To the extent that motion pictures have always glutted us with visions of loveliness, Bebe Daniels was kind of ordinary. I’m not referring of course to her early years, when Daniels ranked with Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri as exalted commodities at Paramount. That was an altogether different incarnation, her silent screen persona based in large measure on “exotic” beauty—milky skin handed down from a Scottish father and a head of raven hair from a Spanish mother.
Daniels had a little age on her when I caught my first happy glimpse.
Well, "age"—a mere 29 in 1930's Alias French Gertie, by which time Hollywood’s corner on the beauty market had already begun mercilessly snapping at her heels. Those immense dark eyes of hers, a lively part of the overall equipment, could still flash. Only now they were being called upon to communicate more subtle (and more bitter) emotions, tending towards an aesthetic ushered in by the All Talking Picture. That quality of sameness implied by “early Sound” was actually generic dynamite, highly unstable, far more dangerous than is often supposed even now. As the titular “Gertie,” Daniels gives voice to a new cine-poetics, exploding with huge gales of abuse at real-life husband Ben Lyon, amid which the dime-a-dozen “gazabo” resounds. Great Depression razzmatazz for “guy,” it causes the whole movie palace to shimmy a little—a period-appropriate spasm and lots more to come.
Rumblings were basic, a cinema of opportunistic body blows essential. I’m not only thinking of popular lingo flowing into the cracks caused by the Vitaphone’s advent—my reason for feeling so skittish before Bebe Daniels or, say, Renee Whitney, whose career was mainly comprised of un-credited roles and bit parts, is the apparent lightness of the poetry they spoke. When Whitney says “Every time I get a finger-wave I find a cop in my hair” in I’ve Got Your Number (1934), her blithe little bauble contains worlds upon worlds of cynicism; it’s precisely because the line is so “casual” that it means so damn much. Rapidly decaying monuments to art, the Silents were finding themselves displaced and exiled by truly popular sentiment—cheapies, whose sex and slang carried the potential for ruptures, zigzags and general “mishigas.” These weren’t screen goddesses tearing at your soul but tootsies and chorines chasing money, always poised with gab or a gat.
Not exactly fictional threats of course, since financial collapse and talkies coincide, both conferring on every citizen the right to “yentz” for “mazuma”… our national license to “chisel”…to steal, lie or cheat in the struggle to survive Great Depression economics. Thank heavens for the Catholic Church, which was there, Johnny-on-the-spot, with nifty (enforceable) mores—the Code—asserting a little-known power to abolish “low taste.” Jews, political heterodoxy, poverty… Anything at all deemed “tasteless”… Poof!
Part of our on-going series Depression Lessons.