Classic film fans who are curious enough about early Hollywood history to look beyond familiar stars like Clara Bow or Louise Brooks and seek more obscure personalities might be amazed by how many there were. Dozens of actors and actresses are forgotten today, but were once familiar sights in theaters across the nation. They were beloved by fans and left their own unique marks on pop culture–sometimes in careers that spanned decades. Take Bebe Daniels, for instance.
Once mentioned in the same breath as Gloria Swanson and Colleen Moore, the charming, vivacious Bebe is now known only by the most devoted silent film fans. Historian Charles Epting is working hard to rectify that with his tightly researched, highly professional new biography Bebe Daniels: Hollywood’s Good Little Bad Girl.
A down-to-earth woman who had an endearing air of innocence about her, Bebe’s life was virtually scandal-free. Unlike some stars who left scads of hearts and careers in their wake while they fought their way to the top, Bebe’s star rose gracefully. On the stage from an early age, she was a hardworking gal and appeared in dozens of shorts before becoming a bona fide headliner. While she’s perhaps best remembered for her roles in DeMille’s glitzy society dramas and for supporting Harold Lloyd in his early comedy shorts, 1920s audiences also knew her as the “Good Little Bad Girl”–a good-hearted but impetuous young women getting into whirlwind adventures. Her films had titles like She Couldn’t Help It and The Speed Girl.
Living up to these films’ titles, one of the most amusing stories about Bebe involves her ten-day jail sentence for speeding. It turned into the best publicity stunt a studio could ask for, with Bebe being serenaded by local orchestras while she peered out from the bars of her jail cell (attractively decorated with Persian rugs and fine furniture by a local proprietor) and being allowed to receive up to 50 visitors a day. The public regarded it as a lark, just the sort of scrape their Good Little Bad Girl would get into. (After nine comfortable days, Bebe was released early “for good behavior.”)
Her romance and enduring friendship with Harold Lloyd is covered in a classy, clear-eyed manner by the author. She had several rumored engagements with Hollywood professionals like Michael Arlen, Charley Paddock, and Jack Pickford, but she would go on to have a long and happy marriage with Ben Lyon.
She would make a smooth transition to radio and television–giving her one of the longest and most varied careers in show business–and find a second home in England. She was especially noted for her courageous work during WWII. In their radio program called Stars and Stripes in Britain, Bebe and Ben worked long hours interviewing nurses, surgeons, and the armed forces, capturing their stories and helping to build morale. And amazingly, Bebe was the first female civilian to visit the beaches of Normandy after D-Day, interviewing wounded Americans on the front lines.
Epting, the editor-in-chief of the new Silent Film Quarterly magazine, is in his early 20s but you’d never guess it from reading Bebe Daniels: Hollywood’s Good Little Bad Girl–it sounds like “the latest” from an historian with many years of experience under his belt. His research is meticulous, and he tirelessly peels away layers of rumor and family lore to find the true details of Bebe’s life. (One notable rumor he tackles is the idea that Bebe was in the 1910 film version of The Wizard of Oz.) His affection for this fine forgotten actress is clear, as is his care to present her legacy with as much thoroughness as possible. If this is what Epting can accomplish fresh out of college, I eagerly look forward to what future decades bring.
The excellent Bebe Daniels: Hollywood’s Good Little Bad Girl is available from McFarland. Their order line is 800-253-2187.