Wednesday, May 03, 2006

"This Is Your Life, Bebe Daniels Lyon!"

John McElwee's Monday Glamour Starter this week was Bebe Daniels - check it out here: I had no clue that she was one of the first actresses to head her own production unit at a major studio - even Mary Pickford had to co-found a film company (United Artists) to get that kind of power. That was one aspect not covered in Bebe's appearance as This Is Your Life's principal subject on September 29, 1954.

Popular and long-lasting as it was, This Is Your Life wasn't everyone's cup of mocha. For one thing, its attempts at sentiment were never subtle, and too often crossed the line into bathos. For another, Ralph Edwards wasn't all that warm a host - he was a miserable ad-libber, and would get very jittery if a guest spot was running long or if something wasn't going as planned. Just watch the infamous Laurel & Hardy segment for a splendid example of Edwards' angst. It's proof positive that Oliver Hardy was indeed the dignified gentleman everyone said he was. Anybody else would have knocked Edwards into the next soundstage after one fat joke too many. (The L&H episode is the first one on This Is Your Life - The Ultimate Collection, a DVD box set released exactly one year ago.)

TV Guide ran an article about the making of the Daniels segment in a November 1954 issue. The piece explains that the unsung heroine of This Is Your Life is Jan Boehme (rhymes with "came"), whose job it was to learn all about the "principal subject" and line up all the surprise guests. The article tells us that Bebe and her husband Ben Lyon were enjoying an extended vacation in Hollywood - they'd moved to England in 1936 - while staying at the home of Louella Parsons. TV Guide's writer was impressed, but gave Edwards the accolade: "Any man who can pursuade Louella Parsons to hold out on her readers for 60 days is a man to be reckoned with." It was Boehme's job to meet with Ben Lyon (which led to some awkward moments when Bebe's friends spotted Ben with this strange woman in various Hollywood restaurants), and to speak with him by telephone (which led to some awkward moments when Bebe would answer it).

Still, the surprise came off perfectly, as it almost always did on Edwards' show. Bebe was stunned and immediately protested, "Ralph, I've been away so long, no one will remember me!" "Are you kidding?" Edwards replied, and the studio audience chimed in with a further round of applause.

Hal Roach, Harold Lloyd, Cecil B. DeMille (pre-filmed, since he was in Egypt shooting The Ten Commandments the night of the show) and of course Ben and Louella were there to celebrate Bebe's years of movie and radio stardom. But her life during World War II, when she was the first woman to land on the beach at Normandy shortly after D-Day, and made voice transcriptions of the wounded men, which she sent to their families, was also covered - and, of course, this was the moment when sentiment ran unchecked. One of the guests was a woman who'd lost two sons in the war; Bebe had recorded the eldest son, speaking of how his brother had perished, and it was the last time this mother would hear his voice. Both women wept as Edwards assured them "there isn't a mother in the world who doesn't understand" the gift of Bebe's recording in the midst of tragedy. One could argue that it was cruel exploitation to revisit this heartbreak so publicly. Then again, the mother, Mrs. Preston B. Scott, did come on the show willingly. In fact, she'd interrupted a vacation to appear.

Bebe's own mother, Phyllis Daniels, was there, as were her two children, Barbara and Richard Lyon, flown in from London. All-in-all it was another successful This Is Your Life - but Jan Boehme wasn't watching. According to TV Guide, "she was on her phone again, talking to one of the key people involved in the November 24 show. Mr. (Alexander Graham) Bell's heirs should write this girl a thank-you note."


Kevin K. said...

Ever see the episode with Lou Costello? Ralph Edwards' glee in recounting Lou 's tragedies is just disgusting. The series itself could be interesting at times, but Edwards himself just seemed like a creep.

Michael J. Hayde said...

Yes, the Lou Costello episode is also in the box set with the L&H segment. Interesting that Edwards got Lou's friend and manager, Eddie Sherman, to relate the tragic death of Lou, Jr. Maybe Edwards thought it'd be easier on Lou and his wife that way, but the two of them had to sit there and listen to it - reliving it - and of course, the camera was mainly on them, not Sherman.