Chapter 11

Whereas Nell Shipman's classic climaxed the decade of the teens, Bebe Daniels' motoring adventures on and off the screen seemed to inaugurate the Roaring Twenties in Hollywood. A child actress in films since 1908, Bebe had gained widespread recognition as Harold Lloyd's leading lady in the teens before going to Paramount in 1919 where she emerged as a star under Cecil B. DeMille's direction. A lovely, talented brunette of great charm and vivacity, she was a rising box-office attraction starring in comedies for Realart, a Paramount subsidiary, when, in the spring of 1921, her love of fast driving landed her in the headlines and enshrined her in Hollywood folklore. As she wrote years later:
  "One of the things I enjoyed most, when I wasn't making films, was speeding. I had a fast car which, in the twenties, did over seventy miles an hour--quite a speed in those days; and I was constantly being caught by speed cops for driving too fast. Not that I ever had an accident or hurt anyone. But all I had to do when I got a ticket for speeding was to call up my Uncle Jack who was an important newspaper man and "in" very well with the Los Angeles police department. Uncle Jack would say, "What's the number of your ticket baby?"-- and he would take care of it with the police and pay my fine. I remember once calling him up and when he asked, "How many tickets this week, baby?," I said, "Three." Uncle Jack replied, "Only three! Baby, you're slipping."

So I continued speeding, knowing that my Uncle Jack could always take care of it, until one day I took a trip to San Diego with my mother and Jack Dempsey. The route from my home just outside Hollywood, Los Angeles, was along the highway through Orange County. . . .

. . . .I was driving and the speedometer ticked up to seventy-two miles an hour, a crazy speed in the twenties; but no other car was in sight. Then suddenly I heard a siren, and two motor-cycle policemen roared up alongside and flagged me down. The usual ticket followed. One policeman said, "You know we put people in jail for going this fast." I replied, "Oh, don't be silly." As soon as we got to the next town, Santa Ana, in Orange County, I telephoned Uncle Jack.

"What's the trouble now baby?," he asked.

"Just another ticket," I replied.

"Where are you?"

"Orange County."

"Baby, you're in the wrong county," he said.

I asked him what he meant. He told me that Judge Cox, who was the Judge of Orange County, put everyone in jail who drove over fifty miles an hour. He had even put an Admiral of the American Navy in jail. Quite undaunted I said, "Well you can fix it, can't you Uncle Jack?" But this time Uncle Jack couldn't fix it."(86)
At the suggestion of Bebe's lawyer, she was tried by a jury in the belief that she would get off. In the County Court House in Santa Ana packed with members of the press and the general public, the motorcycle policemen presented their evidence. After the jury read their verdict, "guilty of exceeding the speed limit," Judge Cox rapped his gavel, smiled at Bebe and to her horror said, "You are sentenced to ten days in the Orange County Jail." As Bebe later found out, Judge Cox was himself courting publicity by sending a famous movie star to jail. (87)

She was allowed to finish her current picture before serving her sentence and later said that her time behind bars "must have been the strangest jail sentence ever." (88) Her mother was allowed to stay with her in a cell which was furnished with wall to wall carpet, chintz curtains and a bedroom suite with beds and covers to match the curtains. She was also served excellent meals from the best restaurant in town. Every afternoon, she had numerous visitors, among them stars like Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. On one occasion, she was serenaded by Abe Lyman's Band. It was only at night after dinner that she realized she was actually in prison and "how awful it was to be locked in a cell." (89)

Bebe got one day off for good behavior and was photographed with the Judge presenting her with a bouquet as she was set free. Just as Anita King's transcontinental auto trip had inspired her film, The Race, so Bebe's much-publicized jail sentence became the subject of The Speed Girl, released by Realart in the fall of 1921. The comedy cast Bebe as a movie star famous for doing stunts in cars. She becomes romantically involved with a naval ensign and drives him to San Diego to join his ship. Thanks to her fast driving, he reaches the ship before it sails. However, as a result of the schemes of a jealous boyfriend, she is arrested by the police for speeding and serves a term in jail. Accompanied by an illustration of Bebe in a sports car "going at the speed of a rocket," The Speed Girl was advertised as "a six cylinder hundred and twenty fun powered record-breaking comedy with Bebe at the wheel. The brakes are off. Slip her into high. Now step on it!" (90)

Bebe's sentence for speeding and the resulting ballyhoo was a classic incident that seemed to define the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, the carefree twenties with its new anthem, "Ain't We Got Fun?" At the same time, it also, in a sense, marked the end of Hollywood's true age of innocence when a jail sentence did not have more sinister connotations. Ironically, at the very Labor Day party in San Francisco that would inaugurate a nightmarish series of Hollywood scandals, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was entertaining his guests with anecdotes about his friend Bebe's experiences in jail. (91)

Featured in many of her subsequent films, Bebe's love of speed was characteristic of the flapper seeking greater personal freedom. The emancipated young women portrayed by Bebe would prepare the way for Clara Bow and a new generation of silent film actresses whose driving of fast cars was part of their Jazz Age rebellion against Victorian manners and mores. For all of her sense of fun, Bebe, like Nell Shipman, was a brilliant artist, a disciplined, hard-working actress devoted to her craft. Also like Nell, Bebe's real-life physical courage that included daredevil driving was wedded to her screen persona. But while Nell sought her creative freedom by working independently, Bebe was able to flourish within the studio system, heading her own unit at Paramount with supervision of stories, cast, budget and editing. (92)

As Bebe Daniels roared across the screen into cinema immortality at the beginning of the twenties, women drivers, once a novelty, were rapidly becoming a commonplace in the United States and Canada. A decade of numerous films and the attendant publicity stressing the driving skills of the screen actresses who were the best-known, most beloved women in the world must surely have played a significant role in gaining acceptance for women motorists. There would be a similarly dramatic effect on spectators in other cultures in later decades as they watched women driving in American films. An Egyptian writer recalled that audiences in his country in the early 1950s were captivated by Hollywood films in which women, "so incredibly free in their movements," drove convertibles. In contrast to the cloistered women in Egyptian society, "here was this fabulous American actress who went out alone and drove all by herself, controlling unaided a piece of machinery so mysterious, so complicated, that it seemed to be pre-eminently the preserve of men." (93) Something of that same sense of wonder and excitement must have occurred in American theaters in the teens when women drivers in many communities were still a rarity.

But the motoring experiences of the silent film actresses had deeper implications that went beyond their contribution to the revolution in transportation. Like much of their work before as well as behind the camera, the silent film actresses' bold plunge into an activity that had previously been considered masculine upset the traditional stereotypical division of the world into male and female realms. Through their skill at the wheel, the silent film actresses demonstrated that gender distinctions are much subtler than a simple and fallacious attempt to define particular activities, interests or aptitudes as either masculine or feminine. By rivalling their male counterparts in bravery, endurance and ability in driving cars, the silent film actresses of the teens had projected onto the screens of the world a sexual egalitarianism that was indeed "something new." And for that bold new vision, succeeding generations will continue to be their legatees.

Copyright 1997 William M. Drew

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Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Endnotes

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