Adolphe Menjou and Florence Vidor are a couple of rich swells in the midst of a divorce, much to the horror of their only child (Betty Bronson). She conspires to get her parents back together with the help of a doctor and a movie star.
People, yes. Adults, no.
One of the hot topics of silent films was divorce and its consequences. The divorce rate in the United States had been steadily rising since the 1870s and both marriage and divorce always spike at the beginning and end of wars. In short, divorces in the 1920s were inevitable, if you go by the numbers. (Though the spike may not be nearly as large as the decade’s freewheeling reputation may lead you to believe.)
Paramount had made good money on divorce dramedies, most notably a series of films on the topic directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and saw no reason to stop a good thing. Are Parents People? was planned as a vehicle for Betty Bronson, the first follow-up to her successful turn as the title character in Peter Pan. Unlike the DeMille divorce pictures, this film would focus on the child and not the parents. At least, that was the plan.
The film opens with James Hazlitt (Adolphe Menjou) and Alita Hazlitt (Florence Vidor) in the process of dissolving their union. Letters are shredded, doors are slammed and the pair are generally acting like children.
The cause of their strife is obvious. He’s oafish and loud, she’s humorless and critical. Despite all this, they clearly still care about one another. (Vidor and Menjou convey this through lingering looks at photos and moments of hesitation before blowups. Very effective.)
Lita (Betty Bronson) is the only child of the battling duo and she arrives home from boarding school to receive news of the impending divorce. James and Alita immediately begin to fight over the girl; James wants to take her to Europe and Alita wants to take her to Mars. Er, Reno. Take her to Reno. Lita can’t take this bickering, especially since they are fighting over her, and says that she won’t be going anywhere with anybody.
Back at school, Lita’s roommate has an awful crush on Maurice Mansfield (George Beranger), a popular movie idol. She has signed photographs and is in the middle of writing a letter begging him to put her in films. Lita finds this all very humorous. She’s reading about divorce and is particularly interested in a passage that states that parents will come together if their child is in peril.
Lita’s roommate is injured in PE and her sprained ankle is cared for by young Dr. Dacer (Lawrence Gray). She calls in Lita to beg her to hide her Maurice Mansfield altar. Meanwhile, the young doc immediately starts making eyes at our heroine, causing the entire audience to count on their fingers and try to figure out how long a 1920s doctor had to be in school and the relative age of Lita.
The Dr. Dacer romance is… oh dear, it has not aged well. The idea of a doctor, no matter how young and handsome, openly courting a student at a boarding school is just icky. There were similar issues in M’Liss, in which Thomas Meighan’s adult teacher is introduced as a love interest for Mary Pickford’s mountain girl, who still plays with dolls. It’s made even worse by the fact that Bronson really was still a teen when Are Parents People? was made.
(And before we get any squeaking about context, the average age difference between married couples in the 1920s was just about four years, with the wife about twenty-one and the husband about twenty-five. There’s a notion that ancient dudes married teens on the regular back in the day and it’s just not true of the silent era. In fact, the age gap between American married couples has remained quite small and steady from the 1890s to the present. There’s obviously nothing wrong with May-December between consenting adults but let’s not rewrite history, hmm?)
Anyway, Lita stashes her roommate’s incriminating photos and letter (still unsigned) in her own bureau drawer and goes down to meet her guests. It’s the parents and they are as bickering as ever, this time fighting over who Lita will spend her holidays with. Lita announces that she is returning to the house and if they want to spend time with her, they can see her there.
Well, guess what happens? Those Maurice Mansfield pictures are discovered and Lita is expelled for carrying on an illicit love affair. (Something tells me those school matrons need to get out more.) Alita and James are both concerned about their daughter carrying on with a film actor and she realizes that this is a chance to create peril.
Will Lita’s plan work? Will her parents unite to save her from this sheik? See Are Parents People? to find out!
Let’s start with the most important news: Adolphe Menjou and Florence Vidor are perfectly delightful as the divorcing duo. Reliable veterans of the screen, Mejou and Vidor have great chemistry and make the most of their thinly written characters. Let’s face it, acting childishly and selfishly for an entire film would have tripped up most other performers but these troupers were up to the task.
Betty Bronson is pretty good as their daughter, though she does overplay her coquettishness a bit in spots. And she’s not helped by playing opposite Lawrence Gray, who is, let’s face it, a block of wood.
George Beranger clearly has a lot of fun with his sheik role and while his performance is broad, it works as a contrast between the Hollywood phony and the genuine love of the Hazlitts. I do think it’s a bit disingenuous of Paramount to make fun of Great Lovers and Movie Sheiks, though.
Who made this movie? Paramount.
Who produced The Sheik? Paramount.
Much of the film’s humor comes from clever little pantomime flourishes (over the course of his career, director Malcolm St. Clair worked with Buster Keaton, Marie Prevost and Laurel and Hardy). For example, while she waits to see Dr. Dacer, Lita eats peanuts and lines the shells neatly on the arm of a chair. After she overhears him speak unkindly of her, she slaps them to the ground. Later, Dacer walks across the room barefoot and right onto Lita’s inadvertent booby trap.
None of this is treated with a broad wink and is played so casually that the punchline is all the funnier for it. It’s a cleverly put together gag that works because the film keeps finding one more thing to do with it.
Now for a few flaws in the comedy. Some of the title cards are a bit… Well, golly gee willikers, Mr. Man.
Further, I found a few of the boarding school gags (“Har har har, there’s a chubby girl in the PE class! A girl with freckles is nicknamed Venus! Har har har!”) to be cheap and obvious, especially when compared to the witty humor derived from Lita’s parents and their antics.
Finally, the notion of a doctor pursuing a schoolgirl—whom he refers to as a “child” at one point—is really, really squicky. Couldn’t they have made her suitor be a fellow student at least?
Florence Vidor and Adolphe Menjou absolutely make this picture and anybody interested in the subtler side of silent comedy would do well to study their method. The film itself has a questionable message about divorce and dating but our parental duo save the day with their appealing personas. Definitely worth checking out.
Where can I see it?
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