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Celebrate! : Orange County's First 100 Years : Forging An Identity : Bebe Behind Bars: 'She Couldn't Help It'

May 22, 1988|Patrick Mott

One of the most widely publicized crimes and subsequent trials in Orange County involved a speeding violation that touched off a legal circus of P. T. Barnum proportions. Of course, to get the glitter, you had to be a star.

And a star Bebe Daniels was. In 1921, she was one of the best-known actresses in silent films, achieving fame as Harold Lloyd's seductive sidekick. But on Jan. 11 of that year, she went into county history books behind the wheel of a high-powered Marmon automobile.

Racing toward San Juan Capistrano on Highway 101 (later the site of the Santa Ana Freeway) at the breathtaking clip of 56.5 m.p.h., Daniels was nabbed by a motorcycle policeman and brought to trial before Judge John Belshazzar Cox, a man with an eye for publicity and swift, sure justice for speeders. The tone of the proceedings was set when, shortly before Daniels entered her plea, the Yost Theatre in Santa Ana premiered Daniels' latest film, "She Couldn't Help It."

After listening to Daniels' attorney, W. I. Gilbert, argue that the court should show mercy for "this poor little girl who has been subjected to so much," the flinty Cox set a trial date two months away.

Bebe Daniels was not one to spend the 60 days playing the penitent. While she waited to face Cox, she appeared at a benefit in Fullerton wearing a highly revealing costume and singing a song she called "The Judge Cox Blues." After the performance, flowers arrived for her. They were from Cox.

On March 28, with an estimated 600 Hollywood luminaries and others wedged into a Santa Ana courtroom, Daniels told the jury that her car had sprung a radiator leak and she was making a dash for a garage in San Juan Capistrano to have it repaired.

The jury didn't buy it. After five minutes of deliberation, she was found guilty.

When Cox loudly pronounced sentence--10 days in the county jail--Daniels was unperturbed.

"Oh, well, I suppose if you live in a small town you get like that," she said. "I bet 56.5 miles an hour sounds awfully fast if you've never driven anything faster than a plow."

She pronounced Cox "a nice, fatherly old gentleman" and promptly asked for a piano in her cell.

She didn't get it. What she did get, after arriving at the jail with an entourage that included her press agent, suitcases, hatboxes and assorted chocolates, was an array of goodies never seen before or since behind Orange County jail house bars.

A local furniture store delivered a bedroom suite. A local restaurant provided three hot meals a day. A devotee delivered a Victrola and 150 records "to while away those long, lonely nights." A band serenaded her beneath her window in the evening. Daniels' jail house guest book listed 792 names. Even Judge Cox came to visit.

Daniels was the first woman convicted of speeding in Orange County.

When she was released on April 24 after 10 days in jail, she vowed, "I'll never speed again as long as I live." She left immediately for Hollywood to go to work on her newest film.

It was called "The Speed Girl."

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