Jul 7, 2018
On DVD: Bebe Daniels Charms in My Past (1931)
With a title like My Past and that cover art with Bebe Daniels giving a “seen all, done all” look, I expected a different film than I got. It is pre-code in tone and deed, but more subdued about it: racy, but not saucy. What I liked best about this film now available on DVD from Warner Archive, is that I found a new appreciation for the charming Daniels.
The plot is familiar: a gorgeous showgirl (Daniels) is loved by a wealthy older man (Lewis Stone), but she’s got the hots for his younger, unhappily married friend (Ben Lyons). It’s all just a framework for beautiful costumes and settings, and reliably appealing performers like Stone, Lyons and the always marvelous Joan Blondell as Daniels’ best friend.
There are some typically pre-code sleeping arrangements and flexible ideas about marriage, but the thing that makes it pop is the chemistry between Daniels and Lyons, who were married from 1930 to her death in 1971. This isn’t a screen partnership with a Bogie and Bacall sizzle, but there’s a warmth between them that elevates the familiar material. It’s pleasant to see them at play together. You feel the affection.
My introduction to Bebe Daniels, as with many classic film fans, was as the distraught musical star Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street (1933). Though she is technically the star of that production, it is Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell who people remember. I now realize this sour, if not entirely unsympathetic character was not the best way to get to know her, much like seeing Norma Shearer for the first time in The Women (1939) is not a great introduction to her persona.
By the time of My Past, Daniels had been in films for over twenty years. She came from a theatrical family and had been before the camera since her silent short debut as a child. Though she faltered a bit at the start of the talkie age because she’d become associated with the overdone musical fad, Warner Bros saw her potential and picked her up for a great run in the 1930s. This film was the start of that period, which also included starring roles in Counselor-at-Law (1933) and in the first screen version of The Maltese Falcon (1931) (in an amusing scene in My Past, she cheekily signs a copy of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel).
Here, for the first time, I finally appreciated what made Daniels appealing to audiences. She’s got the beauty and glamour of a movie star, but there’s always a part of her that feels relatable in a deeply humane way. It’s not the gal pal warmth of Blondell or the weary shopgirl earthiness of early Joan Crawford, but rather an air of truly taking things to heart. It was satisfying to see her take center stage, where her appeal could be fully appreciated.
While this isn’t a remarkable production, it offers many low-key pleasures and will especially satisfy pre-code fans.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.