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November 30, 2015

Noblesville and Hollywood: Richard Bennett

Richard BennettNoblesville and Hollywood: Richard Bennett

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

A performer who spent his entire life in the theater and just a little time in Noblesville still remembered the town with a great deal of fondness.  Richard Bennett (1873-1944) is known today mainly as the father of actresses Constance and Joan Bennett, but in his time, he was a major power on Broadway.  He was born and raised in the Cass County and Howard County area in a family of small merchants and preachers.  Neither occupation appealed to him, so he left home to become a professional actor.  His professional debut was in Chicago in 1891 and his Broadway career started in 1897.

Although Bennett was known as a matinee idol, he did do serious drama, such as George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman”.  He knew all the stars of the time – George M. Cohan, the Barrymores, etc. – and could be considered one himself.  In 1920, he staged and starred in the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s first full-length play, “Beyond the Horizon”, which won a Pulitzer Prize.  He did several other successful, serious plays on Broadway and helped to start the Bucks County Playhouse with George S. Kaufman and others.  His daughter Joan gives a wonderful portrait of him in her autobiography, “The Bennett Playbill”.

He started doing movies in Hollywood around 1914, but was not in any major productions at first.  He later did films like “Arrowsmith” (1931), “If I had a Million” (1932), and “Journey into Fear” (1944).  His most important film was one of his last.  He played Major Amberson in Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” in 1942.  At the time, Bennett was old and sick and, unfortunately, it shows in the film.  However, the Major’s dying monologue is worth watching to see how Bennett might have performed in some of his great roles.  The DVD is available at HEPL.

There is a curious video online that shows Bennett, his wife, and his three daughters, as well as an unknown young boy.  Since he used his daughters as performers in some of his early films, it’s not known if this is a home movie or a clip from a lost film.

[vc_video link=’https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBvFc_xlhyA’]

His connection to Noblesville happened early in his career.  Sometime in the early 1890’s, he came to town, possibly with a traveling show, and ended up staying for two years.  At that time, he was known as Clarence Bennett and one of the jobs he was able to get was working for a tailor named Milt Hutto.  While he was here, he became romantically involved with a young woman named Jeannette Gray.  She was the daughter of a prominent physician, which is probably why the relationship never became permanent.   After Bennett returned to acting and left town, Jeannette married a local man, William Hawkins.  That marriage failed and she eventually married Irv Carey.

In his later years, Bennett came back to visit Indiana on several occasions.  In June of 1937, he made a stop in Noblesville to see Jeannette Carey.[i]  According to her son, John Carey, Bennett had heard that Jennie was ill.[ii]  He had to ask someone at the local bank before he found their house on Clinton Street.  After a happy visit that lasted for over an hour, he left her an autographed photo that said, “To my first sweet-heart, Jennie Gray – wonderful days of moon-light & flowers and song over 40 years ago”.  Jeanette died March 4, 1938.

[i] Noblesville Ledger, June 10, 1937, p. 1; Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger, June 12, 1937, p. 4; Greenfield Daily Reporter, June 12, 1937, p. 1; Hancock Democrat, June 17, 1937, p. 4.
[ii] Remembrances by John A. Foland; Rowland Printing Co., Noblesville, Ind., 1976., p. 162-163.