Miss Lulu Bett (1921)

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  • directed by William C. DeMille
  • starring Lois Wilson, Milton Sills, Theodore Roberts, Helen Ferguson, Mabel Van Buren, Clarence Burton, Ethel Wales
  • While residing with her sister’s family, unmarried Lulu struggles to make her life more than draining chores and emotional abuse.

“Lulu has certainly changed. She’s not as innocent as she used to be.”

Somehow over a career that spanned two decades and more than 50 films, almost zero of the works of William C. DeMille still exist or are widely available today. His brother, Cecil, took every opportunity in his films to go huge, yet what I saw from his brother in Miss Lulu Bett was a rather intimate story elegantly yet economically told mostly under one roof. The great and bombastic Cecil is still trumpeted today as one of the best while his also great (I would assume from this one viewing) older brother, an accomplished playwright before being urged to move to Hollywood in 1914, is dangerously close to being erased from history completely. This would seem fitting if it wasn’t such a huge loss.

I noticed that Lulu’s story in the film closely mirrored that of Anna Moore in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East. Both women begin alone and in very much underclass circumstances before getting a cruel tease of happiness in the form of a flawed marriage arrangement. Lulu had it slightly better by falling for the good-natured Ninian who legitimately cared for her despite hiding the news that he isn’t quite sure if his wife who ran away is dead meaning he can get remarried or alive meaning he is a bigamist. Making Ninian a sympathetic character, considering his actions and presence in the film fit into the traditional villain mold, was yet another way for the story to remain small enough so that the central conflict remained solely within Lulu throughout. She endures plenty of cruel treatment at the hands of her sister and Dwight but the payoff at the end was much more gratifying in a film like this having it result mainly from an internal struggle and not in overcoming a gross transgression by another.

It’s sort of like a film history Rorschach test: give Griffith the story of an abused woman who must overcome a tarnished reputation in order to take control and achieve happiness and you’ll get a near-epic if overdone film with unnecessary sideplots and an iconic blockbuster ending. Cecil just might have produced something similar to that but give the same to his brother and instead it’s a charming, optimistic, small-scale film deceptive in that there are larger issues than Lulu’s servitude at play beneath the surface. DeMille effortlessly lassoed into his story the huge cultural shift that America was going through at the time and had it play out within the Deacon family unit.

A year before this film premiered women voted in their first presidential election, the public’s comfort levels continued to rise being years removed from war, and the early 20s in general saw the emergence of a new, less-formal cultural identity for America. The Deacon parents, Dwight and Ina, were stuffy, traditional, patronizing, and altogether cruel to their daughters and Ida’s live-in mother and sister. You can see in the in the eyes of their daughter Diana the pain of being stuck in such an environment, but you can also see the growing sense of recognition inside of her that there’s now finally an alternative, a world of new potential outside.

Lulu’s inner turmoil comes from the same place, but as a servant barely recognized as a family member, not to mention someone “past her prime” as an unmarried, therefore unlovable, adult, her awakening is a bit more difficult to make a reality. A teenager if they are so inclined and pushed could make an easy impulsive decision to run away with little regard for what happens a week later. Lulu is firmly stuck in the Deacon kitchen not by force, but by an absence in prospects and only until she realizes in herself that she deserves and is capable of more.

DeMille got great performances from his cast, especially the irresistibly sweet turn as Lulu by Lois Wilson and Theodore Roberts as the curmudgeonly and pigheaded patriarch. His film flowed brilliantly and I think was helped greatly by the use of more intertitles than I’ve been accustomed to in silent films. More emphasis on dialogue and story than on the visual craft of the film is no doubt par for the course for a former Broadway playwright. The film is significant not only as one of the very few remnants of the career of that other DeMille, but also because it very much represents its era and speaks to those times in our country’s history when our culture and national mood were on the up. It’s a little depressing to know now that there’s such a sharp ebb and flow pattern to all of the massive generational cultural shifts, but that’s the beauty of Miss Lulu Bett, the memorable character for realizing and never wavering from her belief that her circumstances could be improved and the film for providing a snapshot of a very specific time when it seemed like it was all going to get better forever.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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