By Tony Williams.
While Children of Divorce appears to have some superficial resemblances to those DeMille “roaring 20s” catalogs of the foibles and foolishness of the idle rich, its underlying premises are more somber.
The home video release of Children of Divorce is the latest collaboration between Flicker Alley and Blackhawk films to bring to our attention films that have become unjustly neglected despite the presence of still-remembered stars such as Gary Cooper and Clara Bow. Like Kino-Lorber and Cohen Media, this company has far surpassed other boutiques by promoting variety, rather than repetition with the same old titles constantly in circulation with often uninformative audio-commentaries. Children of Divorce lacks an audio-commentary and multiple features that often add little to our understanding of the film but it does offer some rare production stills and a welcome repeat of that 1999 documentary Clara Bow: Discovering the `It’ Girl (1999) co-edited and co-produced by Elaina Friedrichsen, director of the pioneering Mary Pickford Foundation and an impressive scholar in her own right.
Superficially, Children of Divorce may resemble another of those Cecil B. DeMille pre-biblical society dramas such as Why Change Your Wife? (1920) that have dated since their first appearance. But while Children of Divorce appear to have some superficial resemblances to those DeMille “roaring 20s” catalogs of the foibles and foolishness of the idle rich, its underlying premises are more somber. Directed by Glasgow-born Frank Lloyd (1886-1960) with scenes re-shot by Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969), it is much more than a contemporary celebration of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” that victims of the Great Depression reacted against. It is more a sympathetic treatment of children dumped by their rich parents in French convents, with these parents inhabiting a Paris “divorce colony” after World War One. The older generation plays their own version of the marital stock market in which they may gain wealth, or lose it, and then are forced either to increase their economic value by new relationships or use their children as substitutes to increase future family wealth. Such a situation leaves emotional scars on the young victims who either grow up affluent or forced to engage in marrying for money.
It is not surprising that the first part of the film deals with those abandoned children who grow up into becoming the young marriageable adults portrayed by Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, and Esther Ralston in this film, with suggestively placed flashbacks showing the adults seeing their younger selves earlier during certain scenes. Young Kitty is abandoned by her mother, played by Hedda Hopper (1885-1966) already wearing an early outrageous hat that she is concerned her daughter will knock over by a last desperate kiss. She is befriended by fellow American Jean and encounters young Ted fleeing from the unwelcome attention of his new stepmother. Growing into adulthood Kitty (Bow), Jean (Ralston), and Ted (Cooper) have to face the deterministic social consequence of their adulthood. Kitty has to marry into money though attracted by Prince Ludovico (Einar Hansen) who is in the same dilemma. Jean and Ted are attracted to each other but a drunken escapade leading to marriage between Kitty and Ted traps them into a frustrating relationship complicated by producing a baby daughter.
Things resolve themselves at the climax but not without tragic overtones rendering the film from falling into a shallow pitfall its theme suggested. One character decides she will never allow a baby to become a child of divorce ever again while the tragic circumstances affecting another derive from Josef von Sternberg’s reshooting strategies. One final exit shows a character walking away from the camera, through some doors shot in deep focus foreshadowing the final exit of Susan Alexander Kane in Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941).
Children of Divorce is an interesting film showing that children of the wealthy were also emotional victims as well as benefitting from membership of a higher socio-economic class. In many ways, it anticipates a now, mostly forgotten British comedy No Kidding (1960), directed by Carry On’s very own Gerald Thomas starring Leslie Philips and Geraldine McEwan who set up a summer home for children of the wealthy, many of whom are emotionally disturbed. (1) Children of Divorce not only anticipates the premises of this later film but also recognizes that victims continue trauma well into early adulthood. Though a happy ending is necessary, the sad end of one victim and the fragile possibilities for saving another remain in the viewer’s mind.
The bonus documentary mentioned above is essential complementary viewing for this film, not only in dealing with the tragic early upbringing of the actress but also the fact that Paramount Studios mishandled her talent by confining her to the stereotyped image of the “It” Girl when she was capable of extending her range, as the Von Sternberg directed scenes towards the end clearly show. Leonard Maltin points out that her last film Hoopla (1933), also directed by Frank Lloyd, displayed a real talent for sound acting, so she conceivably could have continued well into the 1930s. But by then, her hesitations about this new screen technology and desire for privacy lead to her ending her career. Bow herself helped Gary Cooper begin his career, seeing his potential in an uncredited small role in It (1927) that led to his appearance in Children of Divorce, and his memorable short presence in Wings (1927), from which he never looked back.
1. Wheeler Winston Dixon believes that No Kidding offers a gentle critique of A.S. Neill’s progressive Summerhill School in Collected Interviews: Voices from Twentieth Century British Cinema. Carbondale: SIU Press, 2001, p. 117. But the Studio Canal description is probably more correct in seeing it more as providing “A number of interesting points about, greed, privilege and class.” http://www.studiocanal.co.uk/Film/Details/9da97d34-35de-4f6a-a776-9efe004eb2aa.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and Contributing Editor to Film International.