Children of Divorce (Blu-ray Review)16 Jan, 2017 By: Mike Clark
$34.59 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Stars Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, Esther Ralston, Hedda Hopper.
As a window into the feigned moral stance vintage movies embraced about as much as they did the later invention of television, Children of Divorce is a Frank Lloyd silent discovery (to me, though likely not to hard core buffs) that easily gets by on its curio casting and the sumptuous décor that almost always made the average Paramount title so much more visually scintillating than any MGM counterpart. And as for the morality that gets peddled, the title gives it away that this 70-minute weeper has lots to do with the fallout from capricious parental splits-ville and resulting absentee parenting, which, of course, is tough to deny. Still, you have to consider the sermonizing source and keep reminding yourself that this is a movie that Zsa Zsa Gabor wouldn’t have picked for her Blu-ray collection had she lived a hundred more years, no matter how elegantly Flicker Alley has typically dressed up the package.
Casting-wise, we’re on firmer ground — which isn’t to say that Gary Cooper looks exactly at home amid a kind of Jay Gatsby milieu in his first starring role following a real-life upbringing on all those Montana horses. The actor who arguably became his generation’s most popular had had a small role as a newspaper reporter in Clara Bow’s signature vehicle It — and you can see a short clip of him from that 1927 shop-girl comedy thanks to this release’s bonus inclusion of Hugh Munro Neely’s excellent 1999 Discovering the “It” Girl Bow documentary. The real-life Bow always knew what she wanted (or maybe she didn’t, which would have been a bigger problem) and plucked Cooper from bit player ranks to be her male lead here. Meanwhile, Cooper was just about to score his single-scene triumph in William A. Wellman’s aviation classic Wings, the very first best picture Oscar winner whose female lead was … Bow. Everything was coming together, including, in real life, the Bow-Cooper torsos.
As for Children itself, the drama begins with one of those protracted scenes that feature the later adult characters as children — much as Cooper’s own Beau Geste (it, too, directed by Wellman) would a dozen years later. Their setting here is an orphanage, but this is no Americanized version of Oliver Twist. Many of the parents are loaded (though probably in the doomed Stock Market) and use the “home” as a dumping ground for inconvenient children as they shop the country for their latest legal mates; it’s as if they were members in the sexual equivalent of the Book of the Month Club (don’t forget to send the return card in if you don’t want to receive your latest husband). One mother — the future Cooper’s — is played by future gossip columnist and Queen of Silly Hedda Hopper, back when she was young or (actually) young-er. The two young femmes who come to complete a kind of formative years ménage will eventually be played by brunette Bow and goldilocked Esther Ralston, who, to my eye, remains unsurpassed in silent-actress hotness (sub-category: subdued). I remember Ralston in a short-lived NBC-TV soap from the early ’60s when I thought she was an uncommonly attractive grandmotherly type. Then, a dozen years later at the Library of Congress, I saw her in 1926’s Old Ironsides and thought, “Oh, now I get it.”
The 4K’d print here, turns out, is from an LoC restoration — something always extra welcome in Paramount’s case because so many of that studio’s silents are lost films and not likely to be found. Except for some brief if brutal nitrate damage at what must have been at the beginning or end of one reel, the print sparkles — quite an accomplishment given an accompanying essay by film historian Larry Smith about the source damage the Library restorers were facing. By the way, Victor Milner gets second billing as one of the cinematographers, and the number of drop-dead lookers he later shot at Paramount — black-and-white and Technicolor both — is staggering.
Director Lloyd continues to be one who almost never fails to un-excite me, though some respect probably has to be given on resumé counts alone; he won an early directorial Oscar for The Divine Lady, then did two ’30s films in three years that took best picture honors (Cavalcade and Mutiny on the Bounty). I’ve also always had a little soft spot for Lloyd’s Republic Pictures swan song The Last Command, in part because Arthur Hunnicutt came closer to my idea of Davy Crockett than either Fess Parker or John Wayne and seemed more likely than either to drink it out of a jug. IMDb.com, by the way, credits Josef von Sternberg as a secondary Children director, though I have a tough time reconciling Sternberg with orphanages unless it would be one of those tawdry ones in G.W. Pabst’s The Diary of a Lost Girl.
The grown-up versions of the story principals all pair up with ill-matched mates, which cause history-repeating-itself woes (or the threat of them) when a child enters the picture. The running time is so short that the some of the external pleasures here are able carry the viewing day — as when Lloyd or Sternberg mercifully plops Cooper on a horse or giving us the novelty of Bow cast as a outdoor society type who’s as often as not in a moneyed “tennis, anyone?” mode. Through it all, Ralston remains ethereal as Cooper scratches his head and wonders how he could have married the wrong woman (the abetting booze he consumed illustrates as well as anything I can think of how Hollywood and an agreeing paying public made Prohibition its day’s equivalent of the anti-Trump movement).
The bonus booklet also includes an essay on the accompanying score, which I really liked, while the Neely documentary is a fine one whose interviewees include David Stenn — whose acclaimed Bow biography (Runnin’ Wild) is a) also excerpted as an extra; and b) a book I’ve owned in hardback for years and always meant to read, which I resolve to do this year. Even by early Hollywood standards, Bow’s life was a cautionary tale, but the clips in the doc make it clear (especially when it comes to her two swan songs for Fox) that it wasn’t her voice that kept her from transitioning to talkies. This portrait’s only drawback is a deadly Courtney Love narration that absolutely no one liked — a rowdy career rendered in verbal somnambulism that might barely have cut it in a Universal horror movie, if nothing else.