Irene Bennett


Most of the actresses I profile on this side had a dismal career but led normal, happy lives – they had other careers, got married, had children and so on. One has to wonder if such a “happy ending” is applicable to actresses like Irene Bennett, or can we call them tragic? Let’s learn more about Irene…

EARLY LIFE

Irene Opal Horsley was born on December 17, 1913, in Marshall, Logan, Oklahoma, to Calvin Horsley and Margaret Frances Bennett. Irene came from a very big, tight knit family. She was their fourth child – her older sisters were Velva Verona, born on September 4, 1905, Velora Mildred, born on April 22, 1908 and Doris Pauline, born on June 18, 1910. Five more children would follow after Irene – twins, a son, Ray, and a daughter, Elaine Margaret, born on October 25, 1915, Elizabeth “Bette”, born on January 11, 1918, Virginia “Bobbie” Kate born in 1919, and the baby of the family, Quinton Roosevelt, born on June/January 6, 1920. Later in life, Irene would claim that her mother was the first white child born in the Cherokee strip of Oklahoma.

The family moved from Marshall to Enid, Oklahoma, in about 1917. Irene and her siblings grew up , attended and graduated from high school there.

Irene came to Hollywood twice. The first time was in 1935, as a beauty-contest winner in the Tri-State cotton festival at Memphis, Tenn. Approached a local merchant who was so struck by her beauty that he invited her to ride his float in the Cotton Carnival parade. She accepted, unaware that the parade was also a beauty contest. She won the contest and then followed the inevitable trip to Hollywood with a try at the movies. The customary rounds; the usual publicity; the unavoidable result nobody paid much heed to Irene. “But nothing happened,” she said of the experience later “so I went back to selling magazines.”

The second time was much more fruitful. As a professional saleslady, she came to a movie studio to sell magazines. She said she was known from coast to coast as “The Magazine Girl,” having conducted her subscription campaigns in thirty -three states. She listed among her clients Gov. Albert Ritchie of Maryland, and Gov. Frank Merriam of California. “I always go right to the front office,” Irene explained. But Irene couldn’t get to the front office at Paramount studio. A cordon of alert secretaries stopped her. So the only executive she was able to contact was John Votion, head of the studio talent department. He told her he did not want any magazines. But he did offer her a contract and she accepted. She become a member of the studio “stock” company to gain experience and changed her name to Irene Bennett.

And Irene was off!

CAREER

Irene’s first movie was Too Many Parents, a not-bad-at-all drama about the boys who are sent to military school in order to get them out of the way of their too-busy-to-bother parents or guardians. Special plus is seeing Frances Farmer in an early role. Her next movie was the completely forgotten Sky Parade, an aviation move with Katherine DeMille and William Gargan. Then Irene appeared in Florida Special, a run of the mill crime movie with Jackie Oakie as a worldly journalist trying to stop a train robbery. Yawn! Been there, seen that at least a hundred times…

She next appeared in Poppy, a W.C. Fields movie and only Fields makes it worth watching (at all). While I understand that he’s the main character, a movie can’t be that good if it’s absolutely boring when the lead is not on-camera. Beats me why they always paired Fields with 3 Bs (blond, bland and boring) supporting actors with according story-lines. After this comedy came another comedy, My American Wife,  another almost lost movie. After that we have Lady Be Careful , which goes into the same bracket of lost movies.

Irene had another uncredited role in Easy to Take, another completely forgotten movie with Marsha Hunt and John Howard. Irene’s next movie is perhaps the bets known on her filmography – The Plainsman , one of the few A budget westerns from the 1930s. Before one wonders why somebody decided to make such a western – the answer is simple – Cecil B. DeMille wanted a epic movie and got one set in the Wild West. Like most DeMille’s movies, it’s meticulously and elegantly done, very much stamped by the old master’s unique and easily recognizable style. Yes, the story is historically inaccurate and over-the-top, but the acting is great (Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur are always a good combo), and the stunts are amazing! One should watch it more for its grandiose and epic feeling, western style, than for any true substance.

The Accusing Finger is perhaps the perfect low budget classic movie from the 1930s – it’s socially conscious, with a solid story, dramatic but not overly theatrical moments and a good cast. The story concerns a attorney who sent quite a lot of people on the death row just to end up there himself. And a true transformation occurs. I see this movie as proof of how little it takes to make a very good movie if you have all the technical and logistical things in order – a heartfelt story and a message you want to convey. For a low budget quickie, this is a true winner! Kudos to Paul Kelly and Marsha Hunt in the leading roles.

Then came another completely forgotten movie, Hideaway Girl. Irene’s last movie, Champagne Waltz , was a mid tier musical with the boring old music vs. new music plot. The plus side is hearing Gladys Swarthout sing opera and see Fred MacMurray playing a band leader, something he was before he became an actor (I never knew that!!!).

Unfortunately, Irene’s career ended after this.

PRIVATE LIFE

Irene married Carlton L. Burnham on July 9, 1929, when she was just 15 years old. Carlton was born in 1912 in Mississippi. They divorced in February 28, 1935.

While she was in Hollywood, she enjoyed the well known pastime of rowing but only on a rowing machine. She also frequented the gym of her home studio.

In March 1936, not long after she came to Hollywood, there was this notice in the papers:

Irene Bennett, Actress, Sues Doctor f or $500,000 Hollywood, Cal., March 31. (Special.- Irene Bennett, movie actress, today filed a suit against Dr. H. J. Strathcarn, studio physician at Paramount studio, for $500,000 damages. She alleged improper medical treatment. She asserts that when she came in need of medical treatment the studio referred her to Dr. Strathcarn, that he failed to diagnose her ailment until it was loo late. She said she contracted tuberculosis. Her real name Is Irene Bennett Horsley of Enid, Okla.. who came lo Hollywood after winning a Memphis, Tenn,, beauty contest.

The article was son forgotten in a small flurry of other articles about Irene:

  • March 1936: Irene Bennett dancing with Viscount Roger Halgouet. son of the wealthy French diplomat at Cocoanut Grove
  • April 1936: Joan Bennett and Gene Markey, Irene Bennett and the Charles Buttorworths week -ending at Palm Springs.
  • May 1936: Styled in Hollywood Irene Bennett, Paramount starlet, appearing with George Raft , and Dolores Cotello Barrymore in “Yours for the Asking.” sent her younger sister a dress for the latter’s graduation from the Enid (Okla.) High School.
  • August 1936:  Irene Bennett is going places with Tom Monroe, Paramount scribbler
  • September 1936: Jackson, Mississippi –  Among them were Miss Irene Bennett, formerly of this city. Mr. Champion” reports that Miss Bennett is well on her way to stardom, having played several leading roles in recent pictures. Miss Bennett has many friends in Jackson who will be pleased to know of her splendid success in pictures.
  • Luckiest player of the week in Irene Bennett, who had her option taken up the other day by Paramount and who climaxed the day by this shivery experience. She left her chair on the “Chinese Gold” set to go to the photograph gallery for a few minutes. While she was gone, a heavy sun-arc toppled over, crashing down on tho chair where Irene would have been sitting but for her lucky break. w1 noon off.”

For six months, she was trained in the Paramount dramatic school, meanwhile playing brief “bits” in a number of pictures, “The Milky Way,” “Poppy,” “Yours for the Asking,” and last of all, “Easy to Take.” At the end of the period, her contract was not renewed. During that time, she supported her mother, Mrs. Calvin Horsley, and her sister, Elaine.

Why? In November 1936:was reported to be in a Hollywood sanitarium dangerously ill of tuberculosis. A purse of $1000 was collected for her when it was learned she was without funds. Here is a brief article about it:

Irene Bennett, the pretty Oklahoma girl who was Hollywood’s biggest success story six months ago, is in a sanitarium today, dangerously ill. Her physician, Dr. H. A. Putnam, says she is facing a long .and uncertain fight for her life. What was worse, her dreams of a movie career ended abruptly several weeks before she became ill. Friends said they understood she is without funds. Having been in the movie studios less than a year, she is ineligible for aid from organized Hollywood charities. A purse of 1OOO$ has been collected at Paramount Studios, where she was under contract, to pay her expenses for a time at the sanitarium. Irene Bennett’s true name is Irene Horsley.

Irene went on to live in. Unfortunately, she slowly wasted away, living in a care assisted facility, with was no cure for her malady.

Irene Bennett Horsley died on August 25, 1941, in Los Angeles, California, from tuberculosis. She was buried in the family plot in Oklahoma.

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