Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Milton Sills: “Miss Lulu Bett” and the New Woman

It’s not flashy and it’s not famous but Miss Lulu Bett is one of the best dramas of the silent era. Directed by William deMille (Cecil’s big brother), it tells the tale of a woman throwing off the gloomy shackles of Victorianism and making her own way in the modern world. It’s subtle, it’s smart and its gentle humor always hits its target.

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Adorkable Dates of the Silent Era: Milton and Lois. Animated GIF

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Silent movie lovers were not all smoldering Valentinos or passionate John Gilberts. No, quite a few silent movie romances are adorably awkward. Take the central romance of Miss Lulu Bett as an example. Lois Wilson is the heroine, newly emboldened and emancipated by the failure of her marriage. Milton Sills is the local school teacher who has always fancied her but never had the gumption to ask her out. Well, he finally did. This is the result. Due to her circumstances, Lulu can’t get out of doing the dishes even when she has a date. So he helps. Awww!

I hesitate to call the film underrated since just about every film book and website that mentions it gives it rave reviews. It just doesn’t get talked about very much and that’s a crying shame. It’s smart, funny, feminist and contains some first-rate acting.

(You can read my full review here.)

Availability: Miss Lulu Bett was released as a companion to the delightful Why Change Your Wife on DVD and is available solo via streaming.

Silent Movie Trivia #11: Miss Lulu Bett (1921)

Click to view in lightbox.
Click to view in lightbox.

Now we are going to have some trivia from one of my favorite silent sleepers. Miss Lulu Bett is a powerful little drama about gender, women’s liberation and the changes in society that rocked the twenties. It’s held together by a sensitive performance from Lois Wilson, considerable blustering from the venerable ham Theodore Roberts and a likable turn from Milton Sills as the schoolteacher who falls for our heroine.

If this sounds a little dull, let me assure you that the film has heart and humor to spare. It’s the story of a young woman who strikes out to make her own happiness and succeeds. Good stuff and it would have been crowd-pleasing Oscar bait if Oscars had been a thing in 1921.

(You can read my review here.)

Availability: Miss Lulu Bett is available on DVD and via streaming as a companion to Why Change Your Wife? William de Mille directed the former, little brother Cecil directed the latter. Both are wonderful in their own way.

Lost Film Files #10: Alias the Lone Wolf (1927)

Status: Two reels (out of the original seven) exist in the UCLA Archives on 16mm. No other prints are currently known to exist.

Based on the popular Lone Wolf novels by Michael Lanyard, this was the third of five films in which the title character would be played by Bert Lytell. Other notable actors who tried their hand at the Lone Wolf were Henry B. Walthall, Jack Holt, Thomas Meighan and Melvyn Douglas. Many of the original novels are in the public domain and can be downloaded from your online archive of choice.

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I’m not going to lie, I got interested in this film due to the fabulous ad campaign surrounding it. The fact that it co-stars Lois Wilson (one of the best and most underused actresses of the silent era) was the icing on the cake.

Reviews were positive. Motion Picture World wrote:

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Those who like a real good mystery-crook melodrama — and most folks do — will not be disappointed in this offering from Columbia. Their previous picture along these lines, “The Lone Wolf Returns” made a decided hit with the fans, and this companion production should prove to be just as much of a winner. The story is another of Louis Joseph Vance’s — and that gentleman’s reputation speaks for itself. Edward H. Griffith, director, has done a neat piece of work, while that of the featured players, Bert Lytell and Lois Wilson, also ring true; in fact, the entire cast is particularly good.

The story opens aboard an ocean liner en route from Europe to America. Among the passengers are, the “Lone Wolf,” a supposed crook, two others of the underworld and a French mademoiselle. The latter, with true feminine disregard for any law which does not suit the occasion (editor’s note: I beg your pardon?!?! So men never disregard laws? I want to reach through the page and shake this creep!), is inclined to smuggle some family jewels in order to raise money for a brother charged with embezzlement. And so a clever game starts between the “Wolf” and the other crooks to gain possession of the jewels — which finally reach New York. In the City, further attempts are made by the gang to gain the necklace, and in the meantime romance develops between the girl and “The Lone Wolf.”

The New York Tribune singled out the actors for praise:

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Lois Wilson looks extremely pretty, and she plays with her usual sincerity. Bert Lytell is the wisest choice we can think of for the Lone Wolf.

The genteel crime picture of the early twentieth century is a refreshing change of pace from serial-killer-of-the-week television shows and graphic police procedurals. Here’s hoping that Alias the Lone Wolf is in an attic, an archive, a private collection waiting to be rediscovered.

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Lost Film Files #5: The Great Gatsby (1926)

Status: Missing and presumed lost except for the fragments found in the film’s trailer.

This is the very first film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, filmed a mere four years after it was written. No need to make this a costume picture. The twenties were roaring away as the cameras cranked.

1926 was a banner year for silent film and The Great Gatsby, while praised, seems to have been a bit lost in the shuffle of Beau Geste, Old Ironside, What Price Glory, Night of Love, Flesh and the Devil… 

Here are some vintage reviews:

Photoplay particularly praised Lois Wilson as Daisy Buchanan.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the great war’s aftermath presented unusual film difficulties. Herbert Brenon, the director, has managed to retain much of the feeling of the story. Gatsby comes out of the war to achieve a fortune unscrupulously. He falls, of course, in the end, finding that happiness can’t be won that way. Lois Wilson runs away with the film as the jazzy Daisy Buchanan who flashes cocktails and silken you-know-she-wears-’ems.

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The distributor magazine Motion Picture News had this to say:

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Every good job has been done by this picture — an adaptation of the novel and play. It offered material which necessitated the intelligent handling of characterization so as to keep its spirit intact. In other winds, it depended upon the director emphasizing the central figure as he was emphasized in the novel and play to approach a “nearly perfect gentleman.” This Herbert Brenon has done and so well has Warner Baxter responded that his performance is quite the best of his career and one of the best of the season.

A tragic figure is Gatsby, a product of the gutter who comes up in the world and tries to assume the culture which only goes with long-established generations of ancestry. The manner in which Brenon works is in showing the mute pride and helplessness of the man in attempting to “belong.” Of course, Baxter has his work cut out for him, too.

It’s a sophisticated story, told with first-rate lights and shadows. The spirit of the original is there with plenty to spare. It has its dramatic moments, its romantic scenes, its contrasts and conflicts. And it is splendidly acted by every member of the cast, including Lois Wilson, Neil Hamilton, William Powell, Hale Hamilton, and Georgia Hale.

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You read that cast right. William Powell, Lois Wilson, Georgia Hale…

The New York Times felt that something was missing from the final product:

The screen version of “The Great Gatsby” is quite a good entertainment, but at the same time it is obvious that it would have benefited by more imaginative direction. Although Mr. Brenon has included the tragic note at the end, he has succumbed to a number of ordinary movie flashes without inculcating much in the way of subtlety. Neither he nor the players have succeeded in fully developing the characters.

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Zelda Fitzgerald was even less happy with the film (she and her husband walked out):

“We saw ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the movies. It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

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Unfortunately, we will never be able to judge for ourselves. The Great Gatsby is one of the more sought-after lost films of the silent era. It is a shame that it is gone since it would have provided a unique perspective on the novel, as played by the men and women who made up that Lost Generation.