17 April 2010

That Daniels Woman

Considering the duration and breadth of her career, it's both somewhat surprising and a rotten shame that Bebe Daniels is not a better known figure. Beginning with a part as Dorothy Gale in one of the earliest screen adaptations of The Wizard of Oz at the age of nine, Bebe Daniels worked for nearly half a century in silent and talking pictures, radio, stage and television (according to IMDB, she appeared in over 200 films). More impressive still is the fact that she managed to have two children and maintain a long and by all accounts happy marriage (which, in show business, is quite an achievement in and of itself!).

Bebe's career began in earnest in the 1910s, when she appeared opposite Harold Lloyd in his highly popular series of Lonesome Luke comedies (for a time the two were simply known as "the boy" and "the girl," and there is much to suggest that they were also romantically involved off-screen). Soon afterward she went to work for Cecil B. Demille, appearing in support of such luminaries as Gloria Swanson and Wallace Reid. She spent much of the 1920s as one of Paramount Pictures' biggest names. Her output in this period was impressive: she appeared in five or six pictures per year (1924 was particularly busy for her -- she appeared in no fewer than nine pictures that year).

In the maelstrom caused by the transition from silent pictures to talkies, Bebe was cut from the Paramount roster. The joke, as it turned out, was on Paramount -- Bebe quickly signed with RKO Pictures and make her talking (and singing!) debut in the film adaptation of Florenz Ziegfeld's Rio Rita, which was one of the biggest box office hits of 1929. Her talents were again showcased in 1930's Dixiana, another adaptation of a Ziegfeld musical (you can read my reviews of these moves, if you're interested). After this brief but profitable stint at RKO, Bebe signed with Warner Brothers, where she appeared in a number of memorable roles, among them Ruth Wonderly in the original screen adaptation of The Maltese Falcon and Broadway prima donna Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street.

Although Bebe largely retired from the screen in 1935, her career as an entertainer did not end there. In that same year, she moved to London with her husband Ben Lyon, whom she had married in 1930. The pair starred in the popular radio show Hi Gang!, which they continued to broadcast during the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz. They continued in radio after the war with Life With the Lyons, a popular comedy show that ran from 1951 to 1961, and enjoyed a leap to television in 1955.

Her life off the screen was no less colorful. In 1921, she spent ten days in jail for speeding. Shortly after her release, she made light of the incident by appearing in a picture called The Speed Girl. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Harry Truman for her services during World War II.

Unfortunately, an agonizingly small portion of Bebe's films seem to have survived to this day; her silent pictures, in particular, have a very poor rate of survival (sadly, this seems to be true of much of Paramount's library of silent pictures, perhaps because of the copyright limbo in which those numerous films are adrift. Most, it is likely, are lost). What films of hers do survive reveal an actress of considerable talent and range, and no small degree of charm. In that respect, I suppose that posterity ought to count itself lucky that any of Bebe's curriculum vitae has survived the ravages of time at all.

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