Further silent film work and the advent of talkies


In 1925 Betty appeared in her next picture, Are Parents People?, in which she plays a young woman intent on rescuing her parents' deteriorating relationship.  This is a well-made film that treated its subject carefully while at the same time managing to convey charm and humour.

Are Parents People? was directed by Malcolm St Clair (in the photo at left), and in it Betty co-starred with Betty with Mal St Clair Adolph Menjou and Florence Vidor as her parents.  She enjoyed working with St Clair; in her biography she wrote that he had "a rare comedy sense."  Reviews of this film were good, with Betty once again being singled out for especial praise.  One reviewer described it as "Pollyanna without saccharine," and another commented "Isn't it lovely to see a 17 year old playing a 17 year old?" (actually she was 18+ at the time).

Later in the same year Betty appeared as Mary in the Nativity scene in Ben-Hur, designed by Ferdinand Pinney Earle and directed by Christy Cabanne (with more information about the film here).  Although her role was limited to a cameo appearance, she dazzled in this, one of the film's handful of true colour segments (in two-colour Technicolor as opposed to toning.  Note that the oft-used term "two-strip" is a misnomer).

Neither the photo below nor the sepia still of the coloured Nativity scene in the film's souvenir booklet quite do justice to her phenomenal serenity and presence--and they don't show her wonderful halo!  She remains a beautiful figure of the film, and despite appearing for only a short time, is still always billed as one of its leading stars.  Ben-Hur was reviewed in early 1926 soon after its first release, by one Frederick James Smith; he waxed lyrical about Betty's appearance and spoke of those few seconds as a classic part of the film.  I agree!

Also in late 1925 she appeared again as a modern day Cinderella (with Esther Ralston playing her fairy godmother) in another Famous Players-Lasky film produced by Brenon, again of a J.M. Barrie story called A Kiss for Cinderella.  This was made once again to take advantage of Betty's talent for pantomime, and aficionados will argue as to which film is better, Cinderella or Peter Pan.  Certainly in Kiss, Brenon removed the staginess for which his filming of Peter Pan had been criticised.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York eventually held what is thought to have been the sole surviving original nitrate print of A Kiss for Cinderella.  Unfortunately, despite their running the film year after year, no attempt was made to copy it, until the print had deteriorated to only a shadow of its former self.  William Everson also made a copy of what was left of this print, and his copy (or at least copies of it?) is now shown occasionally at film festivals.  The original nitrate print is now even thought to no longer survive.

Everson's remaining copy of the film is still quite watchable, even if finer details have been lost, along with some of the ball scenes becoming "solarised" (where the darks and lights seem to reverse owing to the onset of decay).  The film runs for about 100 minutes at 18 feet per second, and now has no accompaniment.

A Kiss for Cinderella is all about a young woman (played by Betty) who looks after orphans in the London slums.  She falls asleep in the snow and dreams of being transformed into a Cinderella, and so begins a series of lavish images of the ball in a kind of Arts Deco Alice in Wonderland setting, along with such views as her trip to the ball through starry skies, with her mice having been transformed into horses for her carriage.  But in contrast to Peter Pan, A Kiss for Cinderella is built around a grimly realistic portrait of poverty.


The following is William Everson's view of the film, quoted from his book American Silent Film:

A Kiss for Cinderella was a masterpiece.  Eminently superior to Peter Pan, though lacking its popular appeal, it had a sophistication and an underlying sadness that meant that the more it was understood, the less popular it was likely to be.  This time Brenon took full advantage of the film medium, and the large stage of Paramount's Long Island studio enabled him to bring to life the exaggerated, luxury-for-its-own-sake view of royalty and court life as seen through the eyes of a Cockney slavey.  Few films, perhaps only Jean Cocteau's 1947 La Belle et la Bete, have caught the genuine flavour of fairy-tale magic as beautifully as this one.  The production design was stunning yet tasteful, full of lovely touches impossible in the theater: the lampposts bowing to Cinderella on her way to the ball, a transformation from pumpkins and mice to gold coach and horses that even outdid the galleon scene in Peter Pan, and the utilizing of a camera mounted on a moving and revolving platform to capture, first, the grace of the ball and then its speeded-up chaos as midnight strikes and Cinderella's spell is broken.  The film contains a great deal of typically Barrie wit and humor, which Englishman Brenon understood and translated magnificently; but the overriding quality is one of pathos.

The acting, too, is superb.  Betty Bronson had matured as an actress within the year, and the pure pantomime of Peter Pan was here transformed into a performance of subtlety and insight.

Betty with Henry Vibart and Tom Moore Film historian George Wead made notes about the film after it was shown at the 1996 Pordenone Festival:

A Kiss for Cinderella is a superior film in tone and implication to Peter Pan.  A Kiss for Cinderella threatens to end with the death of its heroine, and if it followed through on the implications of its storyline it probably should end that way.  There is a dark realism to its view of poverty that sets it quite apart from the comparatively shallow optimism of Peter Pan.

A Kiss for Cinderella is (so far) the great surprise of the fest.  Betty Bronson is absolutely gorgeous, Tom Moore gets to play the sweet cop and the dissipated dream prince in a neatly theatrical swap; the direction is lively (not Brenon's usual suit); the wit sharp; and through it is a mature darkness about life's chances with love.  Prophetic (WW1 blitz foresees WW2 terror) and even the solarization of the decaying portions of the print land at the royal ball conclusion, where it adds to the fantasy effect... and the lesson to be learned from saving work like this.

And such was the care lavished on the movie that the scenes of the lamps that bow to Cinderella as her carriage passes by the crowds on her way to the ball were all hand painted!

Here are two short animations taken from Kiss (thanks to Fred Tepper):






The actress Anita Page tells the story of how she met Betty when they were both teenagers.

...I mean, I'm a Roman Catholic, I believe in God and I just feel that sometimes things are meant to be.  My father had been thinking of buying a house in Astoria for some time so my mother went out there and thought she would take a chance on finding a place.  If she went to a real estate office, they'd say it was great, of course, but she thought she'd ask somebody who lived there how they liked it.  So she just picked at random a door, went up and knocked.  This beautiful lady with white hair answered and her name--was Mrs Bronson.  Now you see what I mean by fate.  There were rows of apartments or houses she could have gone to but she picked the one with Mrs Bronson.  Mrs Bronson liked my mother terrifically and she said, "Oh, I hope you'll move out here.  We love it."  She explained that her daughter Betty and Betty's grandmother were out in Hollywood and she was trying to get in films.  But the rest of the family was living in Astoria.  There were two boys and two girls, one of whom was Betty.  So we moved there and we became just so close to the Bronsons.  We went to church together and did everything together.

About three months after we moved to Astoria, James M. Barrie picked Betty to play Peter Pan, at least that's the story they gave.  I don't think anybody could have done it better than Betty.  She had this sort of elfin personality that went along with it and she was fantastic.  The Bronsons moved to California as soon as she'd signed a contract.  My father was head of a group of the tenants and Mrs Bronson asked him if he'd watch her house.  He said he would.  We remained very good friends with the Bronsons and almost every time they'd come East, we'd get together.  In fact, one of Betty's brothers was a particular sort of beau of mine for three years.  We also got to know Mrs Bronson's sister and her brother.  They used to come down and visit us often.  We just all blended and loved each other and that was it.

When Betty came East to make A Kiss for Cinderella at Paramount's Astoria studio, she stayed at the Park Hotel in Central Park.  They invited us for tea.  My mother had on a beautiful brown velvet suit and I was all gussied up so off we went to see them.  We had never met Betty but she just took to me and I took to her.  We both loved the movies and there was a lot in common.  She showed me her pictures and everything.  I mentioned to her that I'd been a winner in a beauty contest.  She said, "Well, I never was that but I've done very well in the movies.  Would you like to try it, Anita".  Then Mrs Bronson said, "Betty, you're going to have a lot of people in your big ball scene.  Why not pop Anita in those scenes!"

My mother said, "Well, Anita's only fifteen.  She's in school and I hesitate to."  Of course, that didn't get very far.  My eyes were popping right out of my head and pouring in her lap practically--"Oh, please, Mother, please."  My mother said, "I don't know whether I like her wandering around the studio alone."  Mrs Bronson said, "Well, she won't be alone.  I'm there always when Betty is there and so is Miss Rachel Smith, her tutor."  Mother couldn't say no so she said, "I'll tell you what.  I think she's doing very well in school and I'll check with them."  She did and they said yes, I was a very good student and I could have a week off.  That started the whole thing.  I got there and I got all done up as a court lady with a wig and everything.  I don't know how they could even see me.  I'd wanted to wear make-up since I guess I was ten but my mother would never let me do it.  So here I was--hooray!--with the puffs and the jar and everything.  Mrs Bronson had to go out for a minute but by the time she came back, I looked like a clown.  My eyes were so big and my mouth was pursed up.  She laughed and said, "Anita, they want to see your face, not that."  So she wiped off everything and, of course, when she did it, I wouldn't dare think of saying no.

A Kiss for Cinderella was quite a big production.  Esther Ralston, who had played Mrs Darling in Peter Pan, was Betty's fairy godmother in A Kiss for Cinderella and Betty raved about her.  She thought she was so beautiful.  I wasn't at the studio very long when I noticed a very attractive gentleman.  I must admit I was a little bit of a flirt in those days and so for a whole week, he was over there watching me and I was watching him.  When Betty's picture was done, he said to me, "I'm an assistant director.  Would you like to play a little part in a picture?"  I said, "Would I!"  He said, "Well, it's just a small part but it is a part, and I can get you right out of the extras."  So I had a little part in Love 'Em and Leave 'Em and they left it in, believe it or not.   [3]







Paramount Studios seems to have wished to launch Betty as a successor to Mary Pickford as "America's Sweetheart", and with her elfin charms and talent for pantomime so well demonstrated in Peter Pan, she became an instant success, as seen in a recently rediscovered 1927 promotional Paramount film.  But the public's fancy was changing, as was the nature of films in general.  The days of pantomime with its visually dramatic style known as "emphasised representation" were fast disappearing.  Audiences were becoming more taken with the flapper charms of Louise Brooks and Clara Bow.

Not only this, but just when Betty's mime-based career should have been moving forward, the late twenties saw the arrival of talkies.  The emphasis in movies suddenly shifted from body gestures to the complete opposite: moving the microphone was difficult, so the more dynamic acting of the silents began to be replaced by static acting with lots of talking.  It took some years before the pendulum began to swing back to more "bodily" acting again.  And while Betty gave an endearing opening performance in The Singing Fool of 1928 (with Al Jolson, who epitomised the style of talking endlessly at the audience), the days of mime in films were by then numbered.

Finally, as the medium changed to really revolve around dialogue, a whole style of film was lost and considered passe, although it's undergoing something of a revival today.  As Mary Pickford once said, "It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way round".



Introduction

Betty's early years

Betty as Peter Pan

Prelude to Peter Pan

Further silent film work and the advent of talkies

Life beyond the movies

Film and promotional shots

Betty's available films

Bibliography and credits


This site is copyright © 2001 Don Koks.