August 4, 2015
Bebe Daniels was a born performer. She debuted on film at the age of nine as Dorothy Gale in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910, a Selig Polyscope short), and went on to a long and varied career, from co-starring in Harold Lloyd comedy shorts to headlining Cecil B. Demille bodice rippers, before settling in England as a popular radio personality. In 1928 she was in the middle of an interesting run at Paramount/Famous Players Lasky, making subversive comedies in which she was taking on traditionally male roles (as Fritzi Kramer has noted at Movies Silently). She was the lead in Miss Brewster’s Millions (1926), re-booting the George Barr McCutcheon novel with a female lead, a Zorro-figure in Senorita (1927), and takes on a Valentino-esque persona in She’s a Sheik (1927). In 1928 the cast of She’s a Sheik (Daniels, Richard Arlen, and William Powell) was brought back together for Feel My Pulse (1928), a madcap hypochondriac comedy directed by the up and coming Gregory La Cava. La Cava was a cartoonist who was hired by William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service to oversee their animations. After that business went kaput, he entered live action two-reelers and features, finally making his way to Bebe Daniels and Feel My Pulse. Anthology Film Archives recently screened a beautiful print preserved by the Library of Congress, which is 63 minutes of gags, a showcase for Daniels’ effervescent personality and La Cava’s comic strip punchlines.
The story is prime nonsense. Barbara Manning (Daniels) is the heir to a family fortune, but her late, wildly eccentric father stipulated in his will that she be kept in a germ-free environment until she was 21. Her mild-mannered Uncle Edgar (George Irving) is to watch over her until that day. As the movie begins, Barbara could be knocked over by a feather, constantly ministered to by a flock of nurses. At the slightest cough she needs to lubricate her larynx with various tonics. But the destined birthday is around the corner, at which point her Texan Uncle Wilberforce (Melbourne MacDowell) is to take over the guardianship. Wilberforce is a cigar chomping Yosemite Sam type who tries to shock Barbara out of her passivity by shooting off his revolver into the ceiling. In order to escape this uncouth germ carrier, Barbara decides to decamp to an island sanitarium that is to be part of her inheritance. But the nuthouse has been taken over by a gang of rum runners led by Todd (William Powell) and his new protege Wallace Roberts (Richard Arlen). They spend their days battling hijackers and shuffling casks of booze in and out of the former rest home. Wanting to keep their operation a secret from Barbara, they pretend to be running the sanitarium, with Todd the head doctor and the other gang members acting as patients. The absurdities build up as they desperately keep their illegal secret, and as Barbara hides out from her Uncle.
The basic setup for Daniels’ performance is that Barbara believes herself to be a delicate flower, when in reality she has a physical prowess that reveals itself in moments of high stress. When Wilberforce shoots off his revolvers, she leaps to the ground with alacrity, and when her medicines fall out of a speeding car, she hurls herself down to the road and chases after them with the spring of an Olympic vaulter. She doesn’t know the power of her own body, or how to relate to the world outside. Most of the gags are built off of her alienation from the world. She doesn’t know how cars work, and drinks rum as if it were a new healing tonic. One of the funniest bits involves her sitting with an old drunk, trading belts of hooch, while they mangle the lyrics to “Sweet Adeline” (i.e. “You are the hower of my flart”).
While at first Todd seems like a lovable kind of criminal, he reveals himself to be a ruthless and abusive operator. William Powell, in a fetching curly moptop and bushy ‘stache, uses his natural charisma to hide the grim calculus going on inside his head. On one late night, under the ruse of a regular checkup of Barbara’s health, he proves himself to be a predator, Powell raising his lips to reveal his incisors in a vulture-like grin. Barbara has not yet recognized her own physical strength, so she lets Wallace bail her out of that threatening situation. Wallace is the sympathetic rum runner, with a gentle All-American corn-fed handsomeness (he has a Tom Brady thing going on).
The film builds to a fever pitch when hijackers attack the sanitarium just as Barbara realizes the truth about her hosts. An enormous brawl of non-stop pratfalls erupts, as if the Keystone Kops were drafted into Upstate New York bootlegging wars. It is here, finally, where the body and mind of Barbara align, and she begins to realize her own power. In the aftermath of the fight, Barbara is being chased by the remnants of Todd’s gang, whereupon she flips out. Her body turns into a weapon, a flailing, whirling dervish of pain that knocks out the entire rum gang. She knocks them out with their own barrels of booze, as well as a handy bottle of chloroform she finds on a shelf. In the most brilliant gag in the film, she smashes the chloroform on Todd’s head, and La Cava uses extreme slow-motion to represent the gang’s slow descent into oblivion. It is so slow that is acts as an analytic breakdown of a pratfall, as each man collapses in a ballet of unconsciousness. One man does a header towards the camera, while Powell does a controlled, slow slide down, suave even while blacked out.
Barbara’s Uncles then come rumbling up the stairs with some cops, only to encounter Barbara’s still roiling defense mechanisms. After she has expended her energies smashing a few officers, the film gets down to business of wrapping up the Barbara-Wallace romance and send the audience home happy (which I most certainly was). What would make me happier was greater access to Bebe Daniels’ silents. Also in 1928 she acted in The Fifty-Fifty Girl, which the New York Times wrote involved a man and woman jointly owning a mine, and as “Kathleen has ideas about the equality of woman with man, so our two friends make an agreement that she is to do the leading, he is to follow with all ‘the courtesies’ ordinarily given to the fairer sex.” Though this feature is said to end with the man regaining control, Bebe Daniels is clearly cultivating an image of New Womanhood in this period, testing boundaries before bowing to the conventions of the period. Along with Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks, Daniels was redefining the image of women onscreen in the 1920s.