by Annette D’Agostino Lloyd (March 1996)
Originally published in The Silent Film Monthly, June 1995
Many books and journal articles have been devoted to the enduring comedic talents of Harold Lloyd, whose career has both influenced and inspired comic actors for many generations. However, little to no attention has been given to Lloyd’s female foils – his leading ladies – who co-starred in some of the greatest silent comedies ever made. In the silent films of Harold Lloyd, primarily three actresses graced his screen – Bebe Daniels, Mildred Davis and Jobyna Ralston (actress Ann Christy co-starred with Lloyd just once, in his final silent comedy, Speedy). This examination will try to shed light both on the work of Daniels, Davis and Ralston, and on their influence on their co-star, the bespectacled optimist, Harold Clayton Lloyd.
When Harold Lloyd emerged on the cinema scene in 1913, he was a mere extra, whose fleeting moments on screen were dominated by his leading co-stars, including J. Warren Kerrigan, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle and Benjamin Wilson. It was in 1915, when fellow-extra Hal Roach formed his own production company (the Rolin Film Company), that Harold Lloyd began receiving more responsibility, and more notice, for his screen work. It was at this time that the Lonesome Luke character was born, and a career was born.
The first major venture of the Rolin Film Company was a series called “Phunphilms,” released by the Pathe Exchange, with offices at 907 Brockman Building, Los Angeles. On page 517 of the 16 Oct 1915 issue of the Moving Picture World, the troupe was announced, and their names revealed: Harold Lloyd, Harry “Snub” Pollard, Bud Jamison, Earl Mohan, Gene Marsh, Arthur Harrison, and an actress by the name of Bebe Daniels.
Virginia Daniels was born into a theatrical family: she made her debut in her father’s company at the age of ten weeks. Nicknamed Bebe, she had dark hair and eyes, and made a terrific appearance on screen – she looks surprisingly mature on screen, even though, at the time of her debut with Lloyd, she was a tender fifteen.
In the book, Bebe and Ben, (Robert Hale and Company, 1975), Daniels is quoted by author Jill Allgood about the early filmmaking exploits of the Rolin Film Company: “We all went out in cars, with Hal Roach in the leading car not knowing what we were going to shoot, and we worked out ideas on the way. When Hal found a location he liked, we stopped, the camera was set up, and we would decide on the scene and action.” What a terrific outlet for the building of a creative mind.
Daniels was with Lloyd for the greatest amount of films than any of his leading ladies – at least 153 one- and two-reelers. She was also a dominant presence in his personal life: the two were virtually inseparable from 1915 to 1919. Their “love story” was, no doubt, the real thing — their on-screen chemistry is a testament to this.
In the course of the over 70 Lonesome Luke comedies, Bebe Daniels had little to do – she had little to no real responsibility, and the whole series can be seen as merely a training ground for her future talents. No question that the experience of working regularly (a film a week for all intents and purposes) was important for her, yet her personality and vibrant photographability was not to be used to full advantage until after the dawn of Lloyd’s Glasses Character.
Lloyd intensely disliked Lonesome Luke, practically from its inception: he viewed it as an outright Chaplin-wannabe, a character that would hopelessly be pegged as an imitation. At first, that’s exactly what it was, but when one considers the standards of comedy at that time – standards that had practically been defined by Mr. Chaplin himself – Lonesome Luke fit very well into a comic acting “mold.” It was when he created his Glasses Character that Lloyd’s persona, and Daniels’ as well, came into focus.
The Glasses Character was an ordinary guy, a role that Lloyd saw as relatable to any member of his growing audience. Not only was the character more normal, it was pioneering: the first major film character not to depend on grotesque or unusual quirks in makeup, clothing or appearance. What this meant for Daniels was that she was no longer playing against a “freak” in tight pants and two-dot mustache – she was now supporting a regular kid who was handsome, resourceful and appealing. Her character could not help but look better, as well.
The first Glasses Character short, Over the Fence, directed by Lloyd, showed Daniels off in rather positive fashion for her first lead in the new series. She appears as the girlfriend of Ginger (Lloyd), who is also pursued by Ginger’s friend Switch (Pollard). Viewing her smiling performance leaves not a doubt but that she felt more comfortable being the girlfriend of a handsome kid with glasses, rather than a Lonesome Luke.
Perhaps in no other film is the real-life relationship between Daniels and Lloyd more evident than in The City Slicker. The eye contact and rapport between the two was really loving here, and the two seemed to be enjoying every second of their time together on screen. Viewing the two together in this one-reeler makes one realize how they trusted each other, both professionally and personally. Neither tries to outdo the other for screen time. Their love shows in simply the way they look at each other, and the way they move together. In this, and the films that follow, the two seem genuinely affectionate toward each other. In particular, the location scenes in Why Pick on Me? show a couple that are seasoned co-stars, who are equally comfortable on a set as they are on location. In Ask Father, we begin to root for Lloyd to notice Daniels, as he feverishly tries to gain permission to marry another girl. Their eventual closing kiss seems to naturally build out of a reel’s worth of on-screen growing affection. In Count Your Change, Daniels is rescued from a thief (Jamison) by Lloyd, and the two share kisses and chocolates in the last few feet of film. IF one had any doubt about their off-screen love, watch this film: the way Lloyd “bites” Daniels’ arm is downright titillating.
The two could have “violent” fun together, too. In I’m On My Way, Lloyd awaits his bride-to-be (Daniels) at the home of her neighbor (Pollard), who is “married so long he has lost all sense of pain.” After absorbing the wrath of Pollard’s playful children, Lloyd retreats to the quiet of the kitchen, where he fantasizes about his soon-to-be married life, complete with broken dishes, and wallops over the head with rolling pins, courtesy of his “mad” wife. The two daydream sequences, from which Lloyd emerges cured of his desire to be married, are so much fun to behold – Daniels perfectly plays the henpecker, down to the waving of ther index finger in Lloyd’s shocked face! The two surely had fun filming these sequences.
One of Lloyd’s best short films, Pay Your Dues, pits Daniels against the brothers of the Ancient Order of Simps, Young Turks Lodge #13 – Lloyd has been mistakenly kidnapped by the fraternity, and Daniels feverishly tries to rescue her beloved from the hazing process. Trying to find Lloyd, she encounters Pollard, and the two accomplish a downright frenetic chase around the lodge: there is a dizzying scene in which Daniels and Pollard twirl around a trick wall, and even though the film was sped up, I can’t imagine how the two didn’t get nauseated spinning around as they were! Her reputation as a spitfire could have been based upon just this one film!
In the second-to-last film she made with Lloyd, Daniels played a stage hopeful in the delightful Bumping Into Broadway, against Lloyd, a budding young playwright. The scene in which Lloyd gives Daniels his last few coins so that she can pay her rent seemed to be an extension of their relationship off-screen – he probably would have gone without, so that she would be happy. As a matter of fact, that very situation repeated itself in real life a few weeks after the film was completed…
In the spring of 1917, Daniels had received a contract offer from Cecil B. DeMille, who evidently recognized her talent and versatility. She remained true to her contract with Roach, and stayed on until the contract ran out in 1919. Daniels desperately wanted to be a dramatic actress, and decided to accept DeMille’s offer: Lloyd did not fight her, realizing that her lifelong ambition would finally be realized. He gave up more than a leading lady – Lloyd and Daniels ended their love affair when she went off to Famous Players-Lasky, debuting in Male and Female, (1919).
In the time frame of 1915-19, when Daniels was the Rolin leading lady, Lloyd was learning comedy, for it will be remembered that he lacked any formal comic acting training: he made a study of humorous histrionics as he went along. For Lloyd, Daniels was the perfect leading lady at this time, for her self-confident and cool style was the ideal foil for his emerging and growing character. Lloyd never handed over a scene to any of his leading ladies: if they wanted them, they had to grab the limelight, and Daniels did this better, as a whole, than any of Lloyd’s female leads. Her years of acting experience showed: she knew how to get something special out of her time on camera. Her youthful confidence seemed to be a good influence on Lloyd. But, it can be said that Lloyd appeared most comfortable against Daniels as his leading lady – much of this can be seen as due to the fact that the two youngsters were learning film comedy together. Their off-screen love positively shone on-screen, and their “lovemaking” seems more natural and realistic than similar scenes between Lloyd and Davis, or Lloyd and Ralston. Bebe Daniels married actor Ben Lyon in 1930, and the two were married until her death. However, the enduring affection between Daniels and Lloyd remained strong through the years. In October, 1970, Lloyd made his final public appearance in England (where Daniels and Lyon had relocated years earlier), for the Cinema City Exhibition in London, celebrating the 75th anniversary of film. He showed his classic The Kid Brother at the show. While in London, Lloyd and Daniels visited, and the fondness the two had shared had grown as they had: Lloyd was still wearing a ring that Daniels had given him over fifty years before. Lloyd at the time of this trip, was still recovering from surgery for prostate cancer. Five months later, on 8 March 1971, Harold Lloyd died at home. A mere eight days later, Bebe Daniels, reportedly heartbroken over Lloyd’s passing, herself succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage in London. It is indeed striking that the two, who shared so much for so long, should have died within eight days of each other, continents apart.
One film in which Lloyd does win the girl is the splendid three-reeler, Never Weaken, Lloyd’s final short. Lloyd thinks his beloved is going to marry another man: we, the audience, know that this man is Davis’ brother, a minister (Roy Brooks). Lloyd, depressed, reads a newspaper article about dejected lovers who have committed suicide, and decides to do the same. He tries numerous times to do himself in, and after a series of misadventures on the shell of a constructed building, meets up with Davis, who introduces her brother to Lloyd, and the two stroll off together. This film was a triumph for Lloyd – it was the third of his patented “thrill” comedies, and secured his place among the finest comics of his day. For Davis, there was precious little to do: her character never really entered our hearts, mainly because she was on-screen so sparingly (almost a reel and a half is accomplished solo by Lloyd), and when she was a part of the story, she was inadvertently making our hero unhappy – so, the final reunion at the end lacked a sense of relief for the audience. We, the audience, know of the misunderstanding that has occurred (“Hey, Harold, Mildred isn’t getting married to that guy! He’s her brother! A minister!”), but we can’t tell him: thus, his numerous suicide attempts result in driving the audience batty, for we know of the mistake…
This role in Never Weaken summarizes Davis’ apparent “role” as a leading lady – an impetus for Lloyd’s action, a reason for him to either climb or chase or defeat a foe, or grow up. Her roles seemed to lack a strong, defined personality, rather serving as a building block for Lloyd’s character. Perhaps this was due to her personality off-screen: in the October, 1922 issue of Picture Play, Myrtle Gebhart interviewed Davis for her feature article, “Mildred’s Ambitions.” In it, Gebhart sums up twenty-year-old Mildred: “She makes me think of nothing so much as a little canary.” Davis, on-screen, showed these sort of flighty characteristics, and was at her best when at odds with Lloyd. In comparison with Daniels, the love scenes between Lloyd and Davis seemed more innocent, less passionate and more adolescent. Daniels was a bit taller than Davis: that may have added to the impression that Daniels was more woman than Davis. But what Davis perhaps lacked in romantic spark, she made up in a kind of vulnerable femininity: she perfectly provided a damsel in various stages of distress, and was at her best when her fragile persona became volatile and threatening to Harold’s little world.
In Grandma’s Boy, Davis was at her comic best, and this is perhaps the only film in which she was allowed to shine as a comedienne. Her character was romanced by both Lloyd (Sonny, coward of cowards), and the town bully, well played by Roach staple Charles Stevenson. In this film, perhaps as in no other, can we understand the appeal: Davis, decked out in the biggest hair bow you have ever seen, exhibits a charming flightiness and an enviable exuberance – the scene in which Lloyd accidentally ingests the moth balls (which he took out of his suit, and placed in a candy dish!) shows both Lloyd and Davis to advantage. When Lloyd starts to chew that moth ball, we just want to scream! At the same time, there is Davis, eating her piece of chocolate with such intensity and joy that one can understand why Hershey, Pennsylvania, is so popular a vacation spot! While Harold gasps for air and desperately tries to retrieve the moth ball from his burning mouth, Davis chews, and chews, occasionally smiling at Lloyd, who expertly musters a gagging smile when gazed upon. Charley enters, sits between them, and pops what he thinks are candy-covered nuts into his mouth. After a few chews, he too is gagging: still, undaunted, Davis smiles and chews. Perfect.
After filming was completed on their next film together, Safety Last, Mildred Davis began to receive offers from rival production companies. Lloyd, as one can imagine, saw the Daniels situation repeating itself. And, this time, he stopped it. His method, however, was markedly different.
Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis were married on 10 February 1923, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. There was absolutely no hint of any romantic involvement between the two, and the marriage came as quite a surprise to the Hollywood community. As late as October, 1922, in the aforementioned article, “Mildred’s Ambitions,” Gebhart noted, of Lloyd and Davis, “They are very fond of each other, but whether or not there is any engagement is a question I can’t answer. I doubt if any exists at present, but they are remarkably good comrades.” Yet, just six short months later, the April, 1923, Photoplay ran a picture of Lloyd and Davis, underneath which a caption read, “Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis have just signed a new, long-term contract, to co-star in a serial called ‘Married Life,’ directed by Dan Cupid, under the supervision of Hal Roach.” They would remain married until her death from a heart attack on 18 August 1969.
The next film they did was Hot Water, which is the one feature film which Lloyd was totally dissatisfied with – there is good reason. While there are strokes of brilliance throughout this five-reeler, there seem to be more unanswered questions than there should have been: lacking the regular trademark unity of plot and character, this film is not really one film, but rather three shorts grouped into one package. Ralston plays the wife, and honestly didn’t seem to know why she was even there: she had precious little to do, and when her golden opportunity to do something came along (as her drunken husband is running all over the house, trying to get away from his sleep-walking mother-in-law, who he thinks is the walking dead!), she was nowhere to be found! Granted, certain sequences are joys to behold, but Lloyd had done, and would do, much better. Their next comedy together would prove to be a classic.
The Freshman was, and still is, the quintessential college/sports film: it influenced and dictated the flow of all football and collegiate films to follow. Ralston, as in Girl Shy, plays a character who understands and appreciates Lloyd’s underappreciated qualities, and defends him even when he cannot defend himself: “The kind of girl your mother must have been.” It is again the responsibility of the girl to pick up the pieces when the boy’s world seems to fall apart, and Ralston’s homespun beauty make this task easy to accomplish. When we looked at her, we immediately trusted her; she relayed all the qualities of a good “mother figure,” and yet was believable as a love interest. She accomplished this by her natural acting ability and her wholesome looks. The next film she and Lloyd would co-star in would fully exploit this wholesome quality.
For Heaven’s Sake features what I construe to be the finest chase scene in any Lloyd film – the trolley car/double decker bus ride with the drunken hoboes from the mission, through real city streets. No process shots, lots of action, excellent danger shots (which came through despite extreme safety precautions), and superb physical acrobatic acting. Ralston plays the the daughter of a missionary, who runs a downtown mission which was founded through the financial support of the idle filthy-rich J. Harold Manners. Actually, Lloyd’s cigarette accidentally burned down the street cart that served as the “mission,” and when Lloyd asked “how much will it take?”, the answer was $1,000 – thus, the mission was born. When Lloyd heard how that $1,000 had been spent, he immediately went down to the mission to stop it – (“I have no interest whatsoever!”). Of course, once he gazed upon Ralston’s beauty, he fell head over heels in love. One of Lloyd’s real strengths in characterization – and one which he seemed to patent during the Ralston years – was the “look of falling in love”: that slow melt from a blank look into that goofy smile that oozed “Isn’t she beautiful?” Ralston’s looks and demeanor seemed to inspire this in Lloyd: that knocked-over-the-head kind of love that comes to you, once you think about it. He accomplished such classic “looks” in Why Worry?, Hot Water, For Heaven’s Sake, and his next exquisite comedy.
Ralston’s final film with Lloyd is, perhaps, his unsung masterpiece, The Kid Brother. Ralston’s role was not as meaty as it had been in her previous outings: she has surprisingly little to do in the final three or so reels of the film. The crowning achievement of this picture, in my opinion, is a goodbye scene involving Lloyd, Ralston, and a tree. Lloyd had just “saved” Ralston from a thug (the splendid Constantine Romanoff), by waving a stick at him – unbeknownst to Lloyd, attached to the stick was a snake. After thanking him – and smiling – she walked off into the distance. Lloyd started to climb a tree to keep her in view – as Lloyd was climbing, a camera mounted on a crane elevator was ascending along with the star. His every move is followed, and his desire to maintain contact with the beauty is uninterrupted. This whole sequence is a joy to behold, especially the look of surprised happiness when Ralston turns around to see Lloyd high up in the tree, asking her what her name is. Just think about how you would feel if someone went to those lengths just to keep you within eye shot: just how you would feel is just how Ralston looked. After the final goodbyes are said, and Ralston walks off, Lloyd falls out of the tree, and straight into a bed of daisies. This is one time in cinema when we can appreciate a star picking one of the flowers to ask “She loves me? She loves me not?”.
Bebe Daniels, Mildred Davis, Jobyna Ralston, Harold Lloyd. Three women, one man, and three separate screen pairings, that inspired three totally different chemistries.
Of the three leading ladies that Lloyd supported from 1915-1927, I feel that Lloyd’s best work came opposite Ralston. This is not meant to take anything away from the performances of Daniels and Davis: these talented ladies have earned their place in film history. Granted, Lloyd made his best collective group of films with Ralston, and that helps. As well, having had the benefit of years of experience by the time of their pairing didn’t hurt.
The difference, I do think, between Ralston and her predecessors was that she never tried to be a comedienne. Her roles were crafted in such a way that her natural ability to act came out: her smooth performances seemed to bring out that same quality in her leading man, already an established star when they were first paired. He was at his best when opposite a woman who was his equal: not needy or vulnerable, but strong, as he was strong. The strength in her brought out an even greater strength in his characterization. As has been noted previously, Harold Lloyd never gave away a scene: he had a strong pride in his role as “star,” and was reluctant to give away the limelight in any of the scenes he was in. Jobyna Ralston, however, didn’t seem to try to steal scenes from Lloyd: it is just that their on-screen chemistry brought out the best in one another, making them both pivotal parts of their scenes together. It was a most ideal pairing.
Perhaps Lloyd and Ralston just looked better together – the “look” meant a lot in the silent cinema. Bottom line, film for film, Ralston was excellent in her six pictures with Lloyd, and Lloyd related to no leading lady better than Ralston.
Three women, one man, and lots of enduring comedies to remember, and enjoy…