Leila Bennett: Maid in Hollywood

Leila Bennett (1892-1965) playsed supporting roles in fewer than two dozen films in the early days of talkies, often as comical maids, but she was memorable in them, thus we shine a light on her today.

The daughter of a Newark newspaper editor, Bennett made her theatrical bones acting with the Harry Blaney Stock Company. For a dozen years (1919-1931) she was a reliable player on Broadway, in the very same kind of roles she’d later land in Hollywood films. Her debut was in Peg Franklin’s Thunder (1919) with Burr McIntosh, Chester Morris, et al. In Frank Craven’s The First Year (1920) she made a hit as Hattie, the maid — a blackface role**. The play was a smash that ran for two years, and Bennett reprised her role in the film version a dozen years later, by which time burnt cork was already becoming a controversial rarity on movie screens. Her other Broadway plays included The Wheel (1921); Chicken Feed (1923); A Holy Terror (1925) with George Abbott; the Belasco-directed It’s a Wise Child with Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Toler, and Minor Watson; and Company’s Coming (1931) with Lynne Overman and a young Rosalind Russell.

From here she stepped effortlessly into films, a high proportion of which proved to be notable, lasting classics. She was Loretta Young’s best friend in Taxi (1932) with James Cagney. Other films included Emma (1932) with Marie Dressler and an all-star enesemble, the horror classic Dr. X (1932), the Sherlock Holmes film A Study in Scarlet (1933), The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), the Warner Bros musical Dames (1934), Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935), and Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), her last.

In 1934, Bennett married Francis Keough, manager of the Beach Club Restaurant and Casino in Palm Beach, Florida, and there was clearly more glamor to enjoy in that role than playing any number of comic maids, for she forsook stage and screen thereafter.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.  

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.