Now it would be remiss of me before I move on to the film that truly introduced William Powell to Hollywood as a star without first looking at The White Sister, a movie that links up two of our three amigos, Ronald Colman and Richard Barthelmess.
As outlined in my birthday message, Ronald Colman had toiled away in the British theatre since the Armistice as well as making a few pictures for the Hepworth company, but in 1920, not having found much success in London, Colman went to New York. The White Sister was his first feature film, made in Italy by Inspiration Pictures, and it was the success of this picture that introduced him to the world as a new Hollywood star.
Inspiration Pictures had been founded by Richard Barthelmess, Charles Duell and Henry King, who had made the runaway success Tol’able David in 1921. The success of that picture enabled the company’s next big feature, The White Sister, to be made on location in Italy. Director Henry King utilised the most dramatic locations in Italy, including Rome, Sorrento and Mount Vesuvius itself! However, he also made full use of the expertise of his Italian crew, even down to small details such as ensuring that the original French blinds used on the sets were changed to Roman ones.
Indeed, one of the most emotional scenes in the picture, the ceremony whereby Angela Chiaromonte becomes a nun, was in fact designed and directed by a priest who was the head ceremonial director at the Vatican. Henry King, who was to later convert to Catholicism, wanted to ensure that this scene, which carried enormous spiritual significance, was accurate and credible to the Catholic Church in every detail.
The review in Photoplay Magazine describes The White Sister as ‘another personal triumph’ for Lillian Gish, the performance more nuanced than in her collaborations with D W Griffith. Gish brings a mixture of vulnerability and vitality to the role of Angela Chiaromonte that feels genuinely real. Her legendary ability to convey emotion through the camera is apparent here although to my modern cynical self, it seems a shame that being thrown into poverty by her jealous and vengeful sister results in Angela Chiaramonte turning into a bit of a tedious, pious bore. I did have to wonder why Giovanni Severi was still bothered for her once she’d made it plainly clear that she was going to remain wedded to the church and not leave it for him.
However, I fully recognise that this type of overwrought Victorian-style melodrama was very popular in the 1920s and that the strictures of mega-institutions like the Catholic Church were powerful enough to control the thoughts of entire populations. To transgress would be to invite shame and isolation. It certainly doesn’t lessen the impact of a fantastic drama and a remarkable debut for Ronald Colman, who is sensitive and sweet and gorgeous throughout. Colman, Gish, Henry King and Inspiration Pictures were soon back in Italy in 1924 to make Romola, an adaptation of a novel by George Eliot. The plot had a nice villainous character, and this role was awarded to William Horatio Powell.
Photoplay Magazine, October 1923, p.74
The Parade’s Gone By – Kevin Brownlow
I am grateful to Aurora for reminding me that today is Myrna Loy’s 112th birthday – due a recent bout of illness I’ve been tardy with the blog, I even forgot it was Bill’s birthday on Saturday! Back in the game now though!
An Exotic Vamp
Myrna Williams’ career as a Hollywood actress was marked out by her unconventionally attractive features – Myrna had been appearing in plays at Venice High School, and had a portfolio of photos produced that were noticed by Rudolph Valentino. On the recommendation of Natacha Rambova, Myrna began appearing as an extra in a number of pictures, starting with What Price Beauty (1925), a film that was publicised via this feature in Photoplay Magazine from September 1925:
However, Myrna was determined to appear in as many pictures as she was offered, no matter how incidental the role, as this would provide the exposure needed to move beyond the narrow confines of the exotic vamp. Hence the sheer number of films which appear below. Of course, many of the silent movies that Myrna Loy appeared in are lost:
Why Girls Go Back Home (1926)
The Gilded Highway (1926)
Across the Pacific (1926)
Finger Prints (1927)
Bitter Apples (1927)
The Climbers (1927)
Simple Sis (1927)
Pay As You Enter (1928)
State Street Sadie (1928) – part talkie
Fancy Baggage (1929)
Happily and unusually though, the majority of pictures Myrna appeared in have survived:
What Price Beauty (1925)
The Wanderer (1925)
Pretty Ladies (1925)
Sporting Life (1925)
Ben Hur (1925)
The Caveman (1926)
The Third Degree (1926)
When a Man Loves (1927)
The Heart of Maryland (1927)
A Sailor’s Sweetheart (1927)
The Girl from Chicago (1928)
A Girl in Every Port (1927)
The Crimson City (1928)
Noah’s Ark (1928) – part talkie
Hardboiled Rose (1929)
Granted, as noted above, Myrna Loy’s work ethic and determination to succeed meant that her appearances in the earlier films are as an extra or in bit parts. Years of typecasting was the result and Loy wasn’t able to shake off the exotic vamp character until well into the sound era.
However, Myrna’s first starring role was in 1927’s A Girl from Chicago with Conrad Nagel, so it is a pleasant surprise to see so many of her silent pictures still with us that we can enjoy.
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!