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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 if we 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” was 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.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Now I know why you stand by GRAPEVINE.

2:51 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Mike Mazzone remembers Jack Hardy and Grapevine Video:


Great Bronson post, Jack Hardy, wow! That brings back memories. I got many standard 8 silents from him back in the 70’s!! it’s hard to believe he’s still around, I still vividly recall the many conversations I had with him regarding rare silents, what was around and what wasn’t, he’s a great guy. Kiss for Cinderella, survives in a poor-quality bootleg that’s been posted on youtube, I suspect it derives from a 1970’s VHS transfer from the ill ill-fated MOMA print that Everson saw deteriorate over the years. According to wickipedia, three other prints survive, one in a European archive, I wonder if the other prints in US collections all derive from the MOMA print? That would be amazing if several different 35’s still existed, it would be a great candidate for a restoration.

2:56 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Betty Bronson appears in Disney's "Blackbeard's Ghost" (1968). Not sure if she has many lines; she's one of a band of nice little old ladies who claim descent from pirates.

3:17 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Thanks for the kind words about GRAPEVINE! As a customer since the VHS days of the nineties, I always enjoy reading about the Hardys. Now that Jack is taking a well deserved rest, his son has embraced the Kickstarter model. I was happy to subscribe to their recent release of SO THIS IS PARIS. Look for GRAPEVINE on Kickstarter!

5:41 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...


10:55 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Few roles as unrewarding as leading lady in a Gene Autry western, but Betty Bronson is quite moving in "Yodelin' Kid from Pine Ridge".

2:21 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

Grapevine Video has helped me view many silent comedies. When new silent comedies turned up in newer catalogs I was ecstatic. Once I bought A PERFECT CLOWN with Larry Semon sourced from Standard 8mm. Later Grapevine a obtained 16mm print and they replaced my old print free of charge without myself asking. It just showed up in the mail one day.
Grapevine Video is one of the best sources for silent comedy.

9:06 AM  

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