Belle Bennett profile

HOLLYWOOD PROFILES

Belle Bennett, mother of the screen

 

 

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

Belle Bennett is not a name that is well remembered today. Yet she had a successful stage and film career and is best known for her “mother” roles, in particular the 1925 silent film classic, Stella Dallas.

 

Belle Bennett achieved stardom beginning with a girlhood career in the circus. She was born on April 22, 1892 in Milaca, Minnesota, the daughter of circus owners, William and Hazel Bennett. Her father, known as Billie, was one of the pioneer showmen of the circus, who arrived in the United States in 1898 and established himself in St. Paul, Minnesota. His wife, and later Belle, played with him in his stock company. Belle technically began her stage career when her mother carried her on the stage as the baby of The Fatal Wedding. Her mother recalled that she proved to be a good trouper and did not interrupt a single scene by crying.

 

Belle first appeared before the public at the age of 13 as a trapeze performer in her father’s circus. Later she became a member of a stock company, then went to Broadway and played in productions for David Belasco.

 

In 1916 she came to Culver City and signed a contract to make westerns for the Triangle Company. In her early films, Belle supported such stars as Alma Rubens, Gloria Swanson and Olive Borden. When Triangle closed, Belle returned to the stage with the Alcazar Stock Company of San Francisco.

 

Actress Marjorie Rambeau encouraged Belle to seek a place on Broadway and deluged A.H. Woods with letters and newspaper clippings until the producer wired her to come east. Belle made her debut on Broadway in Happy Go Lucky, substituting for Muriel Martin Harvey.  Other plays for Woods included Lawful Larceny, replacing Margaret Lawrence; The Demi Virgin, substituting for Hazel Dawn, and The Wandering Jew, in which she won the favor of Broadway audiences in her own right.

 

Belle was married three times: her first husband was Jack Oaker a sailor at the San Pedro submarine base. Her second husband was William Macy, who was the father of her two sons, William and Theodore. She divorced Macy and married director Fred Windermere in 1924.

 

Belle’s greatest success was in films. She appeared in numerous inconsequential film roles over a period of years until 1925 when she was among seventy-three actresses up for the leading role in Samuel Goldwyn’s production of Stella Dallas.   

 

A few days before a decision was to be made, Belle’s sixteen year-old son William was badly hurt in a scuffle with some other boys. The injury was at first not thought to be serious, but when he was taken to the hospital his condition grew gradually worse. During that brief time he expressed hope that his mother would be chosen for the part of Stella. He said he did not see how they could think of anyone else. Sadly William did not recover from his injuries and he ultimately died. The following day Belle was told that she had received the part.

 

The first few days of filming were difficult but she found solace in her friendship with Lois Moran, who played her daughter in the film. Until then Belle had told people that William was her brother. The reason, she said afterward, was that she wanted to hide her age from the studios, for she had always appeared as a woman of around 24, ten years younger than her real age.

 

 

 

 

Stella Dallas was a resounding success and Belle received stunning reviews for her role. The New York Times said that Belle “gave such a remarkable performance as Stella that she seems to live through the part…”

 

The “mother” role in Stella Dallas (later played in the remake by Barbara Stanwyck) typed her for the remainder of her career. Subsequently she appeared in Mother Machree (1928), Battle of the Sexes (1928), The Iron Mask (1929) and Courage (1930).  

 

In early 1930, Belle suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with general carcinomatosis, a form of cancer. She recovered but only appeared in three films over the next two years. In the summer of 1932, taking a break from films, Belle went on an extended vaudeville tour. While appearing in Philadelphia she collapsed on stage, but was revived and insisted on “carrying on” in the best theatrical tradition. The effort aggravated her condition and she was sent to Harrisburg hospital for blood transfusions which enabled her to regain her strength.

 

However in September her condition worsened and she was rushed from New York by plane to Hollywood, where she was admitted to Cedars of Lebanon hospital.  Apprised of the severity of her condition, her husband returned from New York.

 

On several occasions during the next two months, she was reported near death, but always rallied and continued to fight; close friends commented that she had the will to live. Yet, on November 4, 1932, her fight ended when she died at 9:15 p.m. The only person with her at the end was her son Theodore; her husband had only just left the room shortly before she passed. Belle Bennett was only 40 years old.

 

On November 6 her funeral was held at Pierce Brothers Mortuary, her body lay in a pure white coffin, banked with a vari-colored spread of flowers, while relatives and intimate friends filled the pews of the chapel. The service was conducted under the auspices of Christian Science, including a reading of selections from the Psalms and the Scripture and the committal of the soul to the care of the Lord.

 

For two minutes the mourners bowed their heads in silent prayer. John Vale, who once acted on stage with Belle a decade earlier, was the soloist, rendering “Shepherd Show Me How to Go,” and “Oh, Gentle Presence,” both authored by Mary Baker Eddy.

 

Then the congregation joined the reader in oral rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. There was no eulogy and the services over, the mourners filed past the bier. Among those who attended were Mary Pickford, for years a close friend of Belle’s, Sidney Olcott, one time her director, and Jean Hersholt, Thelma Todd (whose own funeral would be held in the same chapel in less than three years), Norma Shearer, Zasu Pitts, Russell Simpson and Joe E. Brown. Later that day, Belle Bennett was interred at Valhalla Cemetery in Burbank.

 

The grave of Belle Bennett at Valhalla Cemetery – Block H, Section 8351, Grave 6 (Allan R. Ellenberger photo)

 

 

Belle left no will and it was later revealed that her estate was valued at less than $5,000, which was a surprise considering that she had at one time been a wealthy woman. Her husband and son shared the estate.

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Click below for a brief scene from the 1929 silent adventure film, “The Iron Mask”, featuring Belle Bennett as the Queen Mother, discovering Gordon Thorpe as her long-lost son (the evil twin).

 

 

 

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7 Responses to “Belle Bennett profile”

  1. Excellent, Allan. Thank you as always for illuminating these stories for us, and I so wish I could have joined you all yesterday for this excursion.
    __________________________
    Thanks Steve, we missed you yesterday. Next time.

  2. Melissa says:

    *Wonderful* article, Allan…it is so gratifying to see the much deserving Belle Bennett in the spotlight again. And so beautifully done….thank you!
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    🙂

  3. Lynn Recck says:

    Allan, I cannot thank you enough for your excellent, superbly researched, written and illustrated blogs. I very much look forward to receiving them. I am completely amazed that I never knew a thing about the lovely Belle Bennett until now; thank you so much for educating me.
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    Thanks Lynn, you’re welcome!

  4. Diane says:

    Hi Allan, Belle visited Milaca once years later and was greeted by old friends. Interestingly June Mathis’ family also lived here. Wonder what the old newspaper archives has for info on the visit. Keep up the great work.
    D.
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    Thanks Diane and thanks for the info. – Allan

  5. Harry Martin says:

    Fantastic story

  6. Tom Sauer says:

    Allen Most of article is fine BUT corrections are.-Belle’s birth Apr22, 1891 Milaca MN/ Mother Mary Bennette/Billy Bennett’s Big Show was a traveling vaudeville tent show./see all In Mille Lacs Co Times 1900-1932. Belle was never in circus or a trapeze artiste.

  7. Katrina Finley says:

    Thank you for the article. So wonderful to find this.
    I am the great-grandaughter of her niece and had attempted to research her life almost 10 years ago. It is because of Belle Bennette that my family migrated to California a hundred years ago. I found a fraction of the details that you have submitted and would love to find out where you got all of this research done.
    As for her performance in Stella Dallas, I do recall once reading that if the Oscars had been around at the time, she would have had the received an award.

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