In February of 1920, Wisconsin author Zona Gale published her sixth novel Miss Lulu Bett to great acclaim and popularity. Critics praised the book’s naturalistic dialogue, its critique of small-town conformity, and its relevance. At a time when the women’s suffrage amendment was marching toward its eventual ratification, readers were eager to embrace what scholar Deborah Lindsay Williams has called a “self-actualized Cinderella” story. It depicts the life of Lulu Bett, a thirty three-year-old woman living in the home of her sister’s husband. Treated as the “family beast of burden,” she longs to take steps toward independence.
Gale adapted her novel into a play, which premiered on December 26th in front of an audience of inmates at Sing Sing Prison. The following day Miss Lulu Bett settled in for an acclaimed 198-show run at New York’s Belmont Theatre, before going on the road for hundreds of performances nationwide. in 1921, Zona Gale became the first woman playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Though Jazz-Age Hollywood was producing increasingly grandiose films to fill its motion picture palaces, filmmakers were also looking for properties like Miss Lulu Bett that could be made on a modest budget. One such filmmaker was William C. de Mille, whose younger brother directed some of the most grandiose films of all. Cecil B. DeMille – he preferred to double-capitalize the family name for dramatic effect – had co-founded Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount Pictures) in 1913, and he asked William to come to California and write scenarios for him. The elder de Mille brother, a successful New York playwright and collaborator of theater impresario David Belasco, had recently suffered a string of disappointments, and so he accepted Cecil’s offer. Upon his arrival in Hollywood, he wrote an adaptation of his Broadway hit The Warrens of Virginia, as well as several other scripts, including a treatment of Carmen, for his brother to direct. Within a year he had grown frustrated by the restricted role of the writer in the motion picture machine, and he turned to directing with his original story The Ragamuffin, starring Blanche Sweet. Immediately he began to carve out an approach to directing very different from that of his brother. By the early 1920s, the type of film projects that attracted the two couldn’t have been further apart.
If Cecil B. DeMille favored spectacle even at the expense of dramatic coherence, William C. de Mille favored human drama. The political content of the pair’s films diverged as well, with the elder brother interested in the exploration of realistic, socially conscious themes, while the younger brother took his moral cues from a more idealized realm. Robert Benchley once called William “the subtle and intelligent member of the de Mille family.” William, however, resisted such praise. He disliked being used by critics as a “hammer with which to whack Cecil.” Both brothers liked to film in continuity, but Cecil’s increasing reliance on complicated set pieces and flashbacks often prevented it. William preferred to focus exclusively on the momentum of the unfolding drama, and he liked to have his sets specially built to accommodate simultaneous filming from multiple camera angles.
Lulu Bett was Lois Wilson’s favorite role, and William de Mille her favorite director – it was the fourth of six collaborations between the two at Paramount. His preference for understated acting drew him to her natural, low-key performance style. A former schoolteacher, she had been discovered in 1915 by Lois Weber, who met her after Wilson had taken part in a beauty pageant put on by Universal Pictures. Weber hired Wilson as an extra for the Anna Pavlova showcase The Dumb Girl of Portici, and Wilson soon established herself as a sensitive actress, though not a glamour girl. She became J. Warren Kerrigan’s leading lady, first at Universal, and later at the Paralta Company. After making three pictures for the California Motion Picture Company in San Rafael, she signed an extended contract with Paramount, for whom she would appear in dozens of silents including Miss Lulu Bett, Cecil B. DeMille’s Manslaughter (1922) and James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923). She even shed her good girl image to play Daisy Buchanan in the original film version of The Great Gatsby (1926), directed by Herbert Brenon. Her career in the talkies began with a contract at Warner Brothers; however she made films at nearly every studio during the thirties, starring in Seed (1931) for Universal and The Deluge (1933) for RKO, and most memorably of all, as Shirley Temple’s mother in Bright Eyes (1934) for Fox. In 1937 she moved to New York, where she continued her career largely on stage and later on television. She died in 1988, at the age of 93.
The screen version of Miss Lulu Bett took both Zona Gale’s novel and play into account. It included numerous incidents described vividly in the novel but diminished in her adaptation for the stage, which confined nearly every scene to the family household. She also changed the explicitly happy ending of the novel to a more ambiguous and arguably more feminist conclusion for the play. This proved so unpopular that, after just ten performances, she composed a third, completely different final act, which was used for the remainder of the run. William de Mille’s Miss Lulu Bett synthesizes its predecessors into a fourth version, with a different ending.
After directing The Ragamuffin from his own scenario, de Mille preferred to partner with another scenarist, usually a woman. His regular collaborator, Olga Printzlau, was unavailable for Miss Lulu Bett, so Clara Beranger, who had written many scenarios for Famous Players-Lasky, stepped in. Clara became de Mille’s closest associate, and remained so for the rest of his career – both professionally and personally. In August 1928, just three days after the finalization of the director’s divorce from Anna George de Mille, the couple were married on a train in New Mexico.
His younger brother would continue to direct into his seventies, but William spent the last years of his life more quietly. Though never as successful as Cecil, he was well respected among his peers, and in 1929 they chose him to succeed Douglas Fairbanks as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. With the transition to sound, de Mille expected that his Broadway experience would make him particularly suited to direct talkies, once he conquered the intricacies of the new technology. He signed up to be Roy Pomeroy’s assistant director on the first all-talking picture at Paramount, Interference (1928), and, after he had directed a few talkies on his own – including Ruth Chatterton’s first sound picture The Doctor’s Secret – de Mille moved east and helped to set up the Eastern Service Studios in Astoria, Queens. He directed Miriam Hopkins in the Manhattan melodrama Two Kinds of Women (1932), but his movie career fizzled. He contented himself with writing and lecturing, and he even revisited Broadway to produce and direct the 1936 comedy Hallowe’en. Upon publishing his memoir Hollywood Saga in 1939, he returned to California, but never again did he direct a film.
In 1945, Cecil provided an endowment to USC for the founding of a theater department. William de Mille accepted the position of Department Chair, and, apart from directing a few student productions, he played tennis, fished and smoked cigars until his death in 1955 at the age of 76. Unlike Cecil, who had the clout to obtain personal prints of his films, William’s fifty-film legacy was entrusted to a largely indifferent studio. Miss Lulu Bett may be his best-known work, but it is scarcely remembered in the shadow of his brother’s big-budget spectaculars.
Presented at SFSFF 2007 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra