The Smilin’ Cowboy: Louis Bennison

Essay by Joseph P. Eckhardt

Louis Bennison

He played Doctors, Indian Rajahs, Mexican bandits, and loveable old drunks with consummate skill, but the role Louis Bennison would best be known for was the cowboy. And it was his success as a cowboy in the hit play, “Johnny Get Your Gun,” that brought him to the Betzwood Motion Picture Studio in the summer of 1918 to make a series of six feature-length Western films. Four of those films survive today, providing us a living record of this charming and talented actor whose career came to an abrupt and tragic end at the age of forty-five.

Louis Bennison was born on 13 October 1882 in Oakland, California, to Andrew Barnes Bennison, a Canadian-born gold miner, and his wife, Kate L. Bailey Bennison. As a youngster, Louis Bennison worked for five years as a cowboy on the Anchor-J Ranch, near the California/Nevada border, an experience that would serve him well in his career as an actor. At what age he first appeared on the legitimate stage is uncertain, but he remembered acting in his own amateur theatricals in his parents’ house as a child. A newspaper article in May 1921 stated that Bennison “came into prominence as an actor” when he appeared with the legendary Mrs. Leslie Carter in the road show of The Heart of Maryland,” just before the end of the nineteenth century.[1] So he must have reached the legitimate stage before the age of twenty.

Later, with his younger brother, Andrew,[2] he appeared as a member of the Harry Bishop stock company at the Ye Liberty Playhouse in Oakland before the age of twenty-five. He also worked for the Morosco stock company and appeared in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and many other cities. Though little is known about his earliest stage work, he does not seem to have had any major starring roles while in his twenties.

However, at age thirty-one, Bennison landed an important role in both a high profile play and in his first moving picture. In the summer of 1914 he played the part of Dr. Clifford—a venereal disease specialist whose patient commits suicide after passing on syphilis to his wife and child—in the West Coast production of the controversial play, Damaged Goods. His success in this role landed him the same part in a film version of the play later that same year. This production of the American Film Company, shot in a Los Angeles hospital and showing actual syphilis victims, was a smash hit at theater box offices, and helped Bennison land his second movie role the following year, as the first of three husbands who marry the leading lady in Pretty Mrs. Smith, a production of the Morosco Photoplay Company. Sadly, neither of these early Bennison films survives today. Despite these successful film roles, Bennison made no attempt at this point to pursue a career in the movies. His first love was the theater, and Oliver Morosco next cast him in a role in The Unchastened Woman, which opened at New York’s 39th Street Theater in the fall of 1915. This play was to prove Bennison’s first outstanding New York success.

Promotional Photo from The Unchastened Woman

Louis Bennison (center) in The Unchastened Woman, 1915. [Collection of the Author]

It was after The Unchastened Woman ended its run in early 1916 that Bennison first took up the role of Johnny Wiggins in Johnny Get Your Gun. The play, by Edmund Lawrence Burke, opened in February 1917 at the Criterion Theater. When its successful run ended in July, Bennison took the play on tour and received considerable acclaim for his efforts. The appraisal of Katherine Richardson, writing for the St. Louis Star, was typical of the praise he received:

Louis Bennison plays the role of ‘this here cow-puncher’ with all the trimmings. He’s got the soft drawl down all right, he walks with a limp because he’s used to wearing spurs and has legs rather bowed from so many long nights in the saddle. He is shy when he meets a woman and he has divinely blue eyes. He always is innocent and quiet in manner, but oh, boy, when he’s mad, those eyes shoot fire. Even Bill Hart hasn’t a better steely glance than our hero.

(JOHNNY GET YOUR GUN PIC

Still from Johnny Get Your Gun. [Betzwood Film Archive]

The success of Johnny Get Your Gun, and critical acclaim that compared Bennison to America’s premier movie cowboy, William S. Hart, was more than enough to bring Bennison to the attention of Ira M. Lowry, the director and general manager of the Betzwood Film Company. Lowry, son-in-law of famed film pioneer, Siegmund Lubin, offered Bennison a contract to make a series of six cowboy films at the Betzwood Studio. Much as Bennison loved the theater, the salary he was offered to appear in films was too good to be refused, a fact he cheerfully acknowledged to reporters.[3] Bennison arrived for work at Betzwood in the summer of 1918. Accompanied by his wife of thirteen years, Frances (nee’ Pontet), and their nine-year old daughter, Maryanne, he took up residence at the Audubon Inn, a few miles from the studio.

The studio heavily promoted both Bennison and his films even before the first scenes had been shot. Shortly after Bennison was put under contract, the studio sent out a press release effusively praising both Bennison’s appearance and his virtues as an actor. The suggestion: “Picture Douglas Fairbanks, his stature increased and his features very much improved…” was typical of the studio’s hype. Full page ads in leading movie trade journals were taken out to promote Bennison’s films. Hoping to capitalize on Bennison’s already famous smile, the studio even attempted—albeit unsuccessfully—to market a brand of cigarettes called “Bennison Smiles.”[4]

betzwood film company

Cast and crew of the Betzwood Film Company, 1918. Director, Ira Lowry, is seated next to Louis Bennison. [Betzwood Film Archive]

bennison and daughter

Bennison and his daughter, Maryanne, at Betzwood, 1918. Motion Picture Magazine, January 1920 [Betzwood Film Archive]

Bennison’s first movie at Betzwood borrowed heavily from the plot of the Broadway play he had just appeared in. Since the play was in fact now being filmed under its original title by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation,[5] director Ira Lowry titled the Betzwood production Oh! Johnny!, borrowing the wordsfrom a popular song of the day. In the stage play, a cowboy named Johnny Wiggins is discovered by a motion picture company, then goes east to enter society, where he shocks many with his lack of social graces. However, he also uncovers and outwits a phony nobleman attempting to marry a socialite for her money. In the end, she finds a more suitable suitor and Cowboy Johnny does as well.

Betzwood’s production of Oh! Johnny!, which paired Bennison with a lovely seventeen-year-old actress named Virginia Lee,[6] featured a title character named Johnny Burke. In the script written by Wilson Bayley, cowboy Johnny rescues an orphaned young woman, Adele, whose father has died after establishing a valuable gold mine. When Adele goes east to visit family, her aunt and uncle try to get their hands on her mine by marrying her off to the phony Earl of Barncastle. Johnny shows up and, like the character in the play, shocks everyone with his cowboy manners. He also foils the plot, and sends the crooks off to jail. Adele returns to the West with Johnny as his wife.

Most of Oh! Johnny! has survived thanks to the discovery of a set of master negatives in the possession of a Norristown (Pennsylvania) family several years ago. The negatives, still in their original cans and packing crates, were purchased by the Betzwood Archive at Montgomery County Community College and sent to the Museum of Modern Art for conservation and restoration. The two institutions share ownership of the film with the original reels stored at MoMA’s Fort Lee facility. The Betzwood Archive holds a 16mm copy.

While the first reel exhibits considerable nitrate decomposition, and the last reel could not be saved, the bulk of the film survives and it is possible to follow the story well enough that the film can be projected for audiences. One particular western saloon scene early in the film is always well received. An outlaw, bent on stealing Johnny’s map to the mine, arranges for one of the bar girls to lure the cowboy to her room so the bandits can attack him. Instead, Johnny turns the table on them, and the outlaw—played by a character actor named Ed Roseman—ends up being forced to don women’s clothing, beat a tambourine, and dance for the saloon patrons while Johnny fires pistols at his feet. For the mansion owned by Adele’s aunt and uncle, the film makers used the Walmarthon Estate, in St. David’s, now the grounds of Eastern University. The water wheel and Willow Lake are among the still recognizable landmarks seen in the film.

advertisement

Advertisement for the first of Bennison’s Betzwood films. [Betzwood Film Archive]

With one film in the can, production began immediately on a second film, Sandy Burke of the U-Bar-U, with a script by J. Allen Dunn that once again cast Virginia Lee as Bennison’s co-star. Bennison’s character, Sandy Burke, is a decidedly busy man in this film. He rescues an orphan, helps a widow pay her mortgage by robbing a stage coach, outwits a group of sleazy gamblers in a crooked poker game, outwits the cattle rustlers, rescues the sheriff’s daughter (Virginia Lee) from the bad guys, and ends up in the arms of the beautiful heroine in the final shot. Filmed almost entirely outdoors, the film effectively utilized the spacious Betzwood farms as the sprawling western ranch. For authenticity, it was decided to bring a herd of longhorn cattle by train from Arizona. The animals were apparently not well cared for during their long trip and arrived so maddened by thirst that when the doors of the cattle cars were opened, they stampeded down to the Schuylkill River to drink. When left to graze, they managed to locate and eat some deadly nightshade, and all of them died. A second herd had to be brought in. One scene in the film, featuring a hidden canyon where the rustlers keep the stolen cattle, may have been influenced by an episode in Douglas Fairbanks’s The Man From Painted Post, which had been released the previous year. Sandy Burke is today the only Bennison film to survive completely intact, with the original print housed at the Library of Congress and a 16mm print and video copy owned by the Betzwood Film Archive.

verginia lee

Virginia Lee attracts unwanted attention from the villain played by Alphonse Ethier. [Betzwood Film Archive]

Next on the production schedule was Speedy Meade, written and directed by Ira Lowry. For this film, Lowry also hired a new co-star for Bennison: Katharine MacDonald. MacDonald, who was destined to become better known for her feuds and affairs than her talent, was billed as “The American Beauty,” and would appear in three of the Bennison films at Betzwood. Like Bennison, she took up residence at the nearby Audubon Inn during her work at the studio. Speedy Meade is entirely lost, save for a few production stills and we must relay on contemporary accounts and reviews for information.

moving picture world ad

Moving Picture World Advertisement for Speedy Meade, March 29, 1919. [Betzwood Film Archive]

“Speedy Meade” is a Federal detective assigned to track down a gang of cattle rustlers. (Yes, more cattle rustlers. After the expense of bringing in all those long horn cattle, the studio was determined to get their money’s worth!) Speedy discovers that the gang is headed by the father of his sweetheart, Mary Dillman, who is in a convent school.[7] To spy on the gang, Speedy assumes several disguises, including that of a drunken old sot at the saloon, and a ranch hand. Mary complicates things by paying an unexpected visit to her father. When Speedy mortally wounds her father in a desperate fight with the gang, the father confesses that he is really Mary’s uncle and has been using the money left to her by her real father. Speedy and Mary are speedily married at the end of the film. Speedy Meade was a very successful film that garnered several positive reviews, with one critic calling it an “old time melodrama with plenty of Jump and Ginger.” [8]

The fourth Bennison western produced at Betzwood in the summer and fall of 1918 was A Road Called Straight. Directed by Lowry, the script by Wilson Bayley recycled two tried and true Betzwood themes—cattle ranching and the East vs. West cultural conflict. Bennison played Al Boyd, a wealthy cattle rancher who falls in love with Betty, a sophisticated eastern girl played by the popular former Lubin star, Ormi Hawley. Betty marries him for his money but treats him coldly and disdains his western manners. However, when she is lured to a remote cabin and nearly raped by an acquaintance, her husband rescues her and they agree to travel “the straight road together.”

bennison and Ormi hawley

Louis Bennison and Ormi Hawley in A Road Called Straight. [Betzwood Film Archive]

With four films completed and ready for distribution by the end of the year, the Betzwood Film Company made an arrangement with the Goldwyn Distributing Corporation to release the films early in 1919. Oh! Johnny! was released on 25 January 1919; Sandy Burke on 31 January 1919; Speedy Meade on 23 March 1919; and A Road Called Straight on20 April 1919. The films were distributed overseas as well through Goldwyn’s London office.[9] All four films received positive reviews in the various film industry trade journals. Encouraged, the studio looked forward to filming the next two Bennison productions at Betzwood.

tinted glass

Tinted glass Magic Lantern slide advertising The Road Called Straight [Betzwood Film Archive]

In the spring of 1919, Ira Lowry began work on a fifth Bennison western. High Pockets was based on a novel by William Patterson White, with a scenario written by Adrian Gil-Spear. Katharine MacDonald once again starred opposite Bennison and Ed Roseman provided another villainous obstacle to their happiness. The hero, “High Pockets” Henderson is a detective who comes across the body of Bud Blythe, a cattle rancher (!) in the desert. He finds a photograph of Bud’s sister, Joy, and goes looking for her. He finds that she has been cheated out of her ranch by a band of crooks. He ends up getting framed for the murder by the bad guys, and of course falls in love with Joy. When he learns that Joy’s brother has a twin, he devises a “ghostly” plan to find out who was really responsible for Bud’s murder. In the end, the bad guys go to jail, Joy gets paid handsomely for her ranch, and “High Pockets” buys her an engagement ring at the General Store.

ed roseman

Ed Roseman (center) as the villainous Max Mannon in High Pockets. [Betzwood Film Archive]

Except for missing its first reel, High Pockets survives mostly intact, as the master negatives for this film were found along with the negatives of Oh! Johnny! and conserved by MoMA as noted above. The missing footage was restored utilizing narrative intertitles and production stills by Rusty Castleton, allowing the film to be screened for audiences. The conclusion of High Pockets—when the “ghost” of Bud Blythe comes back to haunt his murderers—is one of the best sequences in any of the surviving Bennison westerns. The film was released by Goldwyn on 15 August 1919 and received numerous positive reviews.

The final Bennison western of the Betzwood Film Company went into production in late summer and early fall of 1919. A Misfit Earl, directed by Lowry and written by Wilson Bayley, who had provided the script for both Oh! Johnny! and A Road Called Straight, once again fell back on two themes which had proven successful in previous films;the rescue of an orphan and cowboy manners in high society. Claire Adams, who had also appeared in Speedy Meade, played Bennison’s love interest.

As Jim Dunn, Bennison plays a cowboy whose aunt dies leaving behind a small boy, Sam, whom the cowboy adopts. On her death bed the aunt tells a remarkable story. Her sister had married a young English Lord years before. But the Lord had been disowned by his father, who then died, making Jim and young Sam the heirs to Dunhaven Manor. When Jim and little Sam (“the heir, apparently”) go to England they encounter their “August” Aunt, Lady Caroline Croxton and a mansion full of hypocritical mourners all eager to get their hands on the fortune. Jim finds the downstairs help more to his liking and eats and bunks with them, teaching them American customs and songs, thus horrifying Lady Croxton. Meanwhile, upstairs, the scheming against him takes a lethal turn. They plan to poison him. Jim, however, is wise to their plot, and only pretends to drink the poison. With the help of the Aunt’s secretary, Phyllis (Claire Adams), who takes a liking to both little Sam and big Jim, the boys are triumphant and Bennison gets the castle and the girl in the end. He takes Sam and Phyllis back to America and rents the castle to his relatives.

The first and last reels of A Misfit Earl have been lost, unfortunately, making it impossible to screen the film today. Not only does the film begin in mid plot, but the surviving footage ends just as Bennison is pretending to drink the poison. The Betzwood Film Archive has a video of the surviving footage, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art which owns the original print. What remains of the film suggests that both Lowry and Bennison were steadily improving the Betzwood product. The use of Lindenwold Castle, the palatial estate of industrialist, R. V. Mattison, in Ambler, Pennsylvania,[10] as the English castle inherited by the cowboys provides a very convincing image of an English county estate.

jim dunn

Cowboy Jim Dunn arrives to take possession of his inheritance, an English castle. [Betzwood Film Archive]

A scene early in the film where Jim Dunn teaches his little cousin the proper way to eat peas with a knife (“you have to mash ‘em first”) anticipates the mayhem that will result later when Jim sits down to eat with the formal and proper servants at the castle. For the role of Sam, the studio recruited a local child from nearby Norristown, Sam Russo.

By the time Goldwyn released A Misfit Earl on 16 November 1919, Bennison had departed the Betzwood studio, never to return. In spite of good reviews, his contract was not extended and no further Bennison westerns would be made at Betzwood. The studio would turn its attention next to cranking out a series of comedies based on Fontaine Fox’s “Toonerville Trolley” cartoons.

bennison autograph

Before he left Betzwood, Bennison autographed this photo for Mrs. Linda Pearson, wife of the Innkeeper at the Audubon Inn where he had been living. [Betzwood Film Archive].

It may be that Bennison himself was eager to get back to the theater, always his first love. Within months of completing his last Betzwood film, he was back on stage in a production of Dere Mabel, based on the popular book by Edward Streeter. With his last Betzwood film, The Misfit Earl, still playing all over the US, his play opened “out of town” in Baltimore in February 1920 and closed in Philadelphia. It never made it to Broadway despite songs by George Gershwin and the presence in the cast of George D. Cukor, who was destined to become a prominent Hollywood director. Bennison then did something he would do more than once through the rest of his career. He revived his old role as Johnny Wiggins in a new production of Johnny Get Your Gun. The production toured extensively throughout the United States, then went overseas to London where it played successfully under a new title, The Cow Person, before returning to play in still more American theaters. With her parents constantly on tour, Bennison’s daughter, Maryanne, lived with her now-widowed grandmother, Kate, in Berkeley.[11]

In May 1921 Bennison appeared in an itinerant production of the comedy, Zizi, which played the National Theater in Washington D.C.[12] Early in 1921 Bennison was offered not one but two leading roles (as a father and his son) in the Renco Film Company’s production of the old Victorian tear jerker, Lavender and Old Lace, directed by Lloyd Ingraham.[13] Unfortunately, this film does not survive. By the time Lavender and Old Lace was released in June, Bennison was already in rehearsals for the play, Personality, which opened on Broadway in late August.

In 1922, Bennison took his cowboy act to Australia, touring the country in another production of Johnny Get Your Gun, one for which special music—the “Johnny Get Your Gun Waltzes”—was written by Anthony Dare. The sheet music, published in Melbourne in 1922, features Bennison’s face on the cover. However, it is possible that, despite the title, this was not the same play that Bennison had starred in with such success in the United States. Bennison had apparently written a play in 1916 which he called East Meets West and which he republished under the title, Johnny Get Your Gun.[14] The facts are not entirely clear in this matter, but it appears that it was his version of the play that he took on tour of Australia. Bennison’s wife, Frances, accompanied him on this tour. They returned to the United States in April 1923, sailing from Sydney to San Francisco, en route to their home in New York City.[15]

Once back in New York, Bennison took up the lead role in the comedy, Nobody’s Business, which opened on Broadway at the Klaw Theater in October 1923, then portrayed the villain in The Dust Heap which opened at the Vanderbilt Theater in April 1924. During rehearsals for this play, Bennison was injured when one of the staged illusions turned real. The story line called for lightning to strike a tree and cause it to fall on a cabin. When the tree fell, and the curtain came down, it was discovered that Bennison was pinned under the tree with a groin injury and three cracked ribs. He recovered in time to perform the role, however.[16] Later that season, he performed in Badges at the Forty Ninth Street Theater.[17]

Bennison spent the Spring and Summer of 1925 back in his native Oakland, California, playing a variety of roles for which he received glowing reviews in the local press, which apparently adored their home-town boy. In rapid succession, he played the Rajah in The Green Goddess; an innocent in The Fraid Cat—a play which he helped write; a loveable drunk in The Old Soak, and a Mexican bandit in The Bad Man. His season ended with his portrayal of a stammering, eye-brow lifting boob in Booth Tarkington’s Rose Briar. By fall, he was back in New York in All Dressed Up when the drama opened at the Eltinge 42nd Street Theater in September.[18] This was followed by an appearance in Venice For Two which opened in late October.

In addition to the play he had written in 1916, Bennison also worked with Dartmouth Professor, Arthur Corning White, to rewrite White’s play, The Virgin, in order to enhance the part he wanted to play. The re-worked opus was brought to the Maxine Elliot Theater in New York in February 1926 with Bennison in a leading role. His venture in co-authorship was apparently not entirely successful. One New York critic wrote a scathing denunciation of Bennison’s efforts: “’The Virgin’ may have been no great shakes originally, but it surely couldn’t have been so sour as it is now that…Bennison has exercised his wicked will upon it.”[19]

The hectic schedule Bennison had maintained for years, overlapping performances in one play with rehearsals for another, and frequently traveling with touring shows, finally took a toll on his health and on his personal life. The fact that his career was not advancing and his looks were beginning to fade (he now wore a toupee) began to wear heavily upon him. Though known for years as a good humored, easy going, and generous-spirited man, Bennison took to drinking heavily and began to suffer from what his friends described as “fits of despondency.”[20] On one occasion at the Lamb’s Club, Bennison had gotten so drunk that he pulled out his revolver and threatened to kill himself. The gun had to be taken from him.[21] His wife, at some point in the mid-twenties, returned to the West Coast to live with their daughter. The couple remained on friendly terms, however, and Bennison visited his wife and daughter whenever he played on the West Coast.

But his life and career were now in a downward spiral and it was during this decline that he met actress and comedienne, Margaret Lawrence, and formed the relationship that would prove fatal to them both. Their first appearance together in a play seems to have been in The Heaven Tappers which opened in San Diego in November 1926, then fizzled out on Broadway after only nine performances early in 1927. Ironically, considering the tragedy that would soon follow, they played a pair of doomed lovers.[22]

bennison in the Heaven tappers

Louis Bennison in The Heaven Tappers, publicity photo. [Betzwood Film Archive]

Margaret Lawrence, born in Trenton, NJ, in 1889, had begun her stage career at the age of seventeen in Philadelphia, and went on to appear in plays in Chicago and New York. While her stage successes were numerous, her personal life had been very untidy. Her second marriage was failing at the time she met Bennison and she had been the center of several scandals and lawsuits. Like Bennison, she was by this time a heavy drinker.

margaret Lawrence

Margaret Lawrence and second husband, Wallace Eddinger

In the fall of 1927, Louis Bennison and Margaret Lawrence—without her husband—toured Australia together in a production of Robert Emmett Sherwood’s new play, The Road to Rome. Even if Bennison and Lawrence were not well acquainted before this, the week-long train trip to the West Coast and the three-week ocean voyage from San Francisco to Sydney would have provided ample opportunity to discuss more than theater. They spent several months in Australia before returning from their tour in January 1928[23] Later that year, Bennison toured the West Coast in yet another revival of Johnny Get Your Gun. He also made a short one-reel sound film for Vitaphone, The Reward.[24] The need to recycle Johnny yet again combined with a Vitaphone appearance suggests that, as his stage career declined, Bennison may have been exploring the possibility of acting in the newly-emerging sound films.

Back in New York, Margaret Lawrence’s career was beginning to collapse. She was offered the leading role in Edgar Selwyn’s comedy, Possession, which opened on Broadway on the 2nd of October 1928. But after two weeks, overwhelmed by her personal problems and drinking heavily, she suddenly dropped out of the play. Selwyn filed charges against her with Actor’s Equity. She was suspended for six months and fined two weeks wages.

In the spring of 1929, Bennison made what was to be his final visit to the West Coast to perform in a play. He visited his wife and daughter before heading back to New York to the apartment he was now sharing with Lawrence.[25] In May, Bennison and Lawrence appeared together in a vaudeville sketch which turned out to be such a flop that it was withdrawn from the program after three performances.[26] A month later, Bennison was in rehearsals for the leading role in This Thing Called Love, scheduled to open on June 10th at a theater in Brooklyn. In the last week of rehearsals, however, Bennison was drinking so heavily that he repeatedly failed to show up and the director was finally forced to replace him.

On Wednesday June 5th, one of Lawrence’s friends, Mrs. Gertrude Chalaire came by to visit at the elegant penthouse atop a hotel at 34 E. 51st Street where Lawrence and Bennison had recently taken up residence. Chalaire wanted her friend to join her for a few days at her place on Long Island. While there, she was alarmed by Bennison’s behavior. At one point, he stormed into the room obviously drunk and brandishing his heavy cowboy revolver. “This will finish both of us,” he shouted. Lawrence calmed Bennison down and persuaded him to put the gun away. She declined her friend’s invitation. A few days later, on Saturday June 8th, Chalaire returned only to be met at the door by Bennison, who turned her away saying “Margaret doesn’t want to see you anymore.” Though she left, she felt that something was amiss. She was right.

Concerned for her friend, Gertrude Chalaire returned to the penthouse the next day and when no one answered the bell, she decided to use the pass key which Lawrence had given her. Entering the suite, she called out for her friend, but no one answered. When she looked into the bedroom, she found both Margaret Lawrence and Louis Bennison dead. After what may have been several days of hard drinking—forty empty gin bottles were found—Bennison had shot Margaret Lawrence while she slept, then turned the gun on himself. Pinned to the door between the living room and kitchen was a nearly illegible note in Bennison’s handwriting:

The sunset has a heart. Look for us there.[27]

The sensational scandal made national headlines for days and sent two families and the theatrical communities of both New York and San Francisco reeling with disbelief. Some reports called it murder, others speculated that the two had agreed upon a murder-suicide pact. Bennison’s comments to Lawrence in Chalaire’s presence and her decision to remain in the penthouse seem to suggest her complicity in the tragedy. But the New York Police Department could determine neither a motive for the shooting of Lawrence, nor for her possible agreement to a suicide pact. Her lawyer reported that she had only days before asked him to help her explore the possibility of making a talking picture. Neither could Bennison’s devastated family find any reason for the tragedy. During his recent visit, they had sensed nothing wrong. Frances Bennison, in fact, claimed that she suspected nothing about her husband’s relationship to Margaret Lawrence. “We knew they were friendly,” she told the press, “but I considered it only a stage association.”[28]

In the absence of any clear motive or explanation, many reporters felt free to speculate:

[Perhaps] the actor, who had long ago passed the zenith of his career and whose youth was fast slipping away, murdered his sweetheart in a fit of morbid despondency for fear that one day she might tire of him and then took his own life.[29]

Louis Bennison’s remains were cremated and returned to his family in San Francisco. Margaret Lawrence is buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. Whatever the reasons for the tragic end of these two talented and much-loved performers, we can only indulge in useless speculation. We will never know the truth. We can only hope the sunset really has a heart.


Footnotes

  1. ^Edward Weitzel, “Louis Bennison Stars In Caboose,” The Moving Picture World, 6/28/1919, p. 1917; Russell E. Smith, “ A Bennison Be Upon The Screen,” Motion Picture Magazine, Vol XVII, no. 3 (April, 1919), p. 35; “ Stage Stars End Lives In Suicide Pact,” Oakland Tribune, 10 June 1929, 1:1; The Washington Post, 22 May 1921.
  2. ^Andrew Bennison went on to become a screen writer in Hollywood, working with the Three Stooges and Johnny Mack Brown.
  3. ^“Bennison Screen Actor For Money,” Moving Picture World, 6/7/1919, p. 1493.
  4. ^Letter of Max Kohn to author, 21 April 1980. Mr. Kohn was a nephew of the Wolf Brothers, who financed the studio. As a child he spent several summers at the studio while films were being made.
  5. ^Released 24 January 1919, directed by Donald Crisp.
  6. ^Virginia Lee (1901-1996) appeared in the first Miss America pageant as Miss New York. She appeared in numerous silent films throughout the 1920s.
  7. ^The convent scenes were staged at the old St. Joseph’s Protectory For Girls in Norristown.
  8. ^Edward Weitzel, “Speedy Meade,” Moving Picture World, 19 April 1919, p. 426.
  9. ^It was in fact the master negatives which had been shipped overseas and returned, still in crates with the Goldwyn labels, which were found in Norristown in 19 and restored by MoMA.
  10. ^Now St. Mary’s Villa, Lindenwold was also the setting for a Hayley Mills film of 1966, The Trouble With Angels.
  11. ^1920 U. S. Census for Berkeley, CA.
  12. ^The Washington Post, 22 May 1921.
  13. ^The film does not survive.
  14. ^Louis Bennison, Johnny Get Your Gun; comedy in prologue and three acts, (New York, Samuel French), c. 1927.
  15. ^“List of United States Citizens” aboard the S.S. Sonoma, sailing from Sydney, Australia, and arriving in San Francisco, 10 April 1923, Immigration Database, Ancestry.com
  16. ^Oakland Tribune, 2 April 1924.
  17. ^International Broadway Database, http://www.ibdb.com/, hereafter cited as IBDB.
  18. ^Oakland Tribune, 29 June 1925; IBDB.
  19. ^George Jean Nathan, “’Unchastened Woman’ Revival by Stagers Poor Joke On Critics,” Syracuse Herald, 28 February 1926.
  20. ^New York Times June 10 1929, 1:1.
  21. ^New York Times June 10 1929, 1:1.
  22. ^Oakland Tribune; IBDB; TIME Magazine, Monday, Mar. 21, 1927.
  23. ^“List of United States Citizens,” aboard the S. S. Tahiti sailing from Sydney, Australia, and arriving in San Francisco, 20 January 1928, Immigration database, Ancestry.com.
  24. ^Vitaphone Corp., release #2687, starring Bennison, Gladyse Hulette, and John King, directed by Bryan Foy. The film does not survive.
  25. ^He appeared in Mr. Pim Passes By, a play by A. A. Milne (of “Winnie the Pooh” fame). The play opened a week’s engagement at the Figueroa Playhouse in Los Angeles on April 1. Playbill in the Betzwood Film Archive; Bennison and Lawrence both gave the same address as their residences when registering on a ship’s manifest in February 1929. See “List of United States Citizens” aboard the S.S. President Johnson, sailing from Habana [sic], Cuba, Feb 5, 1929 to Los Angeles, Feb 17, 1929, Immigration database, Ancestry.com; Oakland Tribune, 10 June 1929, 1:1.
  26. ^NYT June 10 1929 1:1; Their skit, called “She Made Up Her Mind” was performed at the Eighty-First Street Theater.
  27. ^NYT ibid; The coroner found both bodies “literally saturated with alcohol,” The Zanesville Signal, 11 June 1929, p. 12.
  28. ^Oakland Tribune, 10 June 1929, 1:1.
  29. ^The Zanesville Signal, 11 June 1929, p. 12.

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