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Monday, December 25, 2023

Another Doing in Movies What Most Would Hesitate to Do

Melanie Daniels Plays the Game Called Access and Opportunity

The Birds
for me is less about avian assault and more about other things. It is nature in an uproar against backdrop of human nature we all encounter, being of hill called access-and-opportunity that everyone climbs, some repeatedly, many to limited or no success, access-and-opportunity being what it takes to identify a relationship we want to pursue, and measures needed to pursue it. This is whole of Birds concern for a first forty-five minutes, unique/compelling by itself as who hasn’t gone to sometimes extraordinary length to contrive a second meeting after promise from a first? Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels speaks with but is not introduced to Mitch Brenner, former attracted/intrigued from chance encounter at a shop selling mostly birds and tropical fish. Melanie is there to collect a “full-grown mynah bird” that promises to talk, comedic set-up for chance contact with Mitch, a Lubitsch-style open where things might develop only if these two somehow get together a second time. There is suggestive tilting on topic of love birds and mating habits of same, Mitch seeking a pair for his sister’s birthday. Banter gets Melanie interested, but how to follow-up on this first introduction that is not an introduction? Mitch recognizes Melanie from newspapers reporting her heiress antics, Mitch having fun at Melanie’s expense for brief moments this acquaintance will last. He will leave as casually as he arrived, minus love birds, but that doesn’t matter. Melanie sees the desirable mynah that is Mitch fly away and determines to find out who he is, rushing behind to take down a license plate number as her quarry drives off. How many in real life have done this or something like it? I did on one occasion which came to nothing, the fun in putting myself by way of a second encounter if I chose to chase it, challenge being to frame such and make it seem as random as the first. How often do such schemes work? Maybe seldom, if ever … or should we just say never?


Melanie learns the first law of access and opportunity, which is to make access and arrange opportunity. Some (most?) would say this is stalking and figure the flirtation better forgot. But what if Melanie sensed Mitch for the soulmate he would become? A person less resourceful would discount destiny crooking its finger and trust her soulmate to emerge from elsewhere, but how many soulmates does one encounter in a lifetime? Honest enough respondents will admit few, in fact none if they are really honest. We’re intrigued by Melanie’s urgency to track Mitch and maybe snare him, movies being about people willing to do things the rest of us lack energy or initiative for. Melanie must enter Mitch’s world, an entirely separate one from her own. Tracing the plate, getting an address, determining that Mitch practices law for a living, these but starters toward “happening” to run into him again, latter more awkward for him realizing effort she went to. To tip off strong interest is generally a kiss of doom. Mitch might think Melanie too aggressive, and yes, acquiring love birds and driving them an hour and a half up the California coast to Bodega Bay where the Brenners have a home goes past enterprising to plain nervy. But, Hitchcock and writers ask, how many perfect loves were lost because one or the other party failed to seize the bit that would enable an encore? Access and opportunity knocks upon all doors, as in here’s how to interpose yourself between inaction and resulting disappointment that make up too much of life. Melanie’s is the bold stroke, showing up at Bodega Bay in hope mutual interest will develop with Mitch, but what of eternal ninety/ten rule that dictates majority of desired things won’t work out as opposed to piddling ten percent that might? Chances are greater Mitch will be put off, alarmed even, that Melanie has gone to all this effort just to see him again. And what if he already had a girlfriend, fiancée, or even a wife? Plug yourself into Melanie's circumstance and picture the risk she runs.

A gull swooping down to attack is agency to shift Melanie and Mitch’s relationship to something shared in the face of a now mutual struggle. Will Mitch and Melanie in years to come thank that errant gull for bringing them truly together? Access and opportunity often mean going to outlandish effort toward your objective. I have a friend who years ago met an object of interest, realized it was one/only occasion to see her, unless he schemed otherwise. Toward that end, he asked around and found she worked as a nurse at a local hospital. How to cross paths again and make it seem coincidence? His idea was to go and get an adjustable arm sling, put it on, and show up where the Object of Interest was, their second rendezvous a fortuity as stealthily shaped by him. Was she wise? Nothing would have killed the moment like exposing the ruse, “you can’t fool me” putting paid to the association before it began. Those truer wise might play along where they see or sense value in their pursuer, however blundering his/her effort. So what happened to this particular couple? They married, stayed married, had three children and so far, seven grandchildren. This then was Access and Opportunity writ large, device to generally not work, but worth a reach perhaps toward that elusive ten percent. Result to contrary may be chalked up to failure being after all a better teacher than success. There is no broader avenue than access and opportunity for making a fool of oneself. Our sympathy is with Melanie Daniels for putting herself in ridicule’s way, approaching Bodega strangers, pretending to know people or belong at places she does not. Melanie crossing the waterway, a wide one, in a rented putt-putt boat is as vulnerable to profound embarrassment as any Hitchcock character could be. Did the Master ever hold us in such suspense as Melanie making her slow approach and entering Mitch’s home unobserved and without invitation to deliver the love birds?

Melanie earns plaudits for her persistence, even as it obliges her to mislead those she’d use to access what she wants, including Mitch once they meet again and it is plainly obvious she made the drive to Bodega seeking him. Access/opportunity often employs trickery to achieve ends, outright lying too where necessary. Melanie goes to a stranger, Annie Hayworth, to get the name of Mitch’s sister, Annie aware that the mission involves more than that, even as Melanie evades and again misleads as she did with Bodega’s postmaster. We could ask Melanie if even an ideal outcome was worth measures she took. I don’t know of a director better equipped than Hitchcock to explore A/O and what it provokes us to do. Mitch’s home being “across the bay” is no obstacle so long as there is a boat and Melanie can hire it. We gather she’ll survive future onslaught that are titular birds, as this is one determined woman. She has within twenty minutes earned our rooting interest plus sympathy going forward. Mitch observes Melanie through binoculars well after she has delivered the lovebirds and is making her way back. He seems pleased and flattered that she has sought him out. What promises to be continuation of light romantic comedy is wrested away sudden by the gull’s attack, an incident to bond Melanie and Mitch at outset of fearsome events. Attitudes shift as he becomes solicitous and protective of her. A relationship between Melanie and Mitch shall commence, awkwardness in the getting there forgiven and forgot, way clear for The Birds to unfurl its horrors now that we are fully invested in these characters.

More of The Birds at Greenbriar HERE.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Canon Fire #8


Among the One-Hundred: San Francisco (1936)

Was lying awake at the Beverly Garland Hotel in North Hollywood on January 17, 1994, at 4:30 am when earth beneath suddenly shook and it seemed some thing had picked up the structure entire and shook it for fifteen or so seconds. Wide awake I was anyway, so none of jolt was missed, and yes this was unmistakably an earthquake. First thought: What would Blackie Norton do? I leapt up to put on fewest clothes allowable and made hasty way to what seemed a safest retreat, the vacant end of Garland’s parking lot remote enough for buildings not to fall upon me, but what of fissures sure to open and swallow humans whole? Best I keep eyes affixed to ground and await grand mal the fate for us all. Thirty minutes was enough to figure doom as not imminent, so back inside and corridors littered with former child stars (we were there for an autograph/memorabilia show). Cheery day was spent driving deserted streets of L.A., then returning to news reports of mass hysteria to grip a city under nature’s siege. This then was when/where I came to realize televised reportage was/is lies. Before fiction became truth was time to get out of this town, and quick. We wangled a red eye that night and I was never happier to get shed of any place. Why recite the incident? Guess because for years of wishing I could be Blackie Norton, all of a sudden I was him, minus rescuing folk falling into quake-cracks, then falling upon knees to say “Thanks God … I really mean it!”

Frisco's Market Street But Days Before the Earthquake and Fire

San Francisco was the first big all-talking disaster movie. There had been silents to show earth move, but this was earthquaking on a scale film till then dared not attempt, MGM’s gift to thirty years since April 1906 when fissures nearly swallowed a great city whole, with fire to do the destructive rest. A favorite for me yes, from 1974 and a bootleg print to campus-play and hopefully tie in with Poseidon and Infernos filling seats elsewhere. Loveable rascal George Ashwell took the 16mm off me as partial trade toward The Searchers a year later or maybe I’d have it yet. Came to realize that many of my Canon 100 were just titles to first enter collecting’s door, no sentiment equal to that for favorites I got to own and watch at will. San Francisco was another with narrative compelling enough that you almost forget the quake is coming, thus surprise, if delight, when suddenly walls are falling upon Clark Gable and company. He's Blackie, quintessence of all that was Gable, an atheist to make sound argument for all atheists till nature sets him right. It wasn’t common for godless characters to lead, or for religion, or lack of it, to be a dominant issue. A friend in college watched my print and deplored Blackie kneeling-in-prayer for a finish. He went to divinity school after we graduated and became a Navy chaplain. Them that doth protest too much, as the wise Bard said. San Francisco was first of priest parts for Spencer Tracy. He would do these often as Chaney Jr. did the Wolf Man. Tracy’s Father Tim Mullin demonstrates man-chops by punching Blackie out at play-sparring, this early in San Francisco and a scene that will rhyme to dramatic effect later.

W.S Van Dyke Directs Jeanette MacDonald

Writing was by Anita Loos, whose proudest work for films this was. She would stay up late in old age to watch it on NY television. Story was brainchild of Robert Hopkins, a studio gadfly who’d come up with one after other story premises expressed in a mere sentence, those in his wake wondering why they never thought of it. He and Loos had grown up in Frisco, still thought the spot home, preferred it to pretend grandeur that was Los Angeles. Loos spoke of this in a nice afterward for her 1978-published screenplay of San Francisco. The project began with Thalberg --- actually it was Jeanette MacDonald to push hardest. She had heard Hopkins’ pitch and thought it ideal for her and Gable. Nice to hear when an actress got a venture through thickets; you figure she must have had brass to make an eventual blockbuster happen, and I wonder how much thanks or credit she got for San Francisco. Gable supposedly didn’t want his part for figuring to merely sit staring while MacDonald sang, a legitimate concern, so thanks be to Gable being under contract and obliged to be Blackie, plus other roles he at first disdained (It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty, GWTW). What lore there is from San Francisco is way past tense, just tales retold from books themselves writ long ago, researchers long denied access to MGM production files that would give more detailed accounts. There is happily the picture itself, available on Blu-Ray. San Francisco was the most profitable in-house film MGM had during the thirties (runner-up: Boy’s Town), customized from a start to satisfy the boxoffice by whatever means possible.

Here and Below: Photos Taken in the Wake of the Quake

Vaude vets, traveling players, making landfall at Metro by 1936, would remember the Quake. Thirty years for them was mere wink of an eye. Many of the current industry walked in Frisco rubble. Director Mervyn LeRoy, soon to (re)join MGM, was an S.F. boy when it happened, gave account in his memoir. John Barrymore was grown, but boyish still, potted though earth shook below him, still in evening clothes from night before revels, just like Blackie in the movie. George O’Brien was raised in Frisco, his father the city’s police chief. Caruso had sung “Carmen” the night before, saw carnage from his luxury hotel window. Jack London also was a witness and wrote of it. San Francisco in 1936 was not far removed from events, as though we did a docu on what went down in 1993 (floods in the Midwest that killed fifty, but will an all-star feature be made of it?). There was drama in a city levelled, more so a modern city. You Tube has a wonderful tour of Frisco downtown a mere four days before the disaster, eleven minutes that has been stabilized, remastered, colorized, a mosaic of old film spruced up. We see that indeed San Fran was modern, footage shot from inside a streetcar going slowly down Market Street, a priceless view of life being lived on eve of catastrophe. There are motorcars, horse-drawn carriages, bicyclers, all operating on instinct and largely free of cops herding traffic. This is near enough to life today for one-hundred-twenty years to seem less far off. I half expect to pass Blackie Norton’s Paradise Club or see “Mary Blake” (MacDonald’s character) cross the street.

Quake creation by Metro was handiwork of Slavko Vorkapich, of Croatia, later France, ultimately the US. He did experimental films that got attention, also montages. For Leo to entrust him with their earthquake was bold, Slavko staging like nobody in mainstream features, his quick-cuts as much a startle as the melee itself. I recall in ’74, first time seeing SF w/arrival of the print, being less entranced by tricky technique than sustained shots where streets opened beneath Blackie/Gable and he has to pull out a civilian falling in. This must really have wowed patronage in 1936. Fire and explosion that follow temblors have much of mattes and process work, but still impress for scale alone, a then-public much more conversant re the event than any of us now. They likely would have known or at least met ones who were there. History tells of horror the movie addresses, if with discretion. We learn of looters shot on sight, as screen-depicted by one of them dead and strapped to a post with a sign around his neck. People hopelessly trapped would beg to be finished off by rifles to quell misery, lots of them accommodated. Rats got at those pinned underground. I love dark history. Then as in Galveston were fingers cut off corpses to collect rings, summary dealing with such outrage the same. Three to thirty-five hundred died, apx. eighty-percent of the city destroyed. San Francisco gets at despair of victims rather like Gone With the Wind later with Atlanta victims, and I wonder if Selznick looked to Metro for inspiration. Direction was W.S. Van Dyke, who as a small child lived in Frisco and worked with his mother in variety. Silent stars on their uppers show up as extras or bits. Chances are Van Dyke knew or had worked with them all.

San Francisco
in fact celebrated filmic past and artisans dated back to when SF structures gave way much as had employment for industry starters. “Realizing the pioneer work performed by the earlier stars in the film industry, instructions were recently passed on to directors, producers, and casting officials by Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that the screen’s pioneers were to be given preference in casting important roles in MGM productions.” San Francisco was credited as alone for “bringing to the screen more famous screen personages than have ever been presented before in one picture.” Some like King Baggot and Rhea Mitchell went back to a 1918 serial Van Dyke directed; imagine his reunion with them here. Also Flora Finch of co-starring fame with John Bunny … frankly too many names to mention, a more-less list at IMDB and other places. Outstanding of the post-celebrated lot was D.W. Griffith, invited to spend a day on the set and to direct a brief scene, former pupil Van Dyke ceding his megaphone to the once-master. Much publicity was reward for the gesture, Griffith used to being exploited by press, little work to result, but he likely knew that going in. Someone had asked Thalberg why they wouldn’t hire DWG to helm features anymore, “It just … wouldn’t work out” a terse reply to convey volumes. Griffith arrived to find a director’s chair with his name upon canvas (we could wonder if they let him take it home). He was said to have gotten deep into the moment, intense rehearsal and coaching as in yore, plus a retake he thought necessary. Full set applause was expected reward, then “so long” and thanks for coming. No, this was not a cruel business even if at times it seemed so. Leo as easily could have left these relics at home and alone. Observe lion output well through a Classic Era and beyond for old-timers constantly given jobs.

Cynicism becomes Blackie Norton as it did most of Clark Gable’s prewar characters, him forever the man who knew motives of other men, and as much women's, for selfish device all were. Never bitter over simple truth as he saw it, Gable characters navigated a Depression on strict survival of fittest terms and never finished last, except if he did murder like in Manhattan Melodrama (where he was another Blackie), or otherwise squared himself with the state as in Hold Your Man and No Man of Her Own. San Francisco puts Gable before higher authority that is God himself, to which Blackie, indeed any Gable creation, must submit. Rules chiseled deep on Code tablets made Gable, in fact any too-singular man (like also Cagney at Warners), submit meek, if at tail ends of narrative, so patrons put wise by word-of-mouth could leave the theatre at bowing point and spare themselves seeing idols give in, or onscreen die. One could only “be” Clark Gable by surviving all his adventures, at the least keeping attitude intact. Gable as knowing truth of life and bending it to his will was food of China Seas, Mutiny on the Bounty, in-the-know to extreme in Too Hot to Handle, the deity again his opponent for Strange Cargo, pulling scams in Honky Tonk, another candidate for walking out on a third act. “Peter Warne” in It Happened One Night brought Gable deserved Best Actor plaudit for supplying Claudette Colbert, and us, much welcome instruct for dodging Depression potholes, Gable the ideal companion to navigate reality’s bumpy road. His credo was ideal to the thirties, less so after a war Gable helped win but found himself less relevant for doing so. Maybe it was so many men and women now knowing the score that made Gable’s persona less needed to instruct. Many noted how he “changed” after the conflict, certainly his vehicles did. Lucky for the venerable star to by then have accumulated such reservoir of good will as to sustain a career to its finish, if a premature one, but could Gable have fit at all in dread onrush that was the sixties?

The Golden Gate bridge was nearing completion, in fact did complete, as San Francisco made eleven-month run across a more-than-receptive marketplace, that the general play-off period for major releases past first-runs to eventual fade in small towns and grind placement. San Francisco was a must-see for being first to place viewership inside a disaster, to feel carnage as it happened, a come-to-life tableau like what the St. Louis fair did for Galveston in 1904. San Francisco was in short, the picture you had to see in 1936-37. L.B. Mayer declared it best after an initial screening: “Now that’s what I call a prestige picture!” Concept of a great city restoring itself mirrored America as a still-struggling whole, though light, if faint, was visible from most tunnels, and fun of seeing others in worse straits could not be underestimated. San Francisco was also time-out for sentimental journey to a Barbary Coast, rogues living to suit themselves, a fighting priest, times we’d like reliving save the Earthquake. San Francisco was like 1933’s The Bowery if less rude. Still there are shocks not from earth moving, but dialogue you'd not expect to stay in. Blackie’s coming on to Mary is at first resisted, a posture new to him. “You don’t have to stall me, honey,” he says, figuring MacDonald/Mary for soiled dove off pavements, “I guess you got some john on the street, is that it?” That last surprised far back as first viewing, for even then I knew a “john” related to prostitution … in fact defined as a client or customer of a prostitute, which Blackie assumes Mary is. I checked the script as credited to Anita Loos and Robert Hopkins, where the line reads, “I guess you’ve got some john on the string, haven’t you?” Did Gable paraphrase, or was there rewrite on the set? “Street” and “string” convey different meaning if slight. Just the fact “john” was spoke at all in a Code release makes me wonder if overseers understood gravity of the word. Hopkins “unearthed” what was referred to as early century slang for pressbook purpose, “some John on the string” said to mean “new boyfriend.” (note capitol “J” as if to suggest an individual named “John”). I suspect he knew better and just made that up to rinse off a gamey line snuck in for this occasion to otherwise well-policed content.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Ads and Oddities #4

Ad/Odds: Hopalong Cassidy, Design for Death, The Outlaw, and Sarong Revue

YEAR-ROUND HOPPY HOLIDAY --- Show me someone who to this late day collects Hopalong Cassidy merchandise, omitting those passed whose heirs dump precious cargo onto eBay or elsewhere. They say Elvis records from the fifties went same route, as in who cares now and how much will you give for the lot? If someone drove up and offered me the completist ever collection of Hoppy merchandise, would I bite, or even discuss biting? I remember a Columbus con where the paper auction featured a Roy Rogers accumulation from years a late fan dedicated toward having it all, and what happened? You might guess. One was either there for Roy, or Hoppy, or not. Hoppy had one, several, epochs, a first when he launched in 1936 for Paramount, then after the war when William Boyd bought the negatives and brought Hoppy roaring back to television viewership many times the number of those who watched him in theatres. This was popularity beyond anything previously witnessed for a cowboy. Others had lunch boxes sure, maybe comic books, bric/brac here or there, but nothing like seismic shift brought on by Hopalong Cassidy as a new generation’s idol. The event was so large as to inspire a movie spoof, Callaway Went Thataway, the Citizen Kane of sagas spun off an old-time western star who was not what his image seemed. They say Boyd, at least his handlers, reacted Hearst-like to humor near the knuckle which caused MGM to add disclaimers for Callaway. Look at variety of product under Cassidy banner --- everything but a Hoppy tuxedo and evening gown for Dick or Jane. I like the “Slick-Up Kit” to promote good grooming, and the “Bath Roundup to Make Bathing Fun for Junior.” What would such Loot of the World, to borrow for Kane’s newsreel narrator, come to in eBay dollars? Could it all be catalogued and appraised? Kidding of course, but if this were thirty-forty years ago, I’d be asking straight-faced, and Hoppy hunters still on the job would answer.

DESIGN FOR DEATH (1947) --- Outrage documentaries were still catnip well after the war, real-life atrocity a gift to keep giving. Did Design for Death really win an Academy Award? Makes me kind of want to see it, except nobody seems willing to present it, at least streaming or broadcast on TCM. Maybe Design for Death would be a hotter potato now than when new. In any case, it probably would not be worth the guff of tracking down. Imagine an “Oscar Month” featuring Design for Death, TCM cheerleaders gathered for a “responsible” introduction explaining necessary context and “problematic” aspects. Exploitation features belong to their time for sure. Most couldn’t get a pass except in plain brown wrapper that is small label discs. Look at this doozy of an ad however. Aggressor Nations Plot War! One guess, maybe two, as to who they’re referring to. Then there’s venerable “Captured Secret Jap Films” as if a previous war was ongoing still. Had the government urged restraint in this area? Conflict was after all over. Why fan old flames? “Police-State War Rackets” has entertainment possibilities that sort of foretells The Third Man to come. You could call Design for Death a scare film … in fact, let’s definitely call Design for Death a scare film. Do note these credits --- Dr. Seuss and his wife wrote it! That is surely one for Ripley. Richard Fleischer co-produced. I should check his memoir to see if Design for Death is covered. With such talent aboard, Design for Death was no catch-penny project. It only looks like one. Check the supporting program, five units of fun with swing, Leon Errol, and cartoons to rinse off with.

--- For whatever good or bad reason, I have never sat through this notorious event of a western. Maybe missing out on the forties and billboards splayed everywhere made me self-conscious for not knowing the real show that was publicity for Jane Russell as directed by Howard Hughes, who took charge after Howard Hawks had enough and walked off. The Outlaw floated around theatres for many years, especially I suspect in the southland, our Starlight Drive-In using it as late as 1974. Public domain status enabled stations to rely upon The Outlaw rather than pay for better product, but today is not to praise or damn, but to recognize one among what surely were thousands of arresting ads sent out on behalf of a greatest tease in so-far history of film. This was for an early San Francisco engagement in 1943, no doubt a Hughes test run to see what he could get away with on the promoting end. You can bet there was nothing in the movie to measure against depiction here of Jane Russell, but wait … how do we know how much Outlaw they saw in Frisco? Surely multiple versions played prior to a final and general release three years later. Someone could write a book on the checkered exhibition history of The Outlaw. Hughes had boldness his money made possible and did not answer to anyone. Others no matter maverick reputations toadied to somebody, in any event to wider corporate interests. Hughes was his own vast corporation, pity that for all his panache and talent, he was not a sane man. The Outlaw shows up often on TCM. Is their print good? If there’s an “owner,” at least of original elements, it would be Universal, as they have most of the rest of Hughes.

JUNGLE DUO --- Couple of spoiled boys in the neighborhood (more so even than me) had an 8mm film called Jungle Witch, unknown quantity because when was there ever a movie called Jungle Witch? Some of us were invited to watch eight minutes where among other things a gorilla killed natives and maybe Buster Crabbe was in for a look. Latter query suggested the feature from which Jungle Witch was culled went by name Nabonga, a PRC circa 1944 that featured Crabbe and “introduced” Julie London. What difference did titles make? Hardly mattered if there ever was a Jungle Witch. Showmen felt largely the same when such pictures were new or nearly so, per here combo of “Swamp Woman” and “Jungle Man.” I won’t hazard a guess as to identity of the two features --- they’d suffice for this occasion and maybe other where what you saw mattered less than getting a load off feet or catching winks between plant shifts. I’ll guess this was wartime and minds were on something other than silly happenings on screen. Reaction might have approximated mine twenty years later for Jungle Witch. There actually was a Crabbe vehicle called Jungle Man that PRC released in 1941, but I’ve got a guess this show could have been anything of Buster in pithy headgear. Swamp Woman came also of PRC, with Ann Corio, who stripped for burlesque when not jungle engaged. Her work and identity were called “exotic,” and customers could and often did pay into theatres hoping she would do something up to then forbidden in movies. “Sarong Revue” sums these up, and I give the Studio Theatre credit for programming and ad design. Note doors unlocked at 9:30 am and “Open All Night,” clean-up crews busy during interim.

Monday, December 04, 2023

Betty Bronson Defends the Home


Daughter Schools Mom/Dad in Are Parents People?

Jack and Jason Hardy, doing business as Grapevine Video, have been offering silent films on DVD and Blu-Ray for years. They are located in Arizona. Jack once lived in North Carolina. His was the first collection of 16mm film I ever encountered. It was 1968 and I had lately begun collecting Blackhawk prints on 8mm. Jack’s business was called “Silent Cinema Service.” I imagined it a storefront like Rose’s Five-and-Dime, only with Buster Keaton and William S. Hart on shelves instead of Aurora models. Lacking a driver’s license (age 14), I imposed upon my sainted brother-in-law to drive me from Chapel Hill to Butner where Jack was. His place brimmed with treasure, stuff you’d not imagine was extant, let alone privately owned. Jack being soul of hospitality offered to show us whatever appealed most, A Dog’s Life my choice because it was shortest. Seeing this then-unavailable-anywhere Chaplin was apex of life’s viewing to that time, apex not inapt to describe whole of my visit and unique opportunity to commune with a full-dedicated silent movie historian. If anything inspired whole hog immersion to life that was film, here it was, me from then on intent to collect after Jack’s example and someday have A Dog’s Life and others like it for my own. A memorable visit, and I thank Jack Hardy for it. Basis of foregoing is recent get of Are Parents People? on Blu-Ray from Grapevine, fifty-five years later and Jack going strong still with assist of son Jason. They have a large catalogue of titles and are active on Kickstarter with restoration projects ongoing.

I ordered Are Parents People? for Betty Bronson, a pet since seeing Peter Pan. Seems these are her only two silent starring features to he had on home format. In fact, they appear to be the only two that survive. Betty Bronson was sort of early arrival of Deanna Durbin, minus the singing, age nineteen at time of Are Parents People? as opposed to Durbin’s fourteen when she feature-debuted in Three Smart Girls. The vehicles are much the same to extent of girls opposed to parents’ divorce, which through similar mechanics, they seek to reconcile. Are Parents People? and Three Smart Girls came eleven years apart. One could reasonably ask why bother about Are Parents People? when Three Smart Girls can do as much but with music and talk, this raising question in general of silents as rational choice over talkies. Many argue there's no debate, that to hear players speak is sole foundation for being entertained. On its face, that is a hard point to contradict, defenders of silence in ever decreasing number and their position less defensible as technology ever-advances. I ponder “dialogue” portions of Are Parents People?, realizing as often before that it is watching characters think that enhances silent film, this a must to be met if one is to appreciate them. Paying attention seems lost to modern possibility, that is close attention as in reading reaction and expressions, relying more upon these than text titles for most part unnecessary to divine meaning from scenes minus speaking. Spoken dialogue has been for almost a century a crutch for those distracted by popcorn munching, conversation among seated neighbors, and now worse of worst, “smart” devices inaptly named.

Seasoned acting and direction were essential toward silent era communication, principals in Are Parents People? (Bronson, Adolphe Menjou, Florence Vidor) enabling us throughout to read their minds. I suspect skill of watching and best enjoying silent movies disappeared as did the era itself in the late twenties. My parents would have understood the art better than I could hope to, no matter silent samplings to come my way. Fast-passing generation which I’ve been part of may be said to “get” black-and-white in ways youth could not grasp, nor care to. Aren’t we lucky to have experienced B/W television, to have grown up accepting it, embracing older films despite their lacking color? Such crowd increasingly less a crowd knows secrets not unlike what parents and grandparents understood and took with them. Unfortunate that we cannot make legatees of succeeding generations. One may make gift of facts, but not feeling. Are Parents People? allows step back, if tentative, to when language spoke fluent without speaking at all, acting of a sort to disappear upon feed by spoon that was sound. I look at Adolphe Menjou and realize he served two very different arts with distinction, his memoir, It Took Ten Tailors, long in storage and now a must for me to get out and read. No surprise that some actors, fine ones in silent times, could not make the jump to sound, Florence Vidor being one, word is her first try at talk was a last, so undone was she by the process. For any player to make the transition was a real achievement. It would have been simpler to just quit, provided cash enough was put back. Vidor did this. Betty Bronson also tried talkies, did OK, but was less like Peter Pan now than a hundred other jobbing actresses jostling after same sort of parts. William K. Everson was fan enough to help Betty get work in later years, one such The Naked Kiss for director Samuel Fuller.

Betty Bronson was eighteen turning nineteen when she did Are Parents People?. Her character is “Lita,” daughter of privilege, whose home shared with parents Menjou and Vidor has an indoor balcony off stairs leading to a second floor. Mom/Dad have split over “incompatibility,” a term not so far defined for Lita at the finishing school she attends, her having to hide a book titled “Divorce and It’s Cure.” Said institution is repressive in all visible ways, staff searching girls’ personal effects for evidence of “clandestine love affairs,” an expel offense of which Lita is wrongfully accused. This comes welcome as she is trying to cook up a crisis that will force her parents back together. Are Parents People? is comedy with stabs of truth and insight into attitudes changed since then, or … have they? A “movie sheik,” by name Maurice Mansfield (George Berenger), is aspect of misunderstanding and source of comedy at expense of grandiose actors after Barrymore example. Mansfield is more an update on Maurice Costello, by 1925 an antique of Vitagraph single reelers where his kind of idol was stalked already by “movie mad girls,” which Lita is assumed to be but isn’t. Mr./Mrs. Hazlitt, assuming Lita is involved with Mansfield, “send for him” to clear matters up. We are introduced to Mansfield as a popular film star, yet he is at beck/call of wealthy folk like the Hazlitts who have never bothered to look at any of his screen work, us given to understand that members of their class have neither time nor inclination to know Maurice Mansfield or others of his frivolous occupation. Mansfield on the other hand views a meeting with the Hazlitts as gateway to social position he craves, a thing valued more than even stardom he has attained.

The Hazlitts assume Mansfield is merely a fortune hunter stalking their daughter, any association distasteful, however necessary to get Lita shed of him. We see Mansfield shooting a film on outdoor location, an appreciative crowd gathered round to watch. Were upper classes oblivious to what commoners were enjoying at the time? Larger question: Did upper classes attend movies at all during the twenties? If Mansfield’s kind of “celebrity” were useful at all to people like the Hazlitts, it may well have been as nothing other than parlor toy or novelty. Actors had after all come for the most part from humble backgrounds, struggling up a hardest way from varied obscurity. Was even John Barrymore truly accepted as an equal by families of true wealth, or did they merely tolerate his society for whatever momentary advantage might be attained? Are Parents People? speaks to these realities without necessarily singling them out, the device there for comedy, played to that effect, but … food for thought it is, the more nourishing as nicely underplayed by Menjou and Vidor, if not by comically flamboyant Berenger. The Hazlitts are moneyed, enjoy their money, but Are Parents People? does not invite us to scorn them for it. This would be the case also with Deanna Durbin pictures to come, though by the thirties, there would be subtle, sometimes not so subtle, commentary (see One Hundred Men and a Girl). Menjou's James Hazlitt wears spats and striped stockings, presumably held in place by an unseen garter. He is aggrieved by the divorce, but also by alimony he will “pay and pay and pay.” The Hazlitts post-divorce ride in separate and chauffeur driven vehicles, hers a limousine, his a natty roadster. Lita is understood to be a minor and sheltered, less knowing than Hayley Mills would later be in similar circumstance that was The Parent Trap, yet Lita is not altogether unschooled in ways of coquetry. (Above Left: Betty Bronson with Are Parents People? director Malcolm St. Clair). 

Budding romance develops with a young doctor played by Lawrence Gray, who was twenty-seven in 1925. “Dr. Dacer” regards Lita as a child, pats her on the head at their initial meeting, is charmed by her innocence. Like many an old-young alliance in movies, it is the infatuated girl who takes initiative, object of interest often oblivious to signals sent his way. Watch Margie (1946) for further distillation of this theme. Small wonder Chaplin, E. Flynn, and ilk functioned as they did. Betty Bronson being herself nineteen or almost so when Are Parents People? was made is cushion of sorts, though we’re permitted if not encouraged to assume Lita is no more than fifteen if that. For an ingenue who barely knows what divorce is, she takes firm if unlikely control of her relationship with Dr. Dacer, inviting scandal by, unbeknownst to him, spending a night in his apartment, a device later used in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), where Cary Grant discovers Shirley Temple asleep on his couch to accompany of screaming police sirens. Dr. Dacer tells Lita that she has compromised him, destroyed his reputation, ruined his practice, “You know what I’ve got to do now? I’ll have to marry you!” We are left to wonder if awkward situations in 1925 routinely led to such outcome, a girl out all night resulting in ruin for man and minor. Might statutory jail time follow? --- and never mind 1925 … it could as easily, in fact likelier, happen today. The ending if unexpected is agreeable for all concerned, including presumably a then-audience. Lita’s parents are reconciled and Lita, in another of pixyish cloche hats (do women or girls wear these anymore?), leads her conquest back to his apartment for furtherance of their communion, marriage or whatever to be sorted out there, this a satisfactory finish for the characters and 1925 viewership they played to. Are Parents People? was a Paramount picture that survived on 16mm thanks to Kodascope prints sold to home enthusiasts. Grapevine elements derive from one of these and quality on their Blu-Ray is a best presently available.
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