Thursday, 21 December 2017

Double Bebe… She’s a Sheik (1927)/Miss Bluebeard (1925), with Meg Morley and Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope


Tonight, Kevin Brownlow had promised us a surprise from his own collection and he delivered with a 16mm transfer of She’s a Sheik that hasn’t been projected in public since I was in short pants (no, even earlier than that troublesome New Romantic period…). The film had been transferred by a British collector using ex-air force equipment and yet looked pretty fine partly due to the extensive  repair work of the Bioscope’s ace projectionist Dave Locke.

Kevin described it as madcap like Hellzapoppin and whilst it doesn’t quite match the madness of that film it’s heart-warmingly daft with a welcome eye on gender-reversal that suits Bebe Daniel’s natural intelligence as well as William Powell’s willingness to never take himself that seriously. It’s a little patchy in parts but redeemed by Daniel’s making like Fairbanks as well as her old sparing partner Gloria and, of course, Mr Valentino.  No one can pet a peacock (not going there…) wearing an outrageous feathered head-dress quite like Bebe and she out smoulders Rudolph whilst lazily stroking a leopard which is clearly benefiting from the same kind of head doctor as the Happy Mondays in 1991.

William Powell is about to get his thawb handed to him
Bebe is a magnetic presence and a natural comedienne as she would show from the Mack Sennett days through to the wise-cracking screwballs of the thirties and beyond after she settled in the UK as Mrs Lyons (not Leopard you may note…). She has a striking, thoroughly-modern face and yet there’s always a twinkle… not so far from either Doug or Rudy then: these people had The Glamour alright.

So does William Powell and Richard Arlen for that matter, even when their characters are being humiliated by the film’s star. Bebe plays Zaida a good catholic Spanish girl who is the adopted daughter of Sheik Yusif ben Hamad (Paul McAllister … not many of us Paul’s get to be a Sheik!). The Sheik is fully supportive of her right to choose a marriage partner and very quickly she spies just the man, a French army officer, Captain Colton (Arlen), the trouble is he’s already seeing a blonde Wanda Fowler (Josephine Dunn) who Zaida spies two-timing him.

Reversing the, actually quite disturbing, kidnapping approach to courtship from other films about similar things, Zaida takes her Captain prisoner and quickly wins him over through basic womanly wiles and the offer of food, drink and a good pipe. But it’s at this point that the nasty Kada (Mr Powell) decides he’s going to take this woman himself and overcome the French forces… What do you reckon to his chances of either?

Dreamy duo: Richard Arlen and Bebe Daniels
Meg Morley accompanied having not even seen the film before and provided some luscious chords with period-jazz flavours, sweeping minor shapes that swept through the sand and patient, confident themes that embraced the unpredictability of the action and the unseen narrative.

Lilian Henley provided similar service for the first film with her own trademark polish and assurance. If Meg’s improvisational jazz background informs her approach perhaps Lillian’s experience as a professional actress informs her own highly-disciplined and sympathetic playing. I watched Ben Travers flapper farce Thark last week and it’s so close to Miss Bluebeard in style and I’m taking a wild guess here, I could easily imagine it’s one of Lillian’s favourite periods?

The film is not as zany as SAS and creakily shows its stage roots having been based on a play, Little Miss Bluebeard, by Avery Hopwood but does have its moments and some amazing costumery especially for Bebe to wear.


The plot is as convoluted as all get out and shows once again that you should never let anyone impersonate you as you can end up married or even in court (name that Colleen Moore film!). But successful composer Larry Charters (Robert Frazer) who is visiting Paris is so fed up of young women chasing him that he asks his mate Bob Hawley (Kenneth MacKenna) to impersonate him so he can focus on his writing.

He runs into stage actress Colette (see what they did there…) who is introduced in one of the film’s cleverest moments behaving on stage as we expect her character to behave in the film… and, one thing leads to another and a drunken mayor marries them (dontcha just hate it when that happens!).

So far, so what you may say but when Colette meets the real Larry it is, ow you say, l’amour at first sight (Colette has title card French to die for, n’est pas).

Robert Frazer, Martha O'Dwyer and Raymond Griffith
It gets complicated and really the funniest thing is the excellent Raymond Griffith trying to get some sleep as The Honourable Bertie Bird even whilst mostly wearing his trademark top hat.

Two sides to Bebe Daniels and proof that she could more than match anyone for comedy, swinging action and romance. Plus... Swanson and the lion? Yeah, got me a leopard.

Before Bebe we had a Christmas short, a British version of The Little Match Girl (1914) which was indeed short and bitter sweet with Meg accompanying.

This was all a fine way to finish off the year at the Bioscope. Here’s to 2018 and The Cinema Museum continuing to support this excellent enterprise.

You're twisting my leopard man...

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