Ben Lyon – Actor, War Hero, and Talent Scout

lyon-benDespite a film career that started in 1918 and ran through 1955, Ben Lyon is probably best remembered for his long marriage to the equally durable Bebe Daniels and for one film: Hell’s Angels. Lyon was a highly appealing star of the 1920s and 30s. Although he never rose to major stardom, he enjoyed decades of success in American and British films, stage, radio, and television. Born Ben Lyon, Jr. in Atlanta, he was the son of a pianist-turned-businessman. Though raised in Baltimore, he never quite shed his southern accent. He performed in amateur productions as a teen before heading to Broadway where he had a success in Mary the 3rd in 1923. Lyon also co-starred in the film version, Wine of Youth in 1924.

Hell’s Angels and Other Films
Lyon broke into films in 1918 and quickly rose in popularity, although his silent films are not terribly memorable. Like many other film actors, Lyon was pegged as a “leading man” rather than a “star.” But Lyon became the embodiment of “flaming youth” in the smash-hit film, Flaming Youth (1923) in which he co-starred with Colleen Moore. The film was important in establishing the post-war “lost generation” mentality as well as creating characters like “flappers” and “sheiks.” Lyon then starred with Eleanor Boardman and William Haines in Wine of Youth (1924), another film that examined the wild lives of the young set. Lyon was among a set of film actors who quickly broke with the sentimental characters of the teens to establish the racy new characters of the 20s.

Lyon went on to work with many of the era’s biggest female stars. He re-teamed with Colleen Moore in So Big (1924) and starred with Pola Negri in Lily of the Dust (1924), Gloria Swanson in Wages of Virtue (1924), Barbara La Marr in The White Moth (1924), Mary Astor in The Pace That Thrills (1925), Blanche Sweet in Bluebeard’s Seven Wives and The New Commandment, both (1925), May McAvoy in The Savage (1926), and with Claudette Colbert in her only silent feature, For the Love of Mike (1927).

By the end of the silent era, the 30-something actor was in big demand because of his excellent speaking voice and also because he could sing. His first musical was 1930’s The Hot Heiress, followed in 1931 by the underrated Indiscreet with Gloria Swanson and Her Majesty, Love with Marilyn Miller and W.C. Fields. In 1930 he starred in Alias French Gertie with Bebe Daniels and married her shortly thereafter. In 1931 the couple re-teamed in My Past. Other notable films of this period include Night Nurse with Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell and The Big Timer (an excellent performance as a boxer) with Constance Cummings. In 1933 he re-teamed with Claudette Colbert in I Cover the Waterfront. Overall, Lyon was extremely busy in the early talkie period, appearing in more than 25 films between 1930 and 1933; he worked constantly up until World War II.

But his greatest success and best-remembered film is probably Hell’s Angels. He played the dashing hero and actually filmed some of the airborne scenes himself. The film had a tortuous production from April 1927 to July 1928 and wasn’t released until the spring of 1930. Howard Hughes produced the film and poured money into the production, filling it with death-defying aerial stunts, international locations, scenes in tints (popular in that era) and the new Multicolor process, all of which worked to eventually raise production costs to almost $4 million.

Originally, the film was to star Lyon and James Hall as the British Rutledge brothers, along with silent film star Greta Nissen as their childhood friend, and was to be directed by Marshall Neilan. But before the picture even began filming, Hughes’ overbearing techniques forced Neilan out and Hughes took over the directing reins. Midway through production, the advent of sound in motion pictures came with the arrival of The Jazz Singer. Hughes shrewdly incorporated the new technology into the half-finished film. Watching the film today, it’s obvious that certain silent sections have been overdubbed, but the eerie blimp scenes benefit from the original silent filming. Hughes fired Greta Nissen because of her Norwegian accent. He paid her for her work and replaced her with Jean Harlow. Ironically, the beautiful Harlow totally fails to convey the same British accent Nissen would not have been able to perform.

Three of the stunt aviators were killed during this production. So it’s really amazing that Lyon, Hall, and even Howard Hughes flew those bi-planes and performed all manner of aerial stunts. While Harlow, Lyon, and Hall received mixed reviews for their acting, Hughes was praised for his hard work on the aerial sequences. The film debuted in spring 1930 and finally went into general release on November 15, 1930, earning nearly $8 million, about double the production costs. This is equivalent to roughly $100 million today. Hell’s Angels is usually credited with making Harlow a star, but contemporary reviews showed a prejudice toward maverick film producer Hughes and this mammoth film production. The film firmly established Lyon as a talkie star but did little for the forgotten Hall. Indeed most ads for Hell’s Angels give top billing to Harlow.

Thanks to a recently restored version and a 2004 DVD, Hell’s Angels is easily available today, and despite the melodramatic scenes, the film is a stunning achievement. Not only are the aerial scenes breathtaking, the scenes on the gigantic German blimp are beautifully filmed (in a blue tint) and unforgettable. Also, the aerial scenes with Lyon and Hall are just plain great. It’s quite surprising to hear Lyon utter some curses that were not generally heard in Hollywood films of the day.

Unfortunately, the rest of Lyon’s Hollywood career saw him in mostly minor films. By 1932 Lyon was getting “below the title” billing in B films like The Crooked Circle, a comic murder mystery that starred Zasu Pitts or starring with forgotten actresses like Sari Maritza in Crimson Romance. In the mid-30s, Lyon and Daniels packed up and moved to England, where they worked in films and radio through World War II.

Although Lyon had a desultory career in British films, he and Daniels had a surprisingly successful radio show called Hi, Gang! in which they played themselves as a bickering, bantering couple. The show was also filled with lots of songs. It was such a hit that a film version under the same title was released in 1941. Daniels and Lyon are a delight as they exchange snappy repartee. After the war they starred in another radio show called Life with the Lyons. This show had an “Ozzie and Harriet” feel in which the Lyons appeared with their real-life children. The radio show moved on to television and spawned two feature films, including Lyon’s final film, The Lyons in Paris (1955).

As British film historian Kevin Brownlow has mentioned, Lyon and Daniels bravely remained in England throughout World War II, including the London Blitz. Lyon was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his war service.

After the war (Lyon served as Lt. Colonel in charge of Special Services for the U.S. Air Corps in England), he took a job as talent scout with 20th Century Fox. He is often credited with discovering and naming a young blonde starlet (“It’s Jean Harlow all over again!” he said) who became Marilyn Monroe. In an odd twist, Lyon supposedly suggested the name “Marilyn” in honor of Broadway’s legendary Marilyn Miller, with whom Lyon co-starred in Her Majesty, Love. Miller and Lyon made national headlines in 1928 when they announced the end of their engagement. Lyon stated they would always be friends.

Lyon died in 1979 at age 78; he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.