The Theatrico-Cinematic Family of Richard Bennett


Today is the birthday of Richard Bennett (1870-1944).

I quoted Bennett in No Applause without really explaining who he was: a major New York stage star (and later film star) who sometimes deigned to play vaudeville. A native of Indiana, Bennett had been a professional boxer and a performer with medicine shows, before finding his way into the legit theatre. The first of his over three dozen Broadway credits began at the turn of the century. Among those credits, the original Broadway productions of Shaw’s Man and Superman (1905), J.M. Barrie’s What Every Woman Knows (1908), O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon (1920), He Who Gets Slapped (1922, made into a film with Lon Chaney two years later), Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted (1924), and Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset (1935). Already a major star of the New York stage by the 1890s, Bennett became known for his diatribes against the audience, critics and authorities delivered as curtain speeches at the end of performances (this was the context in which I quoted him in No Applause).

Bennett was only in a couple of dozen films, starting in 1914. Classic movie fans know him best from two films by Orson Welles’ Mercury company, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Journey Into Fear (1943); you can also see him in Arrowsmith (1931), If I Had a Million (1932), and Nana (1934).

Bennett’s second wife, and the mother of his three children, was actress Adrienne Morrison (1883-1940). An actress since early childhood, Morrison appeared in nearly two dozen Broadway plays, including some with her eventual spouse (they married in 1903 but worked together prior to that). Some of her better known roles include the titular squaw in the original production of The Squaw Man (1904) opposite William Faversham, several editions of The Grand Street Follies, and Gertrude to Basil Sydney’s Hamlet in Horace Liveright’s 1925 production.

Morrison had made her debut as an infant in a production of The Cricket on the Hearth featuring her mother actress Rose Wood. Her father, Lewis Morrison (1844-1906) had apprentice under Edwin Booth and Charlotte Cushman, and was especially famed for playing Mephistopheles in his own world-touring production of Faust. His second wife was Florence Roberts. More on him here.


This is quite a theatrical clan! Ultimately, however, none of those heretofore mentioned enjoyed the lingering fame of the next generation, the three daughters of Richard Bennett and Adrienne Morrison.

Constance Bennett (1904-1965) was the eldest. Among her dozens of films were Sally Irene and Mary (1925), What Price Hollywood? (1932), Moulin Rouge (1934), Topper (1937 and its 1938 sequel), Two Faced Woman (1941) and Madame X (1966). Her screen career began as early as 1916; in the Pre-Code era she was one of Hollywood’s many vamps and sexpots, and it’s certainly not irrelevant that she was married five times (the best known of her husbands was actor Gilbert Roland.).

The middle sister Barbara Bennett (1906-1958) was only in a handful of plays and movies. Her four films were Black Jack (1927) with Buck Jones, Syncopation (1929) with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians and Morton Downey (whom she married that year), Mother’s Boy (1929) with Downey), and Love Among the Millionaires (1930) with Clara Bow. She played supporting roles in the latter two films. Bennett’ marriage to Downey lasted from 1929 to 1941 and gave the world that egregious monster Morton Downey Jr.  Her second husband was singing cowboy star Addison Randall (not so strange when you consider that she was a veteran of Buck Jones films). In 1958, the last of her four suicide attempts proved successful.

Finally there followed the biggest film star of the family, Joan Bennett (1910-1990). Her nearly 100 credits spanned over 60 years including such films as Bulldog Drummond, Three Live Ghosts, Disraeli (all 1929), Puttin’ on the Ritz (1930) with Harry Richman, Moby Dick (1932), Little Women (1933), Mississippi (1935), Scarlet Street (1945), Father of the Bride (1950, and its 1951 sequel), and We’re No Angels (1955). Towards the end of her career she made horror history twice, by being a regular on the TV show Dark Shadows, and starring in Dario Argento’s original 1977 version of Suspiria. Movie mogul Walter Wanger was the most famous of her five husbands. Amusingly, her final credit was the 1982 TV movie Divorce Wars: A Love Story (1982).

To find out about the history of vaudeville, where Richard Bennett sometimes performed, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent and early film please check out  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.

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