By early 1915 Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach had exhausted Lloyd's mildly successful character, Willie Work, and Lonesome Luke, a copy of Chaplin's tramp with clothes in reverse (too tight instead of too baggy), was born. The first of these films, entitled simply "Lonesome Luke," was released June 7, 1915.
After about a half dozen or so of the Lonesome Lukes, Virginia "Bebe" Daniels was hired to be Lloyd's female lead. The Oct. 16, 1915, issue of Moving Picture World lists the troupe as Harold Lloyd, Harry "Snub" Pollard, Bud Jamison, Earl Mohan, Gene Marsh, Arthur Harrison and Bebe Daniels.
Bebe was only 14 years old when she and her mother visited the Rolin Studios for an interview with Lloyd and Roach. She was no novice actress having appeared on the stage for the first time at 10 weeks of age and in films about seven years later. "When I was eight," she said in a 1917 Photoplay Journal interview, "my parents decided there was a good future in picture work, so for several years I played child parts in Vitagraph, Ince and Pathé. The work was fascinating to me and much easier than the stage."
According to DeWitt Bodeen in his 1976 book, From Hollywood, getting money occasionally from film work was OK with Bebe's mother, but when she realized she wanted to do it full-time after signing with Roach, her mother said she "never thought Bebe would sink that low."
Apparently the purpose of a "leading lady" in these early, knockabout comedies was simply to give the main character a pretty girl to "play off of," that is, she served about the same purpose as any other "prop" in the film. A 1916 Lonesome Luke entitled "Luke's Movie Muddle" (aka "Luke's Model Movie," "Director of the Cinema" and "The Cinema Director") is a good example of this.
In this one-reeler, Luke is a one-man ticket seller, ticket taker and usher in a small movie theater. The eight minutes of mayhem show Luke rudely pushing customers into their seats, jerking hats off men's head, quieting a talkative woman, fighting with projectionist Snub Pollard and flirting with every pretty lady that comes in the theater. Bebe is one of these ladies and occupies barely a minute of total screen time. Luke escorts her inside jerking a man's handkerchief from his pocket to dust off her seat. Later, while flirting with the girl sitting in front of Bebe, he reaches around and absent-mindedly grabs her foot and starts swinging it back and forth. This incurs a slap from the incredulous Bebe. That's it; that's her total part in the production.
Commenting on the Lonesome Luke series, Lloyd biographer Annette D'Agostino said, ". . . she had little to do and no real responsibility, and the whole series can be seen as merely a training ground for her future talents."
Film critic Leonard Maltin said, "The boy-girl relationship in these early comedies is . . . crude. Harold's pursuit of Bebe Daniels is merely a repetition by rote of the standard comedy formula and is never played for sincerity or believability. As star comedian, it was Harold's obligation to go after The Girl, no matter how outlandish the charade. Lloyd later commented, 'When I was Lonesome Luke or one of those other characters, love affairs were not real. They were travesties on the real thing.'"
In considering these films and the Lonesome Luke character, it obviously would have been quite impossible for any character development for Bebe because there wasn't any character development for Luke beyond being offensive, abrasive, very physical with everyone he came in contact and generally in motion throughout the entire one or two reels of film.
Although the Lonesome Lukes were profitable, Lloyd was seeking a deeper characterization than this Chaplin imitation could provide him, and that was made possible through the development of the "glasses character." This allowed Bebe's role in the films to take on a broader "personality," as well. It was a gradual growth, though, since the early glasses character wasn't far removed from Lonesome Luke, but, as time went on, Lloyd began to create a character that was not a "grotesque," as were most of the comics of the day, but likeable, ambitious and admirable for his optimism. He became known as "The Boy," and Bebe as "The Girl," labels indicative of their universality and characters with which all of the "boys" and "girls" in the audience could identify. (After Lloyd's near fatal accident with a prop bomb in 1919, Bebe sent him a get well card addressed to "The Boy" from "The Girl")
The glasses character was introduced in the fall of 1917, and, as noted, it was a gradual conversion as Lloyd and Roach wanted to test out the new characterization before putting Lonesome Luke to bed entirely. For obvious reasons, it proved to be the more successful of the two characters, and Lloyd was on his way to redefining silent screen comedy.
"The Non-Stop Kid" was released in May, 1918, and shows how the story line could now be built around Bebe. The film opens with Bebe surrounded by suitors on her 16th birthday. Her grouchy, domineering father runs off the suitors and Harold, as well, when he is found with Bebe in the garden. He soon learns that her father has picked a Professor Noodle as her husband-to-be, and Harold poses as the Professor to get into the home during a reception.
Notice there IS a story line here as opposed to the series of knockabout scenes strung together in "Lonesome Luke's Movie Muddle." Also, the story is built around Bebe's character, and, although she doesn't have an active part in progressing the plot, she is necessary to it.
This is the same type scenario found in an October, 1918, release entitled "Why Pick On Me?" However, instead of being kept from Bebe by a stern father, he must outsmart a bigger and more muscular suitor for her affections. Once again, the plot is built around Bebe and her inaccessibility, but that's the kind of situation that Lloyd's glasses character dealt with best - overcoming overwhelming odds and exhibiting not only a quickness of body but a quickness of wit, too.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of these films is the regular close-ups of Bebe and her reactions to Harold's antics. Apparently, Lloyd learned early on that Bebe was one of the best at a variety of facial expressions - surprise, shock, laughter, pouting, etc. The viewer can't help but react to Lloyd's antics in the intended manner because we are swept along with Bebe when she laughs or pouts or cries.
Lloyd described her as "a dark, dewy, big eyed child." Biographer Tom Dardis in his 1983 Harold Lloyd, the Man on the Clock, said, "Bebe possessed an extraordinarily expressive face, her huge eyes well-suited to register the full impact of the wild antics of Harold and Snub Pollard. She was quite dark; the studios later liked to boast of her 'Castilian beauty'." He added that she was "the perfect foil for Harold, especially her shocked or quizzical 'What can you be thinking of?' expression."
It's difficult to look at these films and realize this is a 14, 15 or 16 year-old girl. Lloyd's later leading lady and wife, Mildred Davis, was demure and somewhat childlike on the screen, but not Bebe. She was always self-assured in her roles, sometimes feisty, sometimes even worldly, and much more mature than her age would lead one to believe.
The real Bebe off the screen, however, obviously retained some of the "little girlishness" one would expect in a young teenager. According to a 1918 Photoplay Journal article entitled, "She Wouldn't Be Kissed," Bebe was among a group of movie stars who were selling kisses to raise money for the Red Cross. Kisses were going for as much as $30, a not too ungenerous sum in a time when $5 a day was good pay. Bebe was among the "reserves" waiting to have her kiss bid upon when she suddenly removed herself from the proceedings, placed $40 in the collection box and left. Asked by the writer why she was leaving, Bebe replied, "Why, all those men scare me to death, bidding and crowding for kisses. I - I - wanta go home. I will give the Red Cross forty dollars for my kiss - I'd rather than sorta sell it."
It was obvious Bebe enjoyed her work. She liked movie-making and she liked working with Harold Lloyd, but from the very beginning, she had aspirations of being a serious dramatic actress. In a 1917 Photoplay Journal article, she said, "Of course I like my present work, but someday I want to do really big things. When I was a little girl, I played in a great many Shakespearean plays, and when I saw 'Viola' and 'Portia' and 'Juliet' presented in such a beautiful manner, I hoped with all my might that when I grew up, I, too, might play such parts. I've changed my mind a little since then. I wouldn't care particularly about playing in the Shakespearean roles, but I do want to play fine modern parts that require hard work. I'll never be satisfied until I do." This dream of hers was to later play a critical role in her relationship with Lloyd.
The majority of the films she made with Harold Lloyd were based at the old Bradbury Mansion on Court Street in downtown Los Angeles where Roach had large rooms in which to film and a stage constructed in the yard. However, as with most comedies of that period, location filming was the most common thing to do. "Their work together was always kind of spontaneous, unpredictable fun," Dardis said. "Each week found the Rolin Company in some new and hitherto unexplored part of the greater Los Angeles area in quest of a locale for the stories they invented as they rode around the country that was a paradise in those pre-smog, pre-freeway days." According to Bebe, the locations were critical since they were often sought out before a story line had been developed. " . . . when I worked with Harold, we never had a script. We always went on location and thought things up," she told silent film historian Anthony Slide.
Bebe was ambitious, independent and headstrong, so it was natural that she would become more of a contributing member of the team. "She began to participate actively in the discussion of her roles, often arguing with Roach and Harold. At one point she became sufficiently angry with them to refuse to appear for work," said Dardis. He quotes a memo from Roach to his business partner, Dwight Whiting, from that period which states Bebe was the only member of the company not to get a paycheck on payday as a result of refusing to perform once when there was a disagreement.
"For Lloyd, Daniels was the perfect leading lady at this time," observes D'Agostino, "for her self-confident and cool style was the ideal foil for his emerging and growing character."
"As Bebe's talents began to emerge, so, too, did her image of herself as a performer," Dardis continued. "She and Harold would often quarrel, but their genuine liking for each other would quickly overcome any bad feeling." Apparently the affection these two held for each other was far stronger any professional differences they may have had.
Although he was eight years older than she, it is well-known that a romance developed between Harold and Bebe. Their relationship, both professionally and personally, was a mutually satisfying one from the start. The two were a very popular couple around Hollywood in those days mainly due to their common love for dancing which brought them many contest trophies.
"From the time we made the three pictures at San Diego in 1915, she and I had been pretty constant companions, one of our chief bonds of interest, a mutual love for dancing," Lloyd said in his 1928 autobiography An American Comedy. "For a year or two before the war, dancing for cups was a craze in the picture colony. Bebe and I won twenty cups or more in competition against Wally and Dorothy Reid, Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery and many other movie couples at the Sunset Inn, Santa Monica; the Ship Cafe, Ocean Park; Nat Goodwin's at Venice; Watt's Tavern and such popular resorts."
A chance meeting on one of these evenings in 1917 was to mark a major turning point in both Lloyd's and Bebe's lives.
As Lloyd told it, "Bebe long had had a natural desire to graduate from comedies into dramatic pictures. About a year before she left the company, we were dancing at the Sunset Inn in Santa Monica one night. We survived the elimination contests and defeated the Reids for the cup in the finals. DeMille, his scenario writer Jeanie MacPherson, and party were there, and the director broached the question of Bebe coming to him. She said she would like nothing better, but that her contract with Roach yet had a year to run. 'I will keep you in mind,' he told her, 'and when the year is up, we will see.'"
Cecil B. DeMille recalled in his 1959 autobiography, "Still another was a young girl I had noticed, without being overwhelmingly impressed, in some of Hal Roach's comedies. But when I saw her one evening at dinner at a restaurant, it occurred to me that there might be more behind those big, dark eyes and cupid's-bow mouth than a steady diet of comedy roles had brought out. Then and there I asked Bebe Daniels if she wanted to work for me. More honorable than some in those cutthroat days, she said that she could not because she was under contract to Mr. Roach. More than a year later, however, she came to see me, all dressed up in her mother's clothes to make her look mature enough for dramatic roles, and I gave her a small part in 'Male and Female'."
There is evidence Roach wasn't too happy with DeMille's overtures toward Bebe. Following the incident, Roach's business partner, Whiting, wrote a letter to Frank Garbutt, general manager for Famous Players, complaining about DeMille's conversation with Bebe since "raiding" was prohibited by the Hollywood Producers Association. Garbutt claimed in a response to Whiting that DeMille did not know who she was, and when they did learn she was under contract to Roach, quickly informed her they could not pursue the matter further. Obviously, from what DeMille wrote in his autobiography, this is not true.
Recalling the incident fifty years later, Bebe told Slide, "Hal and Harold both said, 'This is a great opportunity for you, and we think you ought to go.' Then I said, 'I'll wait until my contract expires,' which I did, and then I called up and asked if he was still interested, and he said, 'Very much so.'"
The entire episode seems very congenial and almost antiseptic. Biographer Richard Schickel in Harold Lloyd: The Shape of Laughter (1974) expresses serious doubts that Bebe's decision to go with DeMille after her contract expired in 1919 was that simple. He notes there may be some truth to Bebe's claims of wanting to seek greater dramatic opportunities, "but it surely isn't the whole story. For one thing, Lloyd's career was obviously on the rise, and it was a strange moment for her to leave an actor with whom she was so closely associated." Bebe's last two films with Lloyd were his first two two-reelers with the glasses character, and his popularity was greater than ever. In two years, he would move into making feature films with phenomenal success.
Schickel continues, " . . . the two had been great and good friends almost from the moment she had joined the company. . . Now suddenly, there was nothing between Harold and Bebe, and a larger explanation is required."
Schickel states flatly that Bebe wanted to marry Harold. Dardis agrees, "There is some indication that she was anxious to marry him, but he felt he was far too young to shoulder the responsibilities that went with marriage." It very well could be that Lloyd was reluctant to enter into marriage until he was on the financial footing he had been seeking for years. Yes, his popularity was greater than ever, but the tremendous wealth that he would know at the time of his marriage to Mildred Davis was a few years off. Lloyd's extremely "practical" and even "tight-fisted" nature probably wouldn't allow him to make such a major step at this critical point in his life.
D'Agostino feels the love the two held for each other is evident on the screen. "Perhaps in no other film is the real life relationship between Daniels and Lloyd more evident than in 'The City Slicker' (1918). . . . Their love shows in simply the way they look at each other and the way they move together. In this, and the films that follow, the two seem genuinely affectionate toward each other. . . . In 'Count Your Change' (1919), Daniels is rescued from a thief by Lloyd, and the two share kisses and chocolates in the last few feet of film. If one had any doubt about their off screen love, watch this film. The way Lloyd 'bites' Daniels' arm is downright titillating." She continues, "The off screen love positively shone on screen, and their 'lovemaking' seems more natural and realistic than similar scenes between Lloyd and Davis or Lloyd and Ralston."
Schickel says that part of the problem was because Lloyd was too much like his screen character. "The trouble was that Lloyd, like his screen character, was quite insecure around women - at least at this time. He behaved toward Bebe as he behaved toward everyone else who was important then in his life - ingratiatingly."
Dardis observes, "It seems probably that, despite his tremendous fondness for her, Bebe posed a kind of threat to him; here as a young woman of only eighteen and fully developed career plans of her own. This was scarcely what Harold wanted. There was also his timidity in making major decisions. His ambivalence toward Bebe Daniels can be seen as characteristic of his reluctance to make up his mind about things, a need to postpone a decision until he had examined the problem in all aspects, a process that Bebe must have found difficult."
Most likely, Bebe wasn't as concerned about honoring a contract in 1917 (especially if Lloyd and Roach encouraged her to go as she claimed) as she was about her relationship with Lloyd. Maybe she was still holding out hope that they would marry. She certainly could have felt at that time that it was too early yet to give up on their love
However, by the time 1919 rolled around, the contract was up and, it can be safely assumed, Bebe was ready to throw in the towel on getting a lifetime commitment from her leading man. It's obvious, especially from the earlier magazine interview, that Bebe's desire to be a dramatic actress was genuine, but one can't help but wonder how her acting career would have differed had she married Lloyd.
Bebe always looked back on those days early days with fond memories. She was hired at $10 a week, and was earning $100 a week by the time she was 18 years old, so it was a financially rewarding time as well as personally and professionally. She credited Lloyd, Roach and the whole experience with providing her the training she needed to move on in her career. "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.
Over 50 years after Bebe left Lloyd, he was in London and paid her and husband Ben Lyon a visit for the very last time. They had a pleasant time together reminiscing about those early days in movies . . . and even though it had been 50 years since "The Boy" and "The Girl" had kissed or the young couple had gone out on the town for an evening of dancing, Lloyd was still wearing a ring she had given him during those carefree days together, and she still had all the trophies they had won in their dance contests.
copyright 1999 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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