One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the biggest story in Hollywood: actress Bebe Daniels was actually going to jail for breaking the law. She’d be caught doing 56.25 miles an hour in Orange County in January (the speed limit was 35) and on March 28th she’d been sentenced to ten days in the County Jail. After being allowed to finish shooting her current film, Daniels reported to serve her sentence on April 16th. Kingsley made the whole experience sound not bad at all:
Though jail is supposed to be a very secluded spot, Miss Daniels has received so many visitors, a perfect stream from morning until night, that she is entirely worn out…Among the presents Miss Daniels received yesterday was a file, which, she was, of course, not permitted to keep. Thirty kittens have been offered by school children, who gather just outside the jail every afternoon, and call her to come and talk with them.
Miss Daniels has to reverse the usual order of things and get out of jail in order to get a chance to be lonesome. Scores of telegrams are being received daily by Miss Daniels, besides flowers and other gifts. Roscoe Arbuckle yesterday set her a beautiful gilded basket of fruit, and Mabel Normand about $1,000,000 worth of roses.
Kingsley wasn’t the only L.A. Times journalist unimpressed by the star’s travails. Under a photo captioned “Marie Antoinette Found French Bastille Far Different” on April 17th the unnamed reporter wrote:
Terrors of a life behind prison bars were experienced for the first time yesterday by Bebe Daniels, motion picture actress and undisputed champion speeder of Orange County.
For breakfast, the fair Bebe was compelled to arise at the unearthly hour of 9 a.m. And the only way she could get her food, which consisted of such untasty things as a grapefruit, toast and coffee, was to have it fetched by a high-chested French waiter bedecked in a full-dress outfit.
The writer mentioned that her cell furnishings included an ivory bedroom suit, rugs, drapes, and a Victrola “with only 150 records.” At lunch, the waiter was back with “creamed asparagus, soup, radishes and celery, a luscious steak and strawberry shortcake.” The judge, Justice J.B. Cox, brought her a huge bouquet of roses and she had 50 visitors the first day. When she wasn’t chatting with her visitors, she answered letters and telegrams from well-wishers.
The star, or perhaps her ghost writer, felt differently about it. In July, Photoplay ran an article that they said Convict 711 had written while in jail. (I don’t know when she would have had the time!) The author said that if she were painting the scenes, it would be called “Thoughts on Being Incarcerated in a Damp, Dark Dungeon,” and the melodrama continued:
Today—they have made me a crook and a jail-bird—a member of the underworld. They have taken away my name and given me a number. They led me up the cold stone steps—the great steel door clanged behind me. Think of it!
However, she did realize that her experience was extraordinary. The final total number of names in her guest book was 792, and she received so much candy and so many flowers that she had to send them to children at the local hospital. She mentioned other privileges:
I am grateful too, in my humble way, that they did not make me wear stripes or shave my head. I had some very pretty little jail frocks of pale blue taffeta. The hairdresser comes every morning to do my hair.
Later in life, she admitted that she was actually doing over 70 when she got pulled over. According to film historian Marilyn Slater, looking back on her experience Daniels wrote, “despite the lavish furnishings and the flowers and the excellent food that would be served by the best restaurant in town, I was really very miserable…each night I had the recurring feeling of how awful it was to be locked in a cell.” She did learn her lesson: she said that she never sped again, except for when she was shooting The Speed Girl, the movie they made to capitalize on all the publicity. So while nearly 800 visitors a week is excessive, maybe jail doesn’t have to be completely horrible to promote rehabilitation.
Nevertheless, the manager at Clune’s Broadway didn’t need to wait for The Speed Girl to use the press attention to sell tickets. Her latest movie, Ducks and Drakes, played there this week and Motion Picture News reported that manager Frank L. Browne clipped every newspaper story about her jailing and displayed them in the theater lobby, which “drew attention, much comment and large crowds. There was almost a riot at one time when two factions started disputing as to whether Judge Cox did right in sentencing the beautiful girl for ten days.” He added a telegram to the display, purportedly from Daniels, saying how sorry she was she couldn’t be there. Moti0n Picture News concluded, “needless to say, Mr. Browne got the crowds.”
Happily, once the crowds went in they got to see a pretty good movie, according to Kingsley:
While Bebe Daniels herself is languishing in durance vile—at least pretty vile—down in the Santa Ana jail, presumably repenting of speeding, her celluloid double speeds at Clune’s Broadway in one of the spiciest, cutest, most delightful comedies of the month, called Ducks and Drakes. It was viewed by big crowds yesterday, some of whom are regular Bebe Daniels fans, while others possibly want to see how a jailed young star really looks in action.
Bebe Daniels proves she is a regular comedy queen, full of real humor, and a perfect witch for beauty and allurement.
It’s all about a young girl sentenced to matrimony but bent on finding out about life before she takes the final plunge. Naturally, the heroine herself is always perfectly innocent; it’s only the author who is naughty. So even though she receives strange young men in her boudoir, and runs off with them to house boats, and even though she says, ‘she just doesn’t care what happens to her,’ nothing does happen that would cause anything regrettable to occur to the cheek of the young person, be that person ever so prudish.
Ducks and Drakes has been preserved at the Library of Congress.
Jill Allgood, Bebe and Ben, London: Robert Hale & Company, 1975.
Bebe Daniels (Convict 711), “56 ½ Miles Per Hour,” Photoplay, July 1921, p.52-4, 109-111.
“Bebe Daniels Goes to Jail,“ Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1921.
“Bebe’s Jail Sentence Capitalized by Browne,” Motion Picture News, May 7, 1921, p. 2933.
“Jail Horrors for Fair Bebe,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1921.