Two motorcycle cops at a road block listen to a message from headquarters. Behind them, a line of traffic waits to be checked. Somewhere back there is a stolen car driven by an armed and dangerous prison escapee, Joe Sullivan, the double-crossed hero of Raw Deal (1948).
A 14-year-old girl can be seen for a moment sitting in the back of one of the cars. The cops wave the car through and the girl, played by Beverly Wills, blows on a little novelty noisemaker. It's an ordinary family; they're normal people.
But there was nothing ordinary or normal about Beverly's real family. Her parents, Joan Davis and Si Wills, had been vaudeville performers before moving to Hollywood. Si did a little acting and scriptwriting while Joan became one of the best-known female comic performers of the time, an expert at pratfalls, goofy faces and clowning who co-starred in films with Abbot and Costello and Eddie Cantor, and in radio shows with Rudy Vallee and Lionel Stander.(1)
Joan Davis was a minor star, but she was determined that her daughter would be a major one. Joan had made it as far as she had with no family connections whatsoever (her father had been a train dispatcher in St Paul, Minnesota), so there was really no reason why Beverly couldn't make it even further with a little help from an influential mother.
Joan started her campaign early. In the late 1930s, when Beverly was five or six, Joan started having her placed in small roles in minor movies, presumably to acclimatise her to life in the studio. Each time, the publicity departments would produce short news pieces excitedly announcing that Joan Davis's daughter was "appearing with Shirley Temple"(2) or "playing Irene Dunne's daughter"(3) while failing to draw attention to the insignificant size of the parts.
Joan also made sure that Beverly's name was constantly in the gossip columns, usually through patently fictitious stories of her cute antics. Many of the stories, such as the one in which she brings home her first-grade report card and declares that she "got a good write-up at school", were clearly designed to present a picture of a showbiz-obsessed, sassy and sparky little girl, much like her mother had been at that age.
This notion of Beverly as a younger version of Joan was a constant feature of press pieces about her. In 1945, when Beverly was 11, she and her mother appeared in George White's Scandals, with Beverly playing her mother's character as a child in a flashback sequence. (Joan's voice was dubbed on top of hers.) Publicity photographs like this one accompanied news of the mother and daughter team-up:
The copy that ran alongside the pictures played up the idea of Beverly as a mini-Joan: "Beverly Wills, 11-year-old daughter of actress Joan Davis, rehearses a song for her movie debut in which she sings as her mother might have 20 years ago. Observers say Beverly is a dead ringer for her mother, with the same cracked features, blonde hair and expressions." (5)
A few years later, when Beverly had a few lines in Mickey (1948), there was a story that, at the audition, to which Joan had taken her, she had told the producer that she could do "anything that mama can - only cheaper."
Of course, the idea was that Beverly would eventually surpass mama. As time went on, however, it became clear that that simply wasn't going to happen. For some reason, no one would give Beverly featured roles. Perhaps she simply wasn't as talented a performer as Joan, or maybe it had something to do with the fact that, as she remarked years later, she had a mouthful of braces and what her doctor called a bad case of adolescent skin. She explained, "I tried X-rays and shots and keeping oily foods out of my diet", but nothing helped. "A bad skin can alter your whole personality," she noted -- which must be especially true if that bad skin means failure, and serves as a daily reminder that you're letting your mother down.(6)
She entered her 20s without making any sort of breakthrough. Most actresses her age would have viewed the regular radio work and occasional bit parts that came her way as being rather promising, but they hadn't spent their lives being groomed to take their mother's place as a top-flight comedienne, and it's hard not to conclude that the continued lack of success began to trouble Beverly.
A clue to how she felt about her life at this point might be found in what appears to have been her first independent act. Entirely against the wishes of her mother and in complete contradiction of the long-term plan to create a second Joan Davis, Beverly eloped to Carson City with Lee Bamber, a fireman from Pasadena. It was a rash decision - the marriage lasted just over a year - but it demonstrated that, perhaps, Beverly wasn't entirely sold on her mother's designs for her, especially as those designs looked increasingly less likely to work out.
It's a shame that she chose an unsuitable partner in her move to assert her personality. The marriage was a self-evident disaster, a mistake that surely proved that Joan knew better, that Beverly had no business trying to strike out on her own. Perhaps if the marriage had been a good one - if Lee Bamber had been a strong enough character to tear Beverly away from Joan - Beverly might have been able to think of a plan that suited her better than Joan's did. But the marriage wasn't any good, and Beverly ended up tied to her mother more tightly than ever.
As Beverly's career foundered in her early 20s, Joan came up with a characteristic solution. Her television show, I Married Joan, was about to start its second season and Joan decided that Beverly would play a new character, written just for her: Joan's younger sister!
Here's a publicity shot that accompanied the announcement.
Like all of the news pieces about Beverly's career, the announcement was out of proportion to the size of her role - in the end, she appeared in only a handful of episodes in one season.
I Married Joan was never a hit, suffering badly in comparisons with I Love Lucy, whose format it had obviously stolen. Joan was nearly 50 when it was cancelled in 1955, and she decided to retire. Her step out of the public eye abruptly ended all coverage of Beverly's career, as the press had only ever mentioned Beverly in connection with her mother. That meant that nobody bothered to report anything about Beverly's work on the film that most people will have seen her in, Some Like it Hot (1959), in which she played one of the members of Sweet Sue's all-girl band. She's second from the right in this still, delivering the punch line to a joke in Jack Lemmon's crowded upper berth:
"So the one-legged jockey says, 'Don't worry about me, baby, I ride side-saddle!'"
It's a tiny role, but Beverly packs in about five minutes' worth of cartoonishly exaggerated mugging into her few seconds of screen time. She's clearly her mother's daughter - that much of Joan's plan worked, at least.
Beverly was 26 at this point. She had two children by her second husband, a schoolteacher, whom she'd divorced the year before, and had just married a motorcycle salesman who spent a lot of time out of town. She also had a big problem with drink - one of the other members of Sweet Sue's all-girl band, Grace Lee Whitney, wrote in her autobiography that Beverly and she were "true alcoholics". Instead of going home once their scenes were all in the can, like the other girls, Beverly and Grace rented a room in a cheap motel across from the hotel where the rest of the film was being shot and embarked on an epic drinking spree. "We were like two teenagers on the loose," Grace wrote. "We ran around as if we were single, with no cares, no diapers, no laundry, no one to answer to. We were out of control, but the more out of control we got, the more fun we had".
That seems to have been the only sort of fun that Beverly was capable of having around that time. She didn't like herself much by the late 50s. Maybe she was disappointed that she had never lived up to the promise that she had always been told she had shown from the moment she could walk. Or maybe she knew she'd let her mother down badly. Who knows? All that Grace Lee Whitney has to say is that, like her, Beverly drank "to ward off ... bad feelings ... to deaden the morality and self hate."(8)
Joan Davis died of a heart attack at the age of 53. Beverly wasn't mentioned in the obituaries. She continued to get bit parts, mostly on television, and kept drinking heavily.
On 23 October, 1963, Beverly TV-tested for a role in a pilot for The John MacIver Show and got the part. She was to play "a snippy spinster who runs the complaint booth in John's department store", and would be a regular on the show, if it got picked up.(9)
She celebrated that night, and didn't get to bed until it was late and she was drunk.
The next day, this headline appeared:
Beverly had fallen asleep while smoking a cigarette. She burned to death, and her two children, Guy, who was seven, and Larry, who was four, and her grandmother - Joan's mother - died from smoke inhalation.
Beverly was 30 years old; she had outlived her mother by just two years.
Sources: (1)Cullen, et al, "Vaudeville, Old and New", Routledge, 2006, p.295; (2)North Adams Transcript, Jan 4 1938; (3)Alameda Southern County News, Dec 8, 1938; (4)1945 c Time&Life/Getty; (5)Reno Evening Gazette, March 28, 1945; (6)Big Spring Daily Herald, Sep 12, 1954; (7)Big Spring Daily Herald, Sep 12, 1954; (8)Whitney, Grace Lee, "The Longest Trek", Quill Driver Books, 1998, p47-48; (9)Independent Star-News, Nov 11, 1963; (10)Pasadena Star News, October 24, 1963.