Sunday, 19 June 2022

A house is not a home... Miss Lulu Bett (1921), BFI

The family beast of burden, whose timid soul has failed to break the bonds of family servitude…


This film is an almost perfect exemplar of a Hollywood studio film of this period featuring a superb performance from Lois Wilson in the lead and smoothly satisfying direction from everyone’s third-favourite de Mille… William ranking behind his brother Cecil and then his daughter Agnes a hugely successful dancer who was not “pretty enough” for films but became a huge star on stage and then choreographed a dozen stage musicals revolutionising the genre over a long career.


Clearly, she was given the kind of encouragement from father William that is solely lacking in the Master of the Deacon house, Dentist and Justice of the Peace, Dwight (Theodore Roberts), who seems to treat his family as slaves, especially his sister-in-law Lulu. In its own quite gently comic way Miss Lulu Bett is as powerful as many more serious dramas with a story of a family drudge, run down not just by the domineering but also everyone else; a modern-day Cinderella five years before Colleen Moore’s Ella Cinders, but of a genre and a general situation many endured.


Ethel Wales, Lois Wilson and Milton Sills

Based on Zona Gale’s Pulitzer-prize winning play and bestselling novel with a screenplay by Clara Beranger, the film reflected Gale’s activism and concern with suffrage and women’s right to choose their own destiny. It was still commonplace for family hierarchies to leave the unmarried supporting their parents, I have this in my own story with a great grandmother looked after by her eldest daughter, Mabel. When my Nain married in the mid-1920s, Mabs, the elder sister, objected on the grounds that she should be wed first but her elder brother stepped in on our Jenny’s behalf. So, thank you Uncle Alec, without whom I wouldn’t be here.


As a member of the National Women’s Party, Gale lobbied for the 1921 Wisconsin Equal Rights Law and she was also an Executive Member of the Lucy Stone League which concerned itself with opportunities for women beyond the right to vote. A century on it’s hard to understand some social attitudes although perhaps a lot less difficult after the last five years…


Theodore Roberts is shocked, shocked I tell you!

Back to the film…. everyone has written Lulu off – destined for spinsterhood and chained to the household chores. Lois Wilson is a revelation, emoting in an understated way and carrying a lot of subtle meaning. This is the only film I’ve seen her in and watching it for the second time – the first at an excellent Kennington Bioscope weekender in the before times – you appreciate more of the seamless directorial skill and Wilson’s ability to hold not only the narrative but our belief together. She gives her character strength and the willingness to repay her light-hearted and inconsiderate oppressors the benefit of the doubt. Driven by duty and her own sense of honour she’s also just waiting for an opportunity to re-join the World outside the kitchen.


Dwight sets the tone but Lulu’s half-sister Ina (Mabel Van Buren) does nothing to help her, not so much a wicked stepsister as a lazy one. Their mother, Grandma Bett (Ethel Wales) is no better, dodging her duties as easily as she deflects Dwight’s supposed dominance, usually by stomping off out of range. The Brett’s two daughters also have their own techniques for avoiding the bully’s blasts, youngest Monona (Mae Giraci) is far too quick for the old man, feigning deafness and fading from view when it suits whilst Di (Helen Ferguson) is the apple of his eye, being, unlike her spinsterish aunt Lulu, eminently marriable. The only problem is that Dad has eyes on more socially advanced suitors than Di’s boyfriend Bobby Larkin (Taylor Graves).


Lulu listens intently to tall tales

Lulu has to suffer a thousand unkind cuts from Dwight, she’s both relied upon to cook and clean whilst at the same time blamed for being too useless to get married. It’s no joke but never say never… Lulu’s chance comes in the unlikely form of Dwight’s likeable blow-hard of a brother Ninian (Clarence Burton) who returns from a supposedly action-packed World tour and regales the family and their friends with stories of daring do. Lulu is by this stage transfixed after Ninian shows her just the slightest kindness yet even this is inspired by the family friend, teacher Neil Cornish (Milton Sills) who is the one to ask where she is and looks on in despair when Lulu swallows the big fat fibs.


Ninian takes Lulu, Dwight and Ina for a meal and makes a joke of asking her to marry him by slipping a cigar band around her figure as she jokingly promises to honour and obey. Only trouble is, Dwight’s a JP and, therefore, they had accidentally had a proper ceremony and are now man and wife. Ninian’s up for giving it a go and Lulu takes the chance too, feeling there’ll be no other.


She moves in with her “husband” but a few days later he reveals that he’s already married to a woman who left him years ago and whilst he’s not sure is still alive, there’s a big chance she will be. That’s big of Ninian and it’s also big of Lulu that she puts principle first and reluctantly returns “home”.

Milton Sills ain't fooled

Now things really kick off as she discovers the house in a mess and the family bickering over chores… you’d think they’d be pleased to see her but no, she’s putting Dwight’s reputation at risk and has to accept the blame and the ignominy of being rejected by her husband after just one week. Yet Lulu discovers new depths: “The only thing I’ve got left is my pride and you’ve got to let me keep that…” and she works upwards from there.


There are superb performances not least from Theodore Roberts who would have been a shoo-in for Best Cigar-Chomping, Blood-Vessel-Busting Oscar had they been invented at this point, whilst Milton Sills is a steadfast lead with future salvation written all over him. But it’s Lois Wilson who wins out and she’s great value for a story that makes it’s point without getting too improbable of tiresome… we’re all for Lulu and, as the poet said, you’ve got to hope for the best and that’s the best you can hope for and Lulu Betts does not disappoint with an uplifting ending that blows the roof off!!


The film is available on Blu-ray from Grapevine and is online too if you peruse YouTube. Great to see it getting this screening in London though.








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