Ben Lyon: Life with the Ladies

Ben Lyon (1901-1979) was a major star of the silent and Pre-code eras who is chiefly interesting now in relationship to, and collaboration with, several important women; wives, co-stars, and discoveries. For real!

Born in Atlanta and raised in Baltimore, Lyon was the son of a Jewish salesman with a knack for playing the piano. As a youth, Lyon appeared in amateur theatricals. He is frequently said to have appeared in a play with Jeanne Eagels early in his career, although I’ve not been able to find any details (e.g., the name of the play, the date, or which theatre). He was only 17 years old when he appeared in his first film The Transgressor (1918), an anti-Union morality film made by an outfit called the Catholic Art Association. This was followed by Open Your Eyes (1919) a V.D.-awareness movie by State Health Films and Warner Brothers. Jack Warner was actually in this early production himself!

These credits (and no doubt his Baltimore background) were enough to get him cast in his first real film, a 1923 adaptation of David Belasco’s The Heart of Maryland starring fellow Baltimorian Catherine Calvert as well as Crane Wilbur and William Collier, Jr. His Jewish identity served him well in the comedy Potash and Perlmutter (1923) with Barney Bernard and Alexander Carr. His big breakthrough, that same year was Flaming Youth, a smash hit starring Colleen Moore.

From here he was on his way. The good-looking Lyon proved to be a cinematic heart-throb, a sort of poor-woman’s Valentino, and he was cast opposite the screen’s leading sirens, like Mary Astor, Viola DanaBarbara La MarrPola Negri, Anna Q. Nilsson, Gloria Swanson, and Blanche Sweet. Films of this period include the first screen adaptation Edna Ferber’s So Big (1924), Lily of the Dust (1924), Wages of Virtue (1924), The White Moth (1924), The Pace That Thrills (1925), and Frank Capra’s first post-Harry Langdon feature For the Love of Mike (1927) with Claudette Colbert.

In 1930 he starred in Howard Hughes’ notorious Hell’s Angels, as well as Alias French Gertie, a film co-starring Bebe Daniels, whom he married that year. His stardom continued for the next several years. Night Nurse (1931) paired him with Barbara Stanwyck. Her Majesty Love (1931) put him opposite Marilyn Miller and was W.C. Fields’ and Chester Conklin’s first talking feature (Fields and Conklin had earlier parodied Flaming Youth in Two Flaming Youths). I Cover the Waterfront (1933) might be his best remembered film of the early ’30s. In Lightning Strikes Twice (1934) he co-starred with Thelma Todd.

By the late ’30s, Lyon’s popularity had wound down. He and Daniels put together a vaudeville act and toured the music halls of Britain to great success. Even though World War II was looming, they opted to remain there. They had a popular radio sitcom called Hi, Gang! which ran on the BBC from 1940 through 1949. There was also a Hi, Gang! film in 1941. When the war ended, the pair took a brief break from the show and Lyon worked for a short time as an executive at Fox, which is where he “discovered” Marilyn Monroe (today many people know him only as this footnote to Monroe’s career). Lyon is said to have called her “the next Jean Harlow.” He had of course worked with Harlow on Hell’s Angels. 

When Hi, Gang! ended, Lyon and Daniels went into their next sitcom Life with the Lyons, which also starred their kids (like a British Ozzie and Harriet). The radio version launched in 1950; the television version ran from 1954 through 1960. They also made the films Life with the Lyons (1954) and The Lyons in Paris (1955).

In the early ’60s, Daniels suffered the first in a series of strokes, forcing her retirement. Lyon continued to appear on talk and variety programs and make personal appearances. After Daniels died in 1971, he married fellow screen veteran Marian Nixon the following year. He died of a heart attack while vacation with her on the QE2 seven years later.

For more on early Hollywood history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,