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.
“Are you a Miss Mister or a Mrs. Mister?”
When we meet Lulu (Lois Wilson, the screen’s very first Daisy Buchanan) she is trapped in two outmoded roles: poor relation and spinster. Nowadays, we would call her a single girl trying to make it but in Midwest America of the early 1920s, there is really no place for her except in the home of her sister’s horrible family.
Lulu’s brother-in-law, Dwight, is a dentist and justice of the peace and therefore a big man in town. He is played by Thedore Roberts (wonderful character actor and Moses in the original version of The Ten Commandments) as a blustering bully who hides his abuse under the shield of Just Kidding.
Right away, we see we are dealing with a rather progressive film. At a time when physically beating one’s family was seen as a distasteful habit and certainly not against the law, we have a film that is portraying emotional abuse and treating it seriously. Dwight would never dream of hitting Lulu but his “jokes” hit just as hard. Meanwhile, Lulu also has to deal with his bratty younger daughter and angsty older girl.
Lulu has not job, no money, no confidence. She cooks and cleans and slaves for the family and it looks like there will never be a way out. The worst of it is that she is aware that her situation is unfair and that she is trapped.
The story takes a turn when Dwight’s brother, Ninian, shows up. His first exchange with Lulu reveals a smart and bold woman under the depressed slave.
“What kind of Mister are you—a Miss Mister or a Mrs. Mister?”
Lulu is bristling at Ninian asking about her marital status; she knows she will be judged for not having a husband and in a way that no man would be judged hidden under the neutral Mr. The title “Ms.” was known at this time but was not in common use.
Ninian takes her question in stride—but does not reveal his marital status. This becomes important when Lulu, eager to escape her drudgery, impulsively marries him. It seems that Ninian was married years before and never really got a proper divorce. His wife may be dead but he isn’t sure. Lulu cannot live with Ninian if she doesn’t know. She has to return home.
We’re not way down east anymore
Ninian may have been dishonest about his wife but he did treat Lulu as a person and not a servant. This little bit of respect is enough for Lulu’s inner confidence to come roaring back to life. She may be returning to Dwight’s house but she is a different person.
A wife returning home without her husband? It’s a scandal! Dwight orders Lulu to keep quiet as to why Ninian is not with her. She does it to protect the kids but something clearly has to give.
At church, Lulu is the subject of gossip and ridicule. If this were a D.W. Griffith film, Lulu would probably wander onto an ice floe or suffer from some disease that both kills her and makes her beautiful. However, Griffith ain’t here and deMille has something far more interesting up his sleeve.
The local schoolteacher, Neil Cornish (Milton Sills, best remembered as the Sword of Islam and general brigand in The Sea Hawk), has had a crush on Lulu since the start of the film and he takes her side in front of everyone by offering her a lift home. Lulu confides her predicament to him and he openly begins to court her, much to Dwight’s annoyance.
There’s a showdown brewing. Dwight has always been able to bully Lulu into giving in but not this time. Lulu smashes dishes, screams and shouts. Her work has paid for whatever damage she is doing. They only want her to stay because she does all the work but she has figured out that they need her more than she needs them.
It’s a spectacular scene and Lois Wilson is wonderful. Apparently, she was having trouble with Theodore Roberts stealing her thunder and asked deMille to make him stop. William deMille was an actor’s director and he likely realized that Wilson’s predicament mirrored Lulu’s. He told Wilson that if she wanted the scene, she needed to be bold and take it. The result is what we see.
Hot for teacher
The romance in Miss Lulu Bett is in keeping with the rest of the film. That is, it’s understated and believable. At first, Neil the dishy schoolteacher is just another person asking Lulu to do extra work. When he is first introduced, he has called on Lulu late in the evening to ask her to cook for a school event. Then he stops, sees how tired she is, how she’s still working and tells her not to bother. She does too much for everyone already.
It’s easy to imagine that Neil would have plucked up the courage to ask Lulu out if Ninian had not swooped in. This guilt may have helped spur him to stand up for Lulu when no one else would. However, don’t think that Lulu was in need of rescue. She appreciated the support but she is determined to control her own destiny.
The relationship between Neil and Lulu is not rescuer and damsel. Rather, it’s a pair of mature adults whose outlook and personalities mesh perfectly. Neil helps Lulu a lot and she appreciates it but she fights her own battles and takes care of her own problems. In short, she’s the very picture of an anti-damsel and he is an ideal ally.
Miss Lulu Bett is a quiet masterpiece. With its dull title and understated plot, it can be a hard sell to new viewers of silent film. However, I encourage you to give it a try. It’s worth it.
Availability: Released on DVD as a double feature with the Cecil B. DeMille marital comedy Why Change Your Wife. Alas, this disc is now out of print.
This is part of the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, hosted by The Last Drive-In and myself. Be sure to enjoy the other posts!