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Miss Lulu Bett (1921)

CRUMBLIES… 5 crumblies

Damn me, if Silent Steve didn’t find a gem from yesteryear for this Sunday’s God-do-I-have-to-watch-this-athon. It’s the story of a young spinster in an American home, treated like dirt by her mother, sister and brother-in-law. She catches some luck and marries, then unhappy plot-points come to ruin her life, and then….! It’s just over an hour-long, silent, just shy of 100 years old and really rather absorbing. Are there lessons for those of us in middle and old age? Run a kind home. Don’t be a shit to the spinster kid. Respect Miss Lulu Bett.

Oh – and here’s a thing. The acting under William C. de Mille‘s direction is borderline natural. Okay, there’s a fair amount of mime, but nothing like as intrusively as earlier in the century. There are moments – at least in the print old Jack and Silent Steve watched – where you can forget how old the thing is, look in the whites of their eyes and enjoy subtleties in the growing art of film acting. And by that I mean the looking sullen.

Lois Wilson (as Lulu Bett) does sullen very well. As the spinster of the family, she lives in the kitchen: prepping the meals, doing the washing up  (which turns out to be an eternal thing, kids) and generally skivvying as a woman “caught in the toils of the commonplace” (says the first title card). Her days are wretched, and certainly not helped by the rest of the family…

Master of the house is J.P., dentist and pantomimic blusterer Theodore Roberts (as Dwight Deacon). Locked into his prejudices, he forces them on his daughters, the slappably pugnacious Mae Giraci as Monona (really) and the stylishly love-hungry Helen Ferguson as Diana. Roberts is gloriously old-fart-in-charge at the table and I rather loved him for it. His patriarch is funny, familiar and guaranteed to lose at some point in his life – that’s how senior fatherhood works, folks. His home is gloriously middle-class and early scenes at the dining-room table feel like the earliest sitcom available. Incidentally, Roberts was hugely popular, often called the “Grand Duke of Hollywood”. He only had seven years left to him when Miss Lulu Bett was made, but spent them in the employ of the de Milles – not least as Moses in 1923’s The Ten Commandments.

Roberts has a go at Lulu Bett for buying flowers (he gets his hopes up that the spinster has a suitor). She has only just moaned to her less-than-pleasant mum about what a tosser the first Duke of Hollywood has been, when Milton Sills turns up. He plays Neil Cornish, the local teacher: the erotic crackle between the two is subtly played. Oh yes. Sills developed a ton of lady fans as his career progressed, here looking tall, handsome and stylish against Wilson’s sad Lulu. He notices her, she gets nervous…but he’s only there to ask her to do the cooking at a school event…

I know! Old Jack here was rather pulled in by the small scene between the two of them. Wilson and Sills showed a world of emotions – longing, hope and disappointment – with a few scant moments of very modern acting. She clutches cutlery throughout with squeezy hands…

Then it all goes awry. A distant Deacon cousin returns from world-wide travels just as Wilson’s Lulu has undone her hair and set off old Jack’s beautiful girl tracker 97 years too late. Unbelievably, they accidentally marry at a meal out (be careful what you pretend to do for fun in front of a J.P. in half the old states of America…). Lulu’s just getting into the idea (and the old family are bitterly regretting the loss of their skivvy) when husband Ninian (Clarence Burton) remembers he may already be married…

Cue abandonment. And shame. And more domestic woes for old Dwightie as older daughter tries to elope…

I know – fun!

Look, give it a go. I really enjoyed Miss Lulu Bett. You’ve had enough of the plot. The performances – as I said – are well on the way to modern. There are a ton of small pantomime moments, but they are honestly funny. Monona (really) is told to take her hands off the piano, which she does but manages to keep on playing to piss off her Dad. Theodore Roberts, all cigared up and angry at the noise, gives good patriarch as he throws her out of the living room. Ferguson and her beau (the nervously smooth Taylor Graves as Bobby Larkin) are good value as frustrated lovers. They have some minutes of comedy indecision at a railway station that had Silent Steve crying with laughter. Sills and Wilson are terrific…their destiny pretty much inevitable. But best of all is Theodore Roberts, earning his real-life wealth as the Dad-pushed-too-far by his household of women…

Is it sexist? Yeah, probably, but it’s illuminating of the prejudices of its time – and great fun. It also, through the character comedy and army of people irritating Dwight, shows that the big changes in our societies (the vote, the feminism, the #metoo) have always come second to the personal politics of our homes. And, in most homes, women and men are a team.

It’s on Classic Films on the AppleTV and in various states of quality on the YouTube. Jump on in and wish a happy life, like Silent Steve and old Jack did, for Miss Lulu Bett and her beau.

Eye-liner be damned.





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