#97) Miss Lulu Bett (1921)

Miss_Lulu_Bett_1921_lobby_card

#97) Miss Lulu Bett (1921)

OR “Spinster Act”

Directed by William C. deMille

Written by Clara Beranger. Based on the novel and play by Zona Gale.

Class of 2001

The Plot: Lulu Bett (Lois Wilson) is unmarried and unhappily living as a housekeeper with her sister Ina (Mabel Van Buren) and her family. When Ina’s brother-in-law Ninian (Clarence Burton) returns home after 20 years, he takes a liking to Lulu and jokes about them getting married. When they accidentally say wedding vows in front of Ina’s husband/Justice of the Peace Dwight (Theodore Roberts), they become legally married. This complicates life for everyone, especially as Lulu starts to fall for local schoolteacher Neil Cornish (Milton Sills).

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Wilson’s “quiet and restrained performance” as well as William C. deMille’s “deceptively simple visual storytelling style”.

But Does It Really?: Maybe it’s just because the story itself hasn’t aged well, but this film just kinda lays there for me. Interestingly, this film suffers from the same problem as more recent films based on plays; it’s not opened up enough. Most of “Lulu” takes place in the same house and nothing is done stylistically with the camera or the editing to make it anything other than a filmed play. At almost 100 years old, this film neither wows nor bores in its presentation. Like many of the silent era, “Lulu” is on the NFR list because it survived. An accomplishment to be sure, but not enough for me to recommend it.

Everybody Gets One: While never a major movie star, Lois Wilson had a successful career in silent films and managed to make the transition to “talkies”. In addition to being a matinée idol, Milton Sills was a founding member of both Actors’ Equity and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the way we ostracized “spinsters” from our society. In addition, this film features cars that you had to crank, and cigarette girls!

Other notes

  • This is a film with a screenplay by a woman based on work by another woman. You’ve done it before you can do it again, Hollywood!
  • The stage version of “Miss Lulu Bett” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1921, making Zona Gale the first woman to win the prize.
  • If the name of the director sounds familiar it’s because William C. deMille is the older brother of Cecil and the father of Agnes. And at one point he was married to screenwriter Clara Beranger. Another exciting family to spend Thanksgiving with.
  • It’s only 70 minutes, but this film sure takes its time getting started. We get a virtual realtor walk-through of the house, followed by very slow introductions of the characters and the actors playing them. Very “Robin Hood”.
  • Lulu asks Ninian if he’s “a Miss Mister or a Mrs. Mister?” As long as he’s not Mr. Mister we’re all fine.
  • Did Ina just cop a feel on her mom?
  • Oh yeah, the patriarchy is in full swing in this film. Dwight and Ninian are the least fleshed-out characters, but everything revolves around what they want.
  • Speaking of, when did the name Ninian go out of fashion? He is a saint after all.
  • This film utilizes the lesser-used second definition of “making love”; in this case to be amorously attentive to someone.
  • Again, the whole reason this film doesn’t hold up is that we have accepted as a society that life is not over for unmarried women in their late-20s. That’s right, she’s 27, and they’ve already cast her off on the metaphorical ice floe (which, like this movie, hasn’t been a thing for a long time).

Legacy

  • Oh, the things you learn while researching a film blog. Turns out that my grandfather was named after Milton Sills. He was my great-grandmother’s favorite actor when Milton was born.
  • Like Sills, William C. deMille was a founding member of AMPAS and hosted the first two Oscar ceremonies. That’s right, the director of this film has hosted the Oscars more times than Seth MacFarlane or James Franco ever will.
  • But seriously, has anyone seen or heard from “Miss Lulu Bett” in any of its incarnations since 1921?

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