With elastic eyes and a rubbery physique, Leila Bennett enlivened multiple Golden Age comedies, almost always playing domestics. On a controversial level, she even played a maid named Hattie, in black face, in both the stage and screen versions of a piece called The First Year. While this is a decision she probably would have never made in a more enlightened time period, thankfully, she did make some correct assessments, career wise. For example, classic fright fans will forever benefit from her choice to appear in a number of fun, highly regarded gothic horrors.
In 1932’s Doctor X, Bennett’s often timid Mamie is forced to reenact the death throes of a serial killer’s victim through the investigative experiments of Lionel Atwill’s determined titular character. Nicely, when Mamie isn’t being terrified by Atwill, she is tending to Joanne, his supportive daughter who is played by the legendary Fay Wray. Coming to Joanne’s defense when Lee Tracy’s manipulative reporter tries to con her, Bennett is able to also display some feistiness here, giving her screen time a fine sense of fun and inventive balance.
In 1933’s lesser known Terror Aboard, Bennett displays an aggressiveness not seen in Doctor X. Here, as a maid named Lena, she pursues famed comedian Charles Ruggles’ frazzled steward, Blackie, with an ardent surety. Harassment as humor turns to horror, though, when Lena discovers that John Halliday’s smooth Maximilian, the owner of the ship on which this misadventure occurs, is the man responsible for all of the mayhem and bloodshed that the guests are experiencing. Bennett, nicely, applies a little coy navigation to her concern here, but her efforts to outwit Halliday end in failure. Thrown overboard by the villain, Bennett’s Lena joins the other victims in this Pre-Code slasher pre-curser. Mostly ignored upon its release, this piece’s interesting kills, including death by freezing and assisted suicide, have begun to give it a bit of recognition among gothic connoisseurs, as of late. This will, hopefully, help to put an end Bennett’s semi-obscurity, as well.
1935’s Mark of the Vampire, dominated by Bela Lugosi’s haunting presence as Count Mora, is probably the most famous of this moldable pro’s terror offerings. But, Maria, her character, is, perhaps, the most pedestrian of the trio represented here. Put in charge of watching over Irina, the film’s heroine played by the regal Elizabeth Allan, Bennett is required to do little more than react in ever growing fright. Her presence, as in the other roles, is substantial and committed to with boundless energy, though. In fact, Bennett has more screen time than the mystical Carroll Borland, whose exotic nature and haunting composure have long made her one of this project’s most memorable features.
Seemingly retiring from acting in 1936, Bennett died in New York City at the age of 72. But, forever young in celluloid, this engaging, unique performer is truly ripe for deserved rediscovery now.
Until the next time, SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!