Señorita (1927) Poster


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Bebe Daniels romps away with comedy of swords
Igenlode Wordsmith28 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
"Senorita" is a charming Zorro-style action comedy in its own right, as the young hero comes back to save the ancestral estate at sword's point while courting incognito across the boundaries of a family feud -- even without the sex-change twist! Unlike Zorro, however, Francesca performs her raids under her true family name, and only adopts a sobriquet for her lover's benefit: he knows her as 'The Lightning Senorita', and in the scene where they first meet there is a very funny variation on an old comedy staple, as the bathing heroine attempts, to her intense embarrassment, not so much to preserve the secret of her own undress as to save herself from the spectacle of the strapping young hero stripping off to take a dip...

But she is, of course, smitten, and is determined to find or steal a suitable dress to allow her to attend the fiesta in the persona of the 'Lightning Senorita' and court her beau. The latter, meanwhile, has not the slightest suspicion that the lovely unknown is connected to the young Francisco Hernandez who has been carrying out reprisals on the Oliveros estate, and whom he has determined to duel to the death.

The main weakness of the plot is the very forced way in which Roger Oliveros is set up, as the hero, to be completely ignorant of the dastardly activities of the family of which he is the head, yet sufficiently active to take up the task of venging himself upon their rivals. The thinking is presumably that the love-interest needs to be whiter-than-white; but in making Roger such a noble, ignorant goop, the film not only strains its mechanics to the limit (you can practically hear the plot creaking as the necessary exposition comes into play) but deprives the romance itself of some of its potential zip. It doesn't seem to me that it would have flouted convention to have cast the hero as a hot-headed participant in the ancestral feud without making him thereby a dyed-in-the-wool villain, and it would have been a lot simpler to arrange, as well as more plausible.

However, great fun is still to be had with Bebe Daniels as a thoroughly convincing tomboy, who establishes her fiery credentials (and fencing prowess) in her own sex at a close-fought polo match before emerging as a dashing young caballero who could double for Douglas Fairbanks -- complete with moustache! The silent medium, of course, saves her from the downfall of most masquerading film heroines, the gruff tones that are far more of a giveaway than a natural treble, and it's really one of the most convincing male impersonations I remember seeing. Small wonder Roger fails to make the connection between his Lightning Senorita and Francisco, the stubborn youngster who (in a turn-up for the genre) flatly refuses to defend the family honour -- despite encountering both of the two at the same fiesta in the course of the same evening! (There is a very funny sequence when the ardent suitor arrives before Francesca has finished changing, and she has to fend him off with her top half over the door while desperately attempting to complete the rest of her sex-change out of sight... although it does not involve a mistake with a moustache.)

With the introduction of the element of contempt and enmity between the principals, as Francesca finds not only her own but her family's reputation staked against her lover's life, the film takes on an added depth and power: one reason why I felt that casting Roger as a heedless young Tybalt rather than an innocent dupe might actually have been more effective. But emboldened by the Hernandez' loss of face, Roger's rascally cousin (not father) Ramon embarks upon a raid on the big house itself -- providing the opportunity for the film's big finale, as Francisco redeems himself for his public refusal to fight Roger and embarks on a single-handed and very successful defence. The swashbuckling action is played more or less straight by its female protagonist, to great effect; and it terminates in the inevitable pyrotechnics of an extended one-on-one duel... not with Ramon, but with Roger, who has ridden up post-haste on his cousin's heels.

The conventions of romantic comedy require, of course, that social norms and proper relations between the sexes should be restored by having our hitherto invincible heroine outmastered at this point, to submit in domestic bliss to her true identity as wife of the one man who can defeat her. But, wayward as ever, "Senorita" doesn't play out quite like that. Francesca is unmasked indeed -- but not because she is disarmed and overpowered in the fight, but because she takes a superficial scalp wound and tears off her bandanna to wipe away the blood that blinds her, shaking loose her hair and thus, in the grand tradition of such things, instantly revealing herself to be a girl.

The duel, naturally, is over. The lovers fall into one another's arms; the family feud is healed; and old Hernandez is mollified by the discovery that his 'Francisco' was a hot-hearted granddaughter of whom he could be proud. And convention is saved by Francesca's doe-eyed final declaration that while she loves swordplay, she now finds "the titillations of love" to be even better. (To be fair, I saw this film in a back-translated French print; the original English wording of the intertitle in question may have held a little less bathos.)

All in all, I found this a lively, enjoyable film, and Miss Daniels' timing and performance truly excellent. Her skill with a sword also appears admirable! As a contemporary reviewer observed, "The idea might even have been treated in a more sober manner, for... the general trend is interesting": if the plot had been taken slightly more seriously, the result might have been very interesting indeed.

It's pretty good anyway.
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Bebe boy/boy boo-boo
F Gwynplaine MacIntyre27 September 2002
Warning: Spoilers
My cultural references are primarily British, so Bebe Daniels is firmly fixed in my mind as Ben Lyon's wife (and Molly Weir's employer) in the "Life with the Lyons" comedy series made in England. I'm always pleasantly surprised to be reminded of Bebe Daniels's excellent career as a silent-film comedienne. "Señorita" is a delightful showcase for Bebe's comedic talents, although the story is wildly implausible: a cross between "Zorro" and "Victor/Victoria".

The house of Hernandez and the house of Oliveros are two rival families in old Spain: like the Montagues and the Capulets, both families are wealthy... and both families have been at each other's throats for years, in a bitter blood feud. Don Francisco Hernandez, the grandee of his family, is embarking on a long sea voyage on the night that his grandchild is due to be born: Don Hernandez is confident that the child will be a boy, to carry on the family name (and the feud against the Oliveros clan). Just as Don Hernandez sails, he receives confirmation that the grandchild is born and has been named after him. One minor detail escapes his attention: the expected grandson is actually a girl, named Francisca.

Twenty years pass, during which Don Hernandez conveniently never meets his "grandson" ... rather strange, this is, as the Don is expecting his male "heir" to maintain the family's honour and estates. Francisca's parents have corresponded with the Don, sending him letters with news about his fine strapping grandson "Francisco". Francisca is now a beautiful young woman (Bebe Daniels), but she has been raised in mannish skills such as swordfighting. When Francisca goes to meet her grandfather at last, she maintains the ruse by disguising herself as a swashbuckling caballero, with a glued-on moustache. When Don Hernandez witnesses the skill of his swordsman grand"son", he decides that "Francisco" must lead a battalion of swordsmen (family retainers) against the Oliveros clan. With a macho gesture, "Francisco" agrees to fight until the last man dies ... then a mouse creeps across the floor. At once, Francisca drops her sword and goes all girly-squealy (in her male disguise) to escape this rodent.

William Powell (usually playing villains at this point in his career) is the swarthy patriarch of the Oliveros clan, and his young son (with the un-Spanish name Roger) is callowly played by James Hall. When Francisca goes forth in her male disguise to declare war on the Oliveros estate, she sees Roger Oliveros and is attracted to him instantly ... but, trying not to break character, she hurls threats at him as "Francisco". Later, she changes back into female garb and arranges to meet Roger while posing as the "twin sister" of her male self. Of course, Roger is attracted to Francisca. So now Roger is vowing to kill Francisco while lusting after Francisca, never noticing that Francisco is a girl in disguise and that both "twins" are the same person.

There is some predictable farce comedy here, with Daniels forced to quick-change several times. Inevitably, she gets back into female clothes without noticing that she's still wearing her moustache.

SPOILER ALERT. Of course, Roger eventually discovers that his bitterest male enemy is also his lady-love ... and you have to wonder why it took so long for this boy-boob to see Bebe's a babe. And, of course, the romance between an Oliveros son and a Hernandez daughter ends the feud between the families. To quote the Spanish poet Bart Simpson: "Ay caramba!"

"Señorita" is contrived and predictable but still very funny, thanks entirely to the comedic skills of Bebe Daniels (with an assist from Powell). As Francisco, the very pretty Daniels swaggers gracefully but is never convincingly male. I was surprised to see Lloyd Corrigan's name in the credits, as his comedy scripts tended to be very unfunny. Clarence Badger, usually a workman-like director, shows a deft comic timing here. "Señorita" is long overdue for rediscovery ... as is the entire career of Bebe Daniels.
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