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.

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

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.

Fun Size Review: Adam’s Rib (1923)

So. Stinkin'. Cute!

Cecil B. DeMille heads back to the bedroom in this romantic comedy. Anna Q. Nilsson is stepping out on her husband, Milton Sills. Meanwhile, their flapper daughter is in hot pursuit of a bespectacled paleontologist who just wants to be left to his dinosaur bones (and who, she remarks, is very good looking without his glasses). Hmm, that sounds familiar… (Would it come as a surprise if I said Howard Hawks worked for DeMille?) An uneven affair, especially in the third act, but good actors save the day.

Oh, and no relation to the Tracy-Hepburn vehicle of the same name.

(You can read my full-length review here.)

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[toggler title=”How does it end? (click here for a spoiler)” ]Nilsson sees the error of her ways and returns to her delighted husband. The flapper nearly loses her nerd when he thinks that SHE is the one having the affair but things get sorted out. Love wins all ’round.[/toggler]

If it were a dessert it would be:

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Guinness Floats. Variation on a theme. After a few viewings, it beginsh to look real shwell, shee? (hic!)

Availability: After years of languishing in obscurity, it was finally released on DVD.

Milton who? In praise of Mighty Milton Sills, Animated GIFs

After I posted my Silent Movie Star personality quiz, the #1 question I received was this: Who is Milton Sills? You can read my mini biography of Sills but I think that in order to appreciate him, you need to see him in action. This means GIFs! We shall start with some selections from his biggest hit (and my favorite of his films) The Sea Hawk.

A few things to know about Milton. First, never call him a pirate (even if he totally is one).

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Second, he does not mess around. In the course of the film, he is both a privateer for Queen Elizabeth and a captain of the Barbary pirates. Our boy gets around. Plus, he can really rock a pair of chandelier earrings.

Dirty Neck Sea Hawk Animated GIF Milton Sills, Frank Lloyd directs

(You can read my gushing review of The Sea Hawk here.)

And, if you wish to see him sans turbaned helmet and trunk hose, here he is in Adam’s Rib. Smirk!

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(You can read my review of Adam’s Rib here.)

If you have never seen or heard of Milton Sills but you like a little brain with your brawn, he is the fella for you.

Recommended

Silly mortal. Milton Sills smirks at you. Smirks! Animated GIF

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Milton Sills is feeling pretty confident in Adam’s Rib. Who wouldn’t be? He is about to ship his kingly romantic rival back to his revolution-prone Balkan homeland. Nothing says victory like getting your wife’s boyfriend killed by Bolsheviks. (Of course, since the rival is played by the incredibly annoying Theodore Kosloff, you will not find many objections from me.)

How does Milton accomplish this coup? Through a corner in wheat, of course! If D.W. Griffith were directing, Mr. Sills would probably end up downing in his own grain. (And the wife would have been played by Carol Dempster. We dodged a bullet!) However, the movie was directed by Cecil B. DeMille so we get caveman flashbacks and some rather daring costumes. Hurrah!

By the way, Milton Sills was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a.k.a. the guys that put on the Oscars.

Recommended

To the bar, sourdoughs! Charge! (or, that Professor Sills sure knows how to party) Animated GIF

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This one’s from the 1928 Alaskan drama Burning Daylight. Leading man Milton Sills was noted for playing rugged parts and for being Hollywood’s resident brainiac. A college professor before catching the acting bug, Mighty Milton would surely have been popular with his students if this is how he acted in class.

Sills was the go-to guy for Jack London stories, it seems. He also had the title role in the early talkie version of The Sea Wolf. His predecessor as London Hero Supreme was the burly Hobart Bosworth, who secured exclusive rights to adapt London’s stories to the silver screen. (Check out my article on his 1913 version of The Sea Wolf.)

Both Bosworth and Sills are unjustly neglected but I am doing my very best to change that.

Recommended

Curse you, beaded 1920s dresses, for ruining her fling! Animated GIF

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In the 1923 marital comedy, Adam’s Rib, Anna Q. Nilsson is trying to step out on Milton Sills with Theodore Kosloff (for goodness sake, why?) but she has been given away when a string of beading catches on his tuxedo. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Twenties fashion was beaded, feathered, embroidered, laced and fringed but such finery did make illicit embraces rather risky.

That being said, Anna is just gorgeous in this film and I would kill to own any of the dresses she wears in it.

Availability

Released on DVD-R by Grapevine and available for purchase in the U.S.

Adam’s Rib (1923) A Silent Film Review

Cecil B. DeMille takes another stab at the domestic comedy– this time with cavemen thrown in for good measure. The tale concerns married couple on the shady side of thirty. Their union seems doomed when the wife starts stepping out with an exiled aristocrat. The couple’s teenage daughter, a modern maiden, has other ideas and she intends to save her save the marriage at any cost– all while romancing a stuffy paleontologist.
Continue reading “Adam’s Rib (1923) A Silent Film Review”

Lost Film Files #23: Burning Sands (1922)

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Burning Sands (1922)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

Another day, another sheik film. It seems that even my beloved Milton Sills was not spared the indignity of appearing in one of these things. Burning Sands was billed as “The Sheik for men” and shared both director and filming locations with its predecessor.

(To tell the truth, these overblown desert romances are my guilty pleasure. They’re dreadful but I can’t seem to get enough!)

Oh, Milton, Milton, Milton, what have you gotten yourself into?
Oh, Milton, Milton, Milton, what have you gotten yourself into?

Mr. Sills was supported by two DeMille actresses: Wanda Hawley (a DeMille discovery best remembered today for her major role in The Affairs of Anatol) and Jacqueline Logan (who was Mary Magdalene in King of Kings). The talented Louise Dresser is also on hand as the genial best friend-type.

Much was made of the movie’s Oxnard filming location.

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Motion Picture Magazine acted as though Oxnard was on par with camping in the Sahara. I actually rather like Oxnard and I have to say that I would infinitely prefer camping there to pitching a tent in the Sahara.

Well, warm sands anyway. (click to enlarge)
Well, warm sands anyway. (click to enlarge)

But how did the movie fare once the critics got their paws on it? Not too well, I’m afraid.

Photoplay kept things short and not-so-sweet:

In other words, hot dirt! Of “The Sheik” school, and made by the same director — George Melford — who started the fashion in desert love, hate and passion. The cast is fairly good — Jacqueline Logan, Wanda Hawley, Milton Sills — and the sets have the east of Suez look. But audiences arc beginning to tire of a conventional story in the midst of tribal feuds and sand storms and camels — especially camels!

Hey! What did camels ever do to them?

An embrace or the Heimlich gone wrong? You decide!
An embrace or the Heimlich gone wrong? You decide!

Motion Picture Magazine was less succinct but equally dismissive:

burning-sands-1922-milton-sills-09It’s the same old story of the desert with its caravan and the exiled English- man which confronts the spectator in “Burning Sands.” There is no variation in this formula which, now that Valentino has made it popular, is brought forth from its cubby-hole in the filing cabinet marked “B.” The Valentinoritas will miss their favorite here. In his place is Milton Sills trying to appear as convincing as possible under the burden of carrying on the heroic virtues. He is awfully manly, is Milton here — a figure too good to be true. Would you know the plot? Well the spoiled darling of society is charmed by the Englishman’s colorful tan and wardrobe. Being so far away from Hyde Park she has time to realize that the time and the place are in order when one is looking for romance. There is no story interest because the idea is too trite and the development brings forth all its stupidity. George Melford directed the picture. He also directed “The Sheik.” Therefore his sands, palm trees, caravans et al. are entirely appropriate. It’s a favorite recipe — this story. Consequently it will be produced ’til the sands of the desert grow cold.

I don’t know… It actually sounds like an amazing kitsch-fest to me. And I am always up for Milton Sills doing manly things in a manly fashion, manly man that he is.

For men!
For men!

Researching the film led me on a little tangent that I would like to share:

Wanda Hawley, the leading lady of the picture, is quite a fascinating and elusive figure. She enjoyed some measure of popularity in the late ‘teens and early twenties but had no screen credits past 1932. Predictably, her IMDB profile states that her career ended with the coming of sound. Since I find that these statements are almost always incorrect, I decided to do a little digging.

Whatever happened to Wanda Hawley?
Whatever happened to Wanda Hawley?

Miss Hawley did indeed work steadily through 1926, only made one film 1927 and one in 1929. On the surface it looks like sound is the culprit but not so fast! Take a closer look at her screen credits and you will see that she was employed with Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount until 1923. From that year forward, she jumped from studio to studio. By the mid-twenties, she was appearing in poverty row productions. Oh, and that pivotal year of 1927? It’s important to remember that the film that brought on the talkie revolution, The Jazz Singer, was not released until early October of that year. That leaves three-quarters of the year when silents reigned supreme. Anyway, Wanda’s 1927 release was actually filmed in 1926.

So, talkies were not the culprit. What was?

Marketing material for Burning Sands featured Miss Hawley prominently. Here is the tie-in sheet music.
Marketing material for Burning Sands featured Miss Hawley prominently. Here is the tie-in sheet music.

Well, I did a little detective work. Miss Hawley was barely mentioned in fan magazines after she left Paramount. At first, I thought she may have been pushed out but that was not the case. Wanda was apparently tired of playing adorable ditzes and felt that she had a chance at better roles if she struck out on her own. This change of employment coincided with her divorce from Allen Burton Hawley. Mr. Hawley claimed that he would “astound the movie fans of America” with his revelations about his wife.

Wanda also took work with foreign studios during this period, including another sheik film shot in Cairo. There is a small item on her Egyptian working vacation in 1923:

How many different nationalities and races can we offend with one clipping? Let's find out!
How many different nationalities and races can we offend with one clipping? Let’s find out!

Bashing your host country? Charming. (That is, if she wrote this little quip herself. One always wonders with fan magazines.)

She appears in an ad or two and is listed in film casts but is pretty well ignored by the press. Some loyal readers of Photoplay noticed this and called attention to it:

Wanda's fan is also an outspoken Valentino hater.
Wanda’s fan is also an outspoken Valentino hater.

Then I came across this item in a 1924 issue of Photoplay:

Wanda before and after.
Wanda before and after.

Weight issues are not the sole province of modern actress. Silent leading ladies were also judged by the numbers on the scale. However, our silent starlet lost the weight and looked svelte.

On to 1925! Where is Wanda? Still mentioned as “appearing in” but definitely not getting the star treatment. Then I found a little offhand mention in the gossip department by Cal York. It seems that while at Paramount Miss Hawley had put on airs and annoyed at least one reporter.

Wanda was not well liked by Mr. York, methinks.
Wanda was not well liked by Mr. York, methinks.

Wanda Hawley annoyed this gentleman of the press, it seems. Of course, one must take this opinion with a grain of salt as Mr. York mentions Mary Miles Minter’s faltering career in the same breath. And we all know that the cause MMM’s downfall was considerably more dramatic than simply acting the duchess. However, this description of Wanda was echoed by her niece, who was interviewed by Michael G. Ankerich for his book Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels.

By 1927, Wanda Hawley’s career was being described in the past tense. Her saccharine comedies were blamed but the semi-scandalous divorce could not have helped her case.

Wanda Hawley, Movie Star is no more.
Wanda Hawley, Movie Star is no more.

It is important to remember that movie careers moved much faster in the silent era. Performers could potentially put out dozens of films in a single year and my estimate is that most mid-level stars would release between four and ten pictures a year. Big stars had the luxury of giving their productions more time but contract players like Wanda Hawley had very little control over their own destiny. With so many films in production at once… Well, downfalls were sped up too. A star may be popular but a few bombs in a row and they would be shown the door.

Wanda's career did not survive the rampant silliness.
Wanda’s career did not survive the rampant silliness.

Sound had nothing to do with Wanda Hawley’s fading career. Her story is all too typical. She was popular but a combination of ill-chosen vehicles and lack of a long-term contract (after leaving Paramount) doomed her prospects. Tastes changed and Wanda Hawley was last week’s flavor.

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The combination of minor scandal, poor career decisions and a difficult personality were enough to bring down this star. Sound was merely the final nail in the coffin.

With that mystery out of the way, let us move on to happier topics.

I have a very special treat for you. Motion Picture Magazine adapted Burning Sands into a short story and I am presenting it to you in its entirety! Warm sun and purple prose.

(The story was published in 1922 and is not politically correct. At all. You have been warned.)

Here is Burning Sands the song to listen to while you enjoy the tale.

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Out of music? Here is another guilty pleasure of mine: Ketelby. This is his ode to the Nile river.

Back to the story!

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The kitsch is almost too much for Milton! Look at his expression(click to enlarge)
The kitsch is almost too much for Milton! Look at his expression (click to enlarge)
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Oh my! Invoking deities at the end was a master stroke of awfulness. But my main question is where can I find people to feed me grapes? I love grapes. Must one go to the Sahara to hire such workers? Let’s hope someone recovers the film so we can learn the answer!

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Oh, and in case you are interested, the original novel is in the public domain and may be freely downloaded. Or you can snag a hard copy from 1922, complete with scenes from the movie!

Gallery

Fun Size Review: The Sea Hawk (1924)

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The New World doesn’t have a monopoly on piracy, as this film shows. Starts out as an Elizabethan romance and then takes a wild turn toward Algeria and the Barbary pirates. Milton Sills owns the hyper-masculine lead role, Wallace Beery chews scenery as an unscrupulous skipper and Enid Bennett is the charming leading lady. Full-size ships, battles and duels make this film epic in every sense of the word.

If it were a dessert it would be:

(via Sweetapolita)

Neapolitan 5-Layer Cake. Distinct layers combine into an elegant and harmonious whole.

Read my full-length review here.

Silent Take: “Enchanted” circa 1918

After completing posters for the silent Nolan Batman trilogy and working on my designs for James Bond and Indiana Jones, I am a burned out on male-led blockbusters. So, how’s about some girl stuff? Enchanted is, of course, a clever 2007 send-up by Disney about Disney. I have to confess that I am not an enormous fan of Disney films in general but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Continue reading “Silent Take: “Enchanted” circa 1918″

Silent Take: “24” circa 1927

I have branched into television! Action show 24 reimagined as a 1927 serial.

I must ask for more indulgence than usual with this poster. It is highly unlikely that top-tier actors would consent to appear in a serial. This is make-believe so I hope you forgive me. Rugged Milton Sills is just so perfect for the part! The bad guys won’t stand a chance and, best of all, he can act!

Continue reading “Silent Take: “24” circa 1927″

Fun Size Review: Miss Lulu Bett (1921)

Spinster Lois Wilson is penniless and practically enslaved by her family. She jumps at a chance to get married but must leave when she learns her husband may have another wife. (Oops) Returning home to slander and scorn, Wilson must depend on her inner strength to escape. She even gains the courage to pursue local schoolteacher Milton Sills. Delightful and uplifting but never, ever corny.

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How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.

Lulu stands up to her horrible family and wins over Mr. Sills in the bargain. Not too shabby, eh?

If it were a dessert it would be:

Root Beer Float Marshmallows. Traditional flavors presented in a whole new way. Light, sweet and memorable.

Read my full-length review here.

Availability: Released on DVD.

The Sea Hawk (1924) A Silent Film Review

Sir Oliver Tressilian (Milton Sills) is a retired Elizabethan privateer whose life suddenly gets shot to pieces. He is framed for murder by his own brother, dumped by his fiancee, kidnapped, sold into slavery… What I’m saying is this guy has a chip on his shoulder. So he joins up with the Barbary corsairs and becomes the dreaded Sea Hawk. Now for that revenge…
Continue reading “The Sea Hawk (1924) A Silent Film Review”