Belle Bennett: The Original Stella Dallas

Belle Bennett (1891-1932) was born of an April 22, to Minnesota circus owner William J.C. “Billy” Bennett and his wife Hazel. Part of her childhood was spent in a convent, part was spent learning to swing on a trapeze. By age 13 she was performing professionally. Billy’s circus later evolved into a stock company, and Belle acted with his and other regional theatres, and performed in vaudeville.

Ca. 1909, Bennett gave birth to a son, William Howard Macy, who was to be the center of an interesting, somewhat sad, subterfuge. When she went into films, Bennett gave out that William was her brother, rather than her son, so that she could claim to be younger than she actually was.

By 1913, Bennett was appearing in film melodramas at Lubin, Nestor, Bison and other studios of the day. In 1915 an 1916 she played Jerry’s wife in George Ovey’s “Jerry” comedies. By 1917 she was starring in features: ten that year, and six in 1918. An item in the July 25, 1918 Los Angeles Times informs us that she was “Found Unconscious” — this may mark the beginning of the health problems that would take her life a few years later. She appears in only one film each for the years 1919 and 1920.

In 1921, Bennett appeared in the David Belasco Broadway production The Wandering Jew. In 1922 she starred in the independently produced, paranormally themed film Flesh and Spirit, which has been recently rediscovered and restored.

From here her career enters a new phase. In 1924, Sam Goldwyn cast her in the comedy In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter, a sequel to his very first film as an independent producer, Potash and Perlmutter (1923). Several other films with the producer ensued, most notably the title role in the original version of the melodrama Stella Dallas (1925), later remade as a talkie with Barbara Stanwyck in the part. This film was a success, but it also changed her image, from one that was more youthful to one that was more maternal. An ironic, highly meta thing happened at the very same time as this production. Her son William, now 16 (the one she had been claiming was her brother) had been fighting with a gang of boys and sustained a head injury, one that proved fatal. He died one day prior to the first shooting day of Stella Dallas. The tragedy has to have affected her performance.

At any rate, Bennett worked steadily from this point on, in such films as East Lynne (1925), Mother (1927), The Way of All Flesh (1927), Mother Machree (1927), The Iron Mask (1929), Courage (1930), and The Big Shot (1931), starring Eddie Quillan, her last film, and one in which she played a smaller role. After this she returned to vaudeville for a few months. Cancer took her life in late 1932. She was 41 years old.

At the time of her death, she was married to director and former actor Fred Windemere, whose career had effectively ended with the coming of sound. The pair had married in 1924, just as both of their careers were about to (briefly) take off.

For more on vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; to learn about silent film see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube