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