For the Addicted to Screwball Blogathon I am celebrating the career of a truly remarkable lady, who achieved enormous success in silent and talking pictures, movies and radio, in the US and the UK, and in drama as well as comedy, although we’ll be taking a look mostly at Bebe Daniels’ comedic triumphs in this piece. For a kick off, here’s a real treat – Bebe’s appearance on the American version of This Is Your Life, which will tell you all about her life story:
The Boy and The Girl
Bebe was born in 1901 in Dallas, Texas, into a theatrical family, who moved to Los Angeles. Bebe was 7 when she appeared in her first movie, but in 1910 actually starred in her first feature length picture, as Dorothy in the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s amazing to consider that William Powell’s future friends and co-stars all got their breaks through the Hollywood magic of short comedies and like Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow, Bebe had come to the attention of Hal Roach. Bebe was cast as the love interest in Harold Lloyd’s Lonesome Luke series, which Roach and Lloyd felt had become somewhat moribund. The Luke character was a reverse of Chaplin’s tramp character insofar as Luke clothes were too tight as opposed to too baggy. Bebe’s mother wasn’t hugely impressed. As far as she was concerned her daughter’s appearances in movies as a child actress were merely a means to an end and certainly weren’t a long term career option. Mrs Daniels had good reason to think this way – actresses in short comedy films were generally just eye candy and fodder for various slapstick goings on and the Luke series was no different to the extent that Lloyd, who continued to tire of the role, described the love scenes as a ‘travesty of the real thing.’
However, Lloyd was developing his now famous ‘glasses’ character, a more human character than Luke. In complete opposition to Luke, this new character was not a loser, but a lovable and realistic young suitor for Bebe’s affections (‘The Boy’). This also allowed development for Bebe’s character (‘The Girl’). Now Bebe could play hard to get, due to an overbearing father for instance, with hilarious consequences.
It seems odd now when you take into account that Bebe was still a teenager when she appeared with Harold Lloyd as her performances became more self assured. Bebe was blessed with a very mobile face and quick, darting eyes which she employed to great comic effect, in fact her natural comedy timing was brought to the fore in these pictures.
“I was fourteen when I went with the Rolin-Pathé comedies to play opposite Harold Lloyd, and I think this was the best possible training during my ‘growing up’ years, for comedy has taught me the values of lights and shade of emotional work that I probably would not have gained had I done only serious dramas. I loved it, too; it was a happy experience, for everyone in the company was so fine, and we were like a big family,” she said in 1919.
Harold and Bebe fell in love during their time together at the Roach studios and became a popular Hollywood couple, entering and often winning the many dance contests to be found at local nightspots. It was at one of these contests at the Sunset Inn in 1917 that Bebe got chatting to Cecil B DeMille who became intrigued with Bebe and saw potential in her. He offered her the opportunity of more dramatic work, which Bebe initially turned down as she still had a year to run on her Roach contract, but sure enough once that had finished she took up DeMille’s offer and was contracted to Paramount for the remainder of the silent era, which is where she came into contact with William Powell. Although Bebe did make dramatic movies, such as Dangerous Money, her natural flair for comedy was still made full use of and in particular, Bebe made a couple of role reversal flicks, Señorita and She’s a Sheik, sending up the current fashion for swashbuckling adventures and desert based melodramas, the joke being that the swashbuckler/sheik character was actually a girl!
Her last movie with William Powell was Feel My Pulse, about a hypochondriac heiress who winds up on an island that she’s due to inherit thinking there’s a sanitarium there, as opposed to Bill Powell’s rum running business. Similar to a lot of her pictures Bebe’s character isn’t merely a weak vessel, as she gets to grips with the fact that she has no control over her life, she kicks off spectacularly and hilariously, ransacking the entire building until all present are sure that this dame isn’t going to be made a patsy of any longer! Oh, and she gets to run off into the sunset with Richard Arlen which is a definite bonus.
Of the 53 silent feature films Bebe made, 39 are lost.
Bebe Daniels and Life with the Lyons
Now although this piece is primarily about Bebe’s silent comedies, it would be remiss of me not to conclude with Bebe’s greatest achievement, in my view, Life with the Lyons. When you think of all those massive BBC radio comedies of the 1950s, such as The Goon Show, Take It From Here, Hancock’s Half Hour and many more, it is truly remarkable that Life with the Lyons is also included in that venerated group of great comedies. Remarkable because the main writer of the show was that American former silent screen idol, Bebe Daniels herself.
Bebe had married Ben Lyon in Hollywood in 1930 and like a lot of Hollywood stars, would come to the UK on theatre and music hall tours. The difference with Bebe and Ben was that they decided to stay here.
By this time they had two children, Barbara and Richard, and they figured a nice house in the countryside would be a perfect setting to bring their kids up. However when war broke out in 1939 they had a tough choice to make. Thus, Barbara and Richard were sent back to Hollywood to live with Bebe’s mother for the duration of the war while Bebe and Ben stayed on in England, which garnered the British public’s respect and gratitude. Indeed Bebe went on to be awarded with the Medal of Freedom by Harry S Truman on account of her work as the only female reporting on the Normandy landings.
During the war Ben Lyon had an idea for a comedy show that would raise the morale of the troops as well as the public, which he took to the BBC’s then Head of Light Entertainment, Pat Hillyard. Hi Gang, also starring the comedian Vic Oliver, would run for 9 years and Life with he Lyons was its sequel – a sitcom about an ordinary Hollywood family who happen to live in London, starring not only Bebe and Ben but Barbara and Richard too! In fact even Barbara’s boyfriend and later husband, Russell Turner, and Richard’s fiancée were roped into making appearances on the show. The Kardashians weren’t the first at this game! Indeed, there was an element of rudimentary augmented and scripted reality in Life with the Lyons as Bebe would use real life occurrences and her family’s idiosyncrasies to comedic effect in the show. Ben was the vain former Hollywood star, having a bit of a mid-life crisis as he reminded anyone who was listening about the time he snogged Jean Harlow in Hells Angels.
Barbara was the teenage drama queen (‘I’ll die, I’ll just DIE!!!’) and Richard the annoying kid brother who would devote an inordinate amount of time to upsetting his big sister.
Bebe would write the show with her co-writers in the cellar at the Lyon’s family home in London, perfecting each script before rehearsal and recording. Bebe’s attention to detail paid off as the show was rewarded with 20 million listeners, and eventually television and film versions.
I should add here as an aside for those of us of a certain age that one of Bebe’s co-writers was Bob Block who would go on to write the children’s sitcom Rentaghost. And the Lyon’s Scottish maid was played by Molly Weir – McWitch in Rentaghost!
Anyway, do have a listen to Life with the Lyons below. A general rule of thumb when listening to BBC radio comedies of the golden age – if the studio audience are laughing before the theme music even starts you know you’re onto a winner!
And finally, one last link:
This is Bebe’s 1956 appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs (well it wasn’t Radio 4 then, it was the BBC Home Service but that’s by the by). Here Bebe talks about her life and her favourite pieces of music should she become a castaway on a deserted island. Note her luxury item is a typewriter! Ben Lyon went on to be surprised by Eamonn Andrews in the U.K. version of This Is Your Life in 1963 and it’s Eamonn’s voice you can hear in that Pathé news clip above.
William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant
For this week’s lost film we’re having a look at a vehicle which starred a lady who was going to be a regular co-star for William Powell – Bebe Daniels. As noted in this month’s Memorabilia of the Month, I’m leaving any in-depth discussion of Bebe Daniels’ life and career for my entry ‘Bebe Daniels – Silent Screwball’ in Paul S‘s Addicted to Screwball Blogathon, starting 23 May.
As it is the review of Dangerous Money in Photoplay Magazine describes the picture as ‘flabby’, yet another tale of a ‘boarding house slavey’ who inherits a fortune. However William Powell is highlighted as the ‘scoundrel, who runs away with the entire opus.’ Playing a gold digger in his smarmy git oeuvre, can you see the pattern forming here?
Also worth noting is that this was the first film that William Powell made for Paramount Pictures, although not under contract. He must’ve made quite an impression because, as outlined in William Powell’s Silent Villains, in 1925 Jesse Lasky signed Powell to a contract with Paramount – what an achievement after only three years in motion pictures.
In and amongst my research for this film I happened upon an auction for these negatives (referenced below):
I think Bill looks quite sublime in these pictures – the smile in the photo above is cheery but quite enigmatic also – as he stared down the camera, on the cusp of success, I wonder what was going through his head? Certainly, once he signed on the dotted line with Paramount, his financial pressures would be much alleviated. Indeed as I have alluded to elsewhere on this blog, Bill’s penury as a young actor lead to his reputation in Hollywood for being excessively careful with his money. That’s a smile as bright as his future!
So for this month’s addition to the collection I’ve purchased a cigarette card of an actress who was going to be William Powell’s co-star in five silent films, starting with the next movie I’ll be looking at, Dangerous Money:
I’m not going to talk too much about Bebe Daniels here as I’ll be doing a more in-depth discussion of her life and career in a piece entitled ‘Bebe Daniels – Silent Screwball’ for Paul S‘s Addicted to Screwball Blogathon, starting on 25 May, so please check it out!
Now as Bebe Daniels was the star of the spoof movie She’s A Sheik, with Bill Powell, I also thought it would be rather fun to get this card as it was manufactured in Egypt!
‘Not Guilty’ screamed the headline in Photoplay Magazine in 1929 – ‘Bill Powell declares he is not a picture stealer’. At this point William Powell had appeared in 33 motion pictures since his debut in Sherlock Holmes in 1922. He’d obviously fancied himself as a leading actor but his journey to that status was going to be a circuitous one – as Bill noted in my post on When Knighthood Was In Flower, ‘It was my ambition to be a screen hero… But I had a wonderful sneer and a leer which registered perfectly. So I became a villain.’ A villain so charismatic that, as Photoplay Magazine noted, he had a tendency to be the only person on the screen that you would want to look at.
After freelancing around, in 1925 the Los Angeles Times announced that Jesse Lasky had signed William Powell to an exclusive contract with Paramount Pictures, ‘I consider Mr Powell one of the foremost artists in motion pictures and he is a most welcome addition to the ranks of our character players… He will be featured in a number of our most ambitious productions, plans for which are under way.’ And this is where Bill’s villainous career really started to kick on.
So imagine this scene: Bebe Daniels is cowering on a double bed edging away from the attentions of William Powell who is coming ever closer, chattering away manically. This scene, where Powell’s character threatens rape is from the 1926 comedy Feel My Pulse (which can be viewed on YouTube) and is incredibly unsettling!
It was then that I realised how complete an actor Powell was, because he is so sinister in that scene that it threw out all my preconceptions about my lovely gorgeous William Powell, the charming light comedian of the screwball era. Ugh! What a scumbag!
You can split William Powell’s villain roles into a couple of recognisable tropes, which I have outlined below:
The Shady Foreigner
As seen in When Knighthood Was In Flower, The Bright Shawl, Under the Red Robe, Dangerous Money, Too Many Kisses, The Beautiful City, Sea Horses, Beau Geste, She’s a Sheik
The name ‘William Powell’ on its own is a bit generically Anglo-Saxon don’t you think? It doesn’t denote ‘film star’. I mean any old joe can be called ‘William Powell’ really. But William Powell’s looks belied his rather ordinary name, as he was the owner of a rather exotic looking face. This face, in the silent era, enabled him to play what would be considered ‘ethnic’ roles in those unenlightened times. Ronald Colman, on account of his brunette appearance, would also be cast occasionally as Italians, but William Powell began to specialise in a type of sinister criminally minded foreigner, often one who’s sniffing around the film’s heroine in a vaguely threatening manner. A slight change to that character was Boldini, the coward from Beau Geste. Boldini isn’t in the business of chasing women, more after saving his own skin at the expense of his compadres.
These types of roles have always been a well known device in Hollywood that we can all recognise, playing into and exploiting the public’s fears of the unknown. Very relatable today in my view.
The Smarmy Git
As seen in When Knighthood was in Flower, Special Delivery, Beau Geste, Aloma of the South Seas, Time to Love, Paid to Love
This type of role was also often engaged in the pursuit of the film’s heroine, but instead of merely using threatening behaviour, would turn on a type of slimy, oleaginous charm. These characters would often be smart talking, super rich smoothies used to getting their own way, until either the hero or heroine would give them a metaphorical kick in the nuts. Bill would play this type of bounder with moustache smoothed and eyebrow raised, most famously in Paid to Love where Prince Eric peels a banana while Virginia Valli undresses behind a screen, the dirty devil!
Other Assorted Slimes
For Bill’s other silent pictures there’s a mixture of cowards, gangsters and hoods, but also a smattering Western villains. Naturally the common theme that links all these characters is that they get a very satisfying comeuppance in the end, but the Powell charm ensured that even if he made an early exit it was his part that would stick in your mind.
“Bill, I’ve always been curious; how do you feel when you’re about to commit a murder?” asked Ricardo Cortez in 1927.
“Right now, I’m feeling pretty punk. I was just thinking that if I had gotten up ten minutes earlier, I’d have had time to eat some cereal. If there’s anything I hate to do, it’s commit a murder before breakfast.”
This post is part of the Great Villains Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows & Satin. Check these evils demons out!
William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant