The Bennetts from Down Under

Enid (Looks like Gish & Pickford, eh?)

Four of five Australian Bennett siblings figure in Hollywood history. I became interested in Enid Bennett (1893-1969) because she played Maid Marian to Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood (1922) and was the second wife of director Fred Niblo. Her sister Marjorie Bennett (1896-1982) was a bit player though she many more screen credits than Enid, many in classic comedies, and (unlike Enid’s credits) they stretch into modern times. Younger half-sister Catherine Bennett (1901-1978) starred in comedy shorts opposite Monty Banks, Stan Laurel et al. And their younger half-brother Alexander Bennett (Alexander Gillespie, Jr., 1903-1977) married Christie Comedy star Frances Lee. These are of a course a different crop of Bennett siblings than the children of stage and screen star Richard.

The Bennetts were the children of educators; their father was the headmaster of a school in York, Australia. Enid’s elocution lessons led to a job with a touring stock company in 1910, when she was 17 years old. In 1912, she was hired to tour with the traveling company of Fred Niblo and Josie Cohan, which was then making its way across Australia. Enid understudied Cohan — in more ways than one, it turns out.

When the troupe returned to the U.S. in 1915, Enid came with them. Her first two American movies were directed by Niblo in 1916: Get Rich Quick Wallingford and Officer 666. Bennett co-starred in these and was soon cast to star in other films for Thomas Ince and others. Also, in 1916, Cohan died, paving the way for Bennett to marry Niblo in 1918, starring in many of his films throughout the late teens in ’20s. In addition to Robin Hood (1922), she was Priscilla Mullin in The Courtship of Miles Standish (1923), Lady Rosamund in The Sea Hawk (1924), and also starred in such things as The Vamp (1918), The Biggest Show on Earth (1918), and The Red Lily (1924). The Wrong Mr. Wright (1927) with Jean Hersholt, Dorothy Devore, and Edgar Kennedy was her last silent feature, although she played Betsy Ross in a series of patriotic shorts released the same year.

In 1929 Bennett spoke onscreen for the first time in Good Medicine a comedy short starring Edward Everett Horton for Educational. In 1931, she went on to have good supporting roles in Norman Taurog’s Oscar winning Skippy and its sequel Sooky, and played Frederick Kerr’s wife in the original Waterloo Bridge. She then took most of the rest of the decade off, returning for roles in Intermezzo (1939), Meet Dr. Christian (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), and the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store (1941), her last. Niblo died in 1948. Bennett went on to marry retired director/producer Sidney Franklin in 1963. Franklin’s credits included the 1918 version of Treasure Island; both the 1922 and 1932 versions of Jane Cowl’s Smilin’ Through, Dulcy (1923), Beverly of Graustark (1926), The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929), Wild Orchids (1929), Noel Coward’s Private Lives (1931) and the 1934 and 1957 versions of The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

Marjorie Bennett’s first two films were in support of Enid: The Girl Glory (1917) and Naughty, Naughty (1918). After a couple of more silent pictures she retired from the screen for almost 30 years, returning as a plump and useful character actress in the late ’40s, often playing maids and landladies and the like. You can see her as such in Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952). She was present when Abbott and Costello “met” …The Killer Boris Karloff (1949), …Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and ….The Keystone Kops (1955). She supported the Three Stooges in Have Rocket Will Travel (1959), Jerry Lewis in The Family Jewels (1965) and Don Knotts in The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) and The Love God (1969).

Robert Aldrich clearly liked her; he cast her in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Autumn Leaves (1956), and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). You can also see her in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954), Vincent Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), Ocean’s 11 (1960) and 4 for Texas (1963) with the Rat Pack, the Tommy Noonan vehicles Promises! Promises (1963) and 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt (1964), Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964), My Fair Lady (1964), William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1966), The Swinger (1966), and Airport 1975. A 1980 episode of Barney Miller was the last of her over 200 screen credits.

Third sister Catherine Bennett was in just 11 films over a 2 year period (1923-25). Most of them were comedies opposite Monty Banks but they also included When Knights Were Cold (1923) with Stan Laurel, and a handful of features, most of them westerns.

For more on early screen history and classic comedy please check out Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.