Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Marjorie Beebe Part II: How Does She Misbehave? Let Us Count The Ways

Here's Part II of my trilogy on the wonderful Precode comedienne, Marjorie Beebe. These articles were not written by me, but Ian who has done alot of work researching the actress whose history is mostly unknown and information is not readily available. Can you believe she does not have a Wikipedia page!! She was an amazingly sassy and modern women whose only aim was to - Make Em' Laugh. 

For part one click here:


Marjorie Beebe misbehaved in almost all of her movies. She was clearly a bit of a rebel and there is definitely something Pre Code about her attitude, but she was not trying to make some great sociological point. Her aim was to amuse; she wanted to be a comedienne and to make people laugh. She therefore had to be found out in her misbehaviour. The loglines one could write for her movies were pretty consistent, Sassy girl gets her comeuppance or She was the author of her own misfortune but she found all sorts of ways to make this happen. She became the butt of the slapstick but she was the complete opposite of the put-upon woman. She was claiming the lead role that had generally been the preserve of the great male clowns, Chaplin and Keaton and Roscoe Arbuckle.

To do this properly she had to get stuck into all the physical hi-jinks that they put themselves through, and to make it funny she had to subject herself to all sorts of indignity. None of this presented a problem to Marjorie Beebe. She was naturally athletic, and she loved staying in role to show her character’s mortification as her latest uppity young lady gets- her sometimes literal- dressing down. She was an excellent rider. In a spoof Western Hold ‘er Sheriff (Mack Sennett 1931) a boy’s hat blows off as Beebe rides by. She leans low out of the saddle to retrieve it and hands it to the boy without stopping. This scene has no plot relevance; it is there merely as a bit of Marjorie Beebe trick riding. She was also a powerful swimmer, a useful attribute given that her mentor Mack Sennett had become a little obsessed with filming underwater.

In Dance Hall Marge (Mack Sennett 1931) she’s in her usual trouble. She’s a club hostess, playing it quite risqué, and upsetting various men with her antics. She’s chased around a ship and has to dive off it. Floundering through shallow, dirty, sandy water in a flimsy evening dress she seemingly cuts a sorry figure. She slips over getting in more of a mess. The man pursuing her has some sort of pellet gun which he keeps firing and every time he does Beebe clutches her bottom. It’s a lovely signal that this is not some helpless victim. This is Marjorie Beebe still clowning around. She comes to a pier and clambers up the struts very athletically, and in her high heels. She climbs on to the top of the pier where there is a parked car. She gets into the car and starts it. But she puts it in reverse, and it careers straight back into the water where she proceeds to drive it as fish swim past her.
            Just look at Beebe clamber up that pier- the chase scene in Dance Hall Marge.

The whole sequence combining athletic chutzpah with temporary abject humiliation would have put off many an actress but Beebe loved this sort of routine. Incidentally it can best be seen not in the original short but in an excellent latter-day French compilation Ça c’est du Cinéma (Claude Accursi and Raymond Bardonnet 1951) which features most of the greats of slapstick cinema. The French have always loved cinema, and have idiosyncratic preferences which generally prove to be sound. At the beginning they list the star performers such as Keaton and Laurel and Lloyd, Billy Bevan and Jimmy Finlayson. Only one woman is given a main credit and she is Marjorie Beebe. Long after she had been forgotten in her homeland those French guys understood and appreciated her exceptional talents.

As for her dressings down one has only to look at one of her films where she moonlighted away from Mack Sennett. In 1931- her annus mirabilis when many of her best titles were made in that all too short career- she teamed up with Dane and Arthur in the Paramount short A Put-Up Job (Albert Ray 1931). It’s about building a prefab house and is a re-run of Buster Keaton routines, but Karl Dane gets the material to work for him too. Beebe is in a supporting role but she makes her presence felt. She’s Mrs Blimpo, and she and her husband have been landed with Dane and Arthur, fresh from the Job Center, who are to put up their new house. Mr Blimpo is pretty hopeless and Beebe clearly wears the pants. She finds Dane a rather engaging presence and starts flirting with him as soon as they meet in the house agent’s office. On site she continues to parade around; one morning she comes out of the house half-dressed and fiddling with the suspenders on her dungarees. They trail along the ground and Dane inadvertently steps on them. Down come the dungarees and Beebe is left with exposed panties.
                        Down comes Mrs Blimpo’s dungarees- Beebe in A Put-Up Job
Her staple gag was the pratfall. She loved and perfected falling on her bottom. She was taking the lead like the male clowns of silent cinema but she knew she could something different, something new with the pratfall as an attractive young woman. Her subsequent rueful bottom rubbing gave the routine an added dimension. Beebe loved combining the siren with the clown just as she loved combining the pratfall with the wisecrack. This is seen to best advantage in Doubling in the Quickies (Babe Stafford 1932). Marge Clancy leaves her hick town and her poor hick of a boyfriend played by the excellent Lloyd Hamilton, who on this occasion has to play very much second fiddle to Beebe. She gets herself to Hollywood and pesters all the studios just as the real Marjorie Beebe had probably done five years before.

             Marge Clancy’s frank assessment- Beebe loses face in Doubling in the Quickies
She gets auditions and recites her party piece. One is on ice and of course she loses her footing and falls over. Why is the audition on ice? Simply so Beebe can execute a pratfall. For another she languidly rests her foot on a chair thinking she is the epitome of cool. She has not noticed that the chair is on casters and it starts to run away with her leg. She gets more and more stretched and once again ends up in an undignified sprawl on the floor. She is not nearly as talented as she thinks she is but at last she gets taken on. There’s a scene where she gets to purr at the handsome leading man. But she is immediately taken aside and another actress, dressed identically, put in her place. Beebe has been hired as the stunt girl, the double, who has to do all the capers considered too dangerous or humiliating for the proper star, including being thrown out of a window by a violent gangster and into a rickety safety net outside and a long way down.

Confidence quickly restored- trying again in Doubling in the Quickies 
Marjorie Beebe always got into trouble and it was always through her misbehaviour. It was hubris in that instance. Sometimes it was lust or impertinence or disobedience. In Racket Cheers (Mack Sennett 1930) it was criminality as she teams up with her gangster boyfriend for a fraudulent caper. But she gets drunk at the sting and pays for it at his hands. A dream sequence at the end has the best routine as Beebe sits on board ship (wo)manning a submachine gun which she is firing at the entire American Navy, after them for their illegal activities. She fires off round after round, a cigarette clamped firmly between her lips. In the blink-and-it’s-over single reel Hot News Margie (Alfred J. Goulding 1931) it’s back to hubris and chutzpah in the very modern tale of a tabloid reporter going way over the top, and in Cowcatcher’s Daughter (Babe Stafford 1931) it’s just about everything, a twenty minute catalogue of rampant and Beebily bad behaviour.
24 carat misbehavior from the charmer of a Cowcatcher’s Daughter- complete with cow
Coming Soon: Cowcatcher’s Daughter (1931) Reviewed.