highly competent” member of a supporting cast – but she was no longer a leading player.


Gwen advertising makeup in 1914. [45]The Theatre Magazine, 1 June 1914, via State Library of Victoria

A career on British radio

In December 1936, Gwen Willoughby sailed back to England again. And finally, she settled down in the one place to build a career. As early as 1934, Gwen had appeared in US radio dramas[46]For example, on Hearst’s WIN radio in New York – see The Nassau Daily Review, April 20, 1934, P19 via NYS Historic Newspapers and in England, radio also became her speciality – for the next 35 years. The BBC’s very thorough list of actors and programs notes her first broadcast performance in 1937, with more than three hundred and eighty entries to 1968.[47]based on Radio Times reports Her radio career is also noteworthy for its variety.


Gwen’s experience in the US meant American roles became her speciality. Her work included original entertainments such as He’s Got Rhythm (based on the life of Cole Porter), Saddle Song (the life of Gene Autry) and Banjo Eyes (the life of Eddie Cantor). There were also radio versions of films such as Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1939) and Sunny Side Up (1939).[48]It was not uncommon for studios to licence radio versions of their popular films When war broke out, her work switched to BBC forces radio. By the late 1940s she was a regular performer for The Children’s Hour and narrated The Woman’s Hour.

By the 1950s, there were even a few Australian authored plays and radio programs that made use of her talents. In 1950 for example, the BBC ran a ten part serial based on Rolf Boldrewood’s bushranger novel Robbery Under Arms – with numerous London-based Australian actors in the cast, including John Wood, Dorothy Alison, Gwenda Wilson, Don Sharp and Gwen. The C19th Australian novel The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was serialised, (Gwen played the character role of Mother Guttersnipe) and in 1958 Vernon Harris’s series The Flying Doctor required voice artists, presumably capable of distinctive Australian accents.[49]It was made into a popular TV series a year later In 1959, she appeared in the live play Kookaburra. Set in rural Queensland c1910, it was a “kind of Australian ‘Oklahoma'”[50]The Stage, 22 Oct 1959, P38. Via British Library Newspaper Archive and featuring fellow Australians Maggie Fitzgibbon (1929-2020) and Bettina Dickson (1920-1994). It ran for a short time regionally and then at London’s Princes Theatre, where it met with mixed reviews.[51]The Age (Melb) 28 Nov 1959, P4, via Newspapers.com

In March 1955, 67 year old Gwen returned to Australia, to see her younger sister Adele and her family, and probably to test out whether she wanted to stay long term. She found work as a regular in a series of one hour radio dramas directed by Henry Cuthbertson for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).[52]The Argus (Melb),1 Jul 1955, P13 via National Library of Australia’s Trove She stayed for ten months, but was back in London by January 1956. She continued her British radio career almost to the time of her death in 1968. Amongst her last performances was a celebrated dramatization of E M Forster’s A Passage to India, which also featured Sybil Thorndyke (1882-1976).

For many years Gwen lived alone at Collingwood House on Dolphin Square in London. She died in a Kensington nursing home on 3 April 1968.

This writer has yet to find photos of Gwen Burroughs taken after 1927. This one was taken in 1909 [53]Table Talk (Melb) 14 Jan 1909, P19 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

Note 1- Lewis Willoughby (c 1876-1968)

Lewis Willoughby, who before his Australian experience had performed and designed for the theatre in London and Glasgow, already had a family – artist wife Vera and two children – in England,[54]The Stage, 14 March 1912, P24, via British Library Newspaper Archive[55]JP Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1900-1909: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, P264, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers but later went on to a long personal and professional relationship with US based, British-born actress Olga Petrova (Muriel Harding). He appeared in her play Hurricane in 1923 at New York’s Frolic Theatre – in the same year Gwen arrived to stay with the Bennetts in California. Lewis and Olga married in September 1939, following the death in England of his first wife, artist Vera Willoughby, in May*. He died in Florida in 1968. In the US, his name was generally spelled Louis.

*The claim that Vera Willoughby was born in Hungary is wrong. She was born in England as Vera Christie, but she also used the name Vera Petrovna during the 1920s.[56]Also see a relevant V&A Museum item record entry here Her father was British mathematician James Robert Christie (1814-1879).


Nick Murphy
June 2022

References

  • Text:
    • Cyrus Andrews (1947) Radio Who’s Who. Pendulum Publications, London
    • 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
    • Anthony Slide (2002) A biographical and autobiographical study of 100 silent film actors and actresses. University of Kentucky.
    • Nellie Stewart (1923) My Life’s Story. John Sands, Sydney
    • JP Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1900-1909: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers
    • JP Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers
Lewis Willoughby in Trapped by the Mormons.
  • Newspaper & Magazine Sources
    • National Library of Australia’s Trove
    • State Library of Victoria
    • Newspapers.com
    • New York State Historic Newspapers Project
    • The HathiTrust
    • British Library Newspaper Archive
    • National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past
    • Internet Archive Library
  • Primary Sources
    • Familysearch.com
    • Ancestry.com
    • Victoria, Births, Deaths and Marriages
    • General Register Office, HM Passport Office.

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

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 The Mirror (Perth, WA) 21 Jan 1910, P15. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
2 The Los Angeles Times, 8 Aug 1923, P27 via Newspapers.com
3 Punch (Melb) 29 Oct 1908, P17, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
4 Victoria Births Deaths & Marriages, Gwendoline Helena Burroughs, Cert 23469/1888
5 The Argus (Melb) 31 Oct 1908, P20 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
6, 11 Sydney Mail, 29 Mail 1912, P21 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
7 Irving toured Australia with the London Comedy Company in 1911-1912
8 See The Sun (Sydney) 5 May 1912, P15, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
9 The Town and Country Journal, 8 May 1912, P27, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
10 see for example The Mail (Adelaide) 29 March 1913, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
12 J.C. Williamson scrapbooks of music and theatre programmes, 1905-1921.PROMPT Scrapbook 8 – Vol 3, P41, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
13 See her glowing comments about them in The Lone Hand, 7 April 1919, P23, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
14 Theatre Magazine (Syd)1 Oct 1914, P20-21 a two page spread – hence the crease, Via State Library of Victoria
15 Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (1980) Australian Film 1900-1977 P74. Oxford University Press/AFI
16 or possibly Canadian born
17 Not to be confused with Australian theatre manager George Willoughby (Dowse) (1869-1951)
18 Table Talk (Melb)19 Nov 1914, P32-33, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
19 At the time, women could not vote in the UK
20 See for example, reports in The Sydney Morning Herald 8 Apr 1916, P19 and The Register (Adelaide) 17 Jan 1917, P6 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
21 Sunday Times (Sydney)1 Apr 1917, P17 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
22, 35 The Triad 11 Apr 1921, P35-36, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
23 State Library of Victoria
24 See The National Advocate (Bathurst, NSW) 10 Sep 1915, P1. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
25 See shipping manifests – SS Sonoma, 9 Jan 1918 for Lewis Willoughby and SS Ventura 13 May 1918 for Gwen Willoughby via Ancestry.com
26 Variety 26 April 1918, Vol 50 Issue 9, P39, via the Internet Archive
27 Moving Picture World, 23 March 1918, P1682, via Lantern Digital Media History Project
28 This may have been intended to be “Vamp” roles. See Table Talk (Melb) 2 May 1918, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
29 The Mirror (Sydney)17 Jan 1919, P10 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
30 The Bulletin, Feb 14, 1914. P47. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
31 The Sydney Morning Herald 28 Feb 1921, P4 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
32 New Zealand Theatre and Motion Picture, 22 May 1922, P37, Via The Internet Archive
33 Sunday Times (Sydney) 18 Mar 1923, P27, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
34 The San Francisco Examiner 10 April 1923, P13, Via Newspapers.com.
36 Los Angeles Evening Express 4 Aug 1923, P12. via Newspapers.com. The Billboard however, quoted him as saying she was “an excellent actress” See The Billboard 25 August 1923, Vol 35 Issue 34 P118, via The Internet Archive
37 Variety 13 Sept 1923, Vol 72 Issue 4, P12, via the Internet Archive
38 The Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 27 Oct, 1923, P5, via Newspapers.com
39 The Los Angeles Times 7 Sep 1923, P9, via Newspapers.com
40 The New York Times Theater reviews. 1920-1926, P392. Via The HathiTrust
41 Newcastle Sun, (NSW) 27 Feb 1926, P58, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
42 as she now usually was titled
43 See The Stage Thursday 29 November 1928, P18 and JP Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel P646, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers
44 See New York’s Daily News, 29 Dec 1930, P174, via Newspapers.com
45 The Theatre Magazine, 1 June 1914, via State Library of Victoria
46 For example, on Hearst’s WIN radio in New York – see The Nassau Daily Review, April 20, 1934, P19 via NYS Historic Newspapers
47 based on Radio Times reports
48 It was not uncommon for studios to licence radio versions of their popular films
49 It was made into a popular TV series a year later
50 The Stage, 22 Oct 1959, P38. Via British Library Newspaper Archive
51 The Age (Melb) 28 Nov 1959, P4, via Newspapers.com
52 The Argus (Melb),1 Jul 1955, P13 via National Library of Australia’s Trove
53 Table Talk (Melb) 14 Jan 1909, P19 Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
54 The Stage, 14 March 1912, P24, via British Library Newspaper Archive
55 JP Wearing (2014) The London Stage 1900-1909: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, P264, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers
56 Also see a relevant V&A Museum item record entry here

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).[1]Table Talk (Melb) 3 Aug 1922, P25 Via State Library of Victoria
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.[2]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. [3]News-Pilot (San Pedro, CA)  4 Oct 1924, P5. Via Newspapers.com

The Bennett family

The Bennett girls from Western Australia – Enid (born 1893)[4]Western Australia, BDM document 1325/1893, Marjorie (born 1896)[5]Western Australia, BDM document 2741/1896 and step-sister Catherine (born 1901)[6]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.[7]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.[8]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.[9]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,[10]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.[11]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.”[12]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.[13]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.[14]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.[15]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[16]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.[17]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.[18]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.[19]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.[20]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.

Marjorie or Rosemary Theby being ravished in Thomas Ince’s The Midnight Patrol (1918)[21]Advertising in The Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1921, via State Library of Victoria

And then at the end of 1918, as she recalled when interviewed by Kevin Thomas, she gave up the screen to try the stage.[22]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 [23]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.[24]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,[25]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.[26]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.[27]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.[28]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.[29]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.[30]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,”[31]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.[32]The Los Angeles Times 6 Sep 1923, P19, via Newspapers.com Changes were apparently made to the script by order of the court.[33]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,[34]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),[35]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.” [36]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 [37]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. [38]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.[39]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.[40]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.[41]See for example Dion Thompson’s obituary in The Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1982, P28

Marjorie Bennett late in life.[42]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.[43]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.[44]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” [45]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.[46]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. [47]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.[48]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 Table Talk (Melb) 3 Aug 1922, P25 Via State Library of Victoria
2 Australian papers did not report her death
3 News-Pilot (San Pedro, CA)  4 Oct 1924, P5. Via Newspapers.com
4 Western Australia, BDM document 1325/1893
5 Western Australia, BDM document 2741/1896
6 Western Australia, BDM document 5122/1901
7 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
8 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
9 Kevin Thomas (Los Angeles Times) via Asbury Park Press (New Jersey), 4 Sept 1977, P52, via Newspapers.com
10 Both husbands were school principals
11 Now No 34 according to the 1917 Sands Directory of Sydney
12 Kevin Thomas, The Journal Herald, (Dayton Ohio), 3 Jan 1978, P30, via Newspapers.com
13 Motion Picture News, 21 October 1916, P2523, Via Lantern Media History Digital Library
14 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
15 San Francisco Call, Volume 100, Number 153, 26 December 1916, via UCR California Digital Newspaper Collection
16 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
17 Josephine M Cohan had died in July 1916
18 See for example, a very inaccurate profile piece on Enid in Picture Show Jan 8, 1921, P8. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library
19 The Bulletin (Pomona, CA) 13 Oct 1918, P10. Via newspapers.com
20 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
21 Advertising in The Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1921, via State Library of Victoria
22 The Journal Herald (Dayton Ohio) 3 Jan 1978, P30 via Newspapers.com
23 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
24 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)
25 About $65,000 per week in 2022 money
26 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
27 Critic (Adelaide) 2 Nov 1921, P12, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
28 Table Talk (Melb) 17 Aug 1922, P17, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
29, 46 Table Talk (Melb) 8 Sept 1921, P39, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove
30 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
31 The Daily Telegraph (Syd), 12 Jul 1922, P10, SYDNEY SHOWS, via National Library of Australia’s Trove
32 The Los Angeles Times 6 Sep 1923, P19, via Newspapers.com
33 The Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 27 Oct, 1923, P5, via Newspapers.com
34 The Los Angeles Times 7 Sep 1923, P9, via Newspapers.com
35 The San Francisco Examiner 10 Apr 1923, P13, via newspapers.com
36 Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 16 Feb 1924, P16, via Newspapers.com
37 Daily News (LA)16 December 1930, P20 via
38 The San Francisco Examiner, 29 Jan 1927, P11 and Los Angeles Evening Post Record, 8 Jan 1927, P9. Via Newspaper.com
39 Kevin Thomas, The Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio) Aug 28, 1977, P49, via Newspapers.com
40 The Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 Jun 1982, P88. Via Newspapers.com
41 See for example Dion Thompson’s obituary in The Los Angeles Times, 21 June 1982, P28
42 The Philadelphia Inquirer 20 Jun 1982, P88 via Newspapers.com
43 Alexander was born in 1903. Western Australia BDM document 6179/1903. Confusingly, both Catherine and Alexander variously adopted Bennett as a surname
44 Picture-Play Magazine Sep 1923-Feb 1924, P74. Street and Smith. via Lantern Media History Digital Library
45 Photoplay 1925-12, Vol 29 Issue 1, P84, via Lantern Media History Digital Library
47 Photoplay magazine, July-Dec 1924, P57. Via Lantern, Media History Digital Library
48 See his marriage certificate 1933 here via Family Search

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.

In Australia 

enid bennet about 1910

Above: 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.

She 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 (1891-1917) and a younger sister Marjorie Esme (1896-1982), and two step siblings. 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 (1901-1978) 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. 

Above: L-R Enid, Fred and Josephine. Such was the fame of the Niblo-Cohan troupe during their three years in Australia, that they regularly featured in Australian papers, and interest continued even after they departed in 1915. These are covers of Sydney’s The Theatre Magazine. Left: January 1920, Centre: November 1912, Right: March 1914.  Via State Library of Victoria

Moving to the US

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.

Above: Enid and Fred Niblo performing together in the comedy The Travelling Salesman in Sydney, in March 1915. Theatre Magazine, 1 March 1915. Via State Library of Victoria.

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.

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

A princess of the dark

Above: Thomas Ince marketing his latest star in March 1917. “El Paso Times”, 2 March 1917. Via Newspapers.com

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 excitement 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 together 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, Enid’s two step-siblings packed up and departed for the US on the SS Ventura.

Above: Enid Bennett in The Theatre Magazine, 2 April, 1917. Via State Library of Victoria

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).

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

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.

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).

Enid later in Life

Did she retire? Well, not exactly. As noted below, Enid continued to act until the early 1940s. A great Hollywood hostess, she earned a reputation for entertaining, and sometimes newspapers published her favourite recipes. In addition, she had another and more significant interest. 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.

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

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.


Enid Bennett’s accent

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 very broad and theatrical accent often heard when an “Australian voice” is used in Hollywood films, or a faux-British one, 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. Her accent and vocabulary is clearly one of middle Australia, perhaps tending a little to the broad accent on pronunciation of certain words  – See more on accents here.

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


 

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
  • State Library of Victoria
  • 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.

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