Children of Divorce (1927)

Since I’ve just been starting to get into silent movies, I was pleased to have the chance to see this little-known silent melodrama at the BFI in London, where it was screened as part of their Josef von Sternberg season. I was especially attracted by this film because it stars Clara Bow and Gary Cooper, who also both feature in Wellman’s Wings, made the same year, about which I’ve been busy obsessing lately.

Clara Bow and Gary Cooper

However, this is a very different type of film, a woman’s emotion picture with a soapy flavour, centred on two friends, played by Bow and Esther Ralston, and their love lives – at times I was reminded of later films like The Old Maid or Old Acquaintance starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. The friendship between Kitty and Jean is central throughout and just as important as their relationships with the men in their lives. As the title suggests, the film is full of lurid warnings about the dangers of divorce and the terrible effects on the next generation – though, bizarrely, as the story centres on a desperately unhappy marriage, I’d have thought it actually works as an argument for divorce rather than against it.

Anyway, this was the first time I’ve seen a silent movie at a cinema, and, although it is a minor offering, I really enjoyed the experience – the leads give fine performances, and we also had a great piano accompaniment which added to the pleasures of the film itself. We were also shown a brief surviving clip from a lost silent film of von Sternberg’s, The Case of Lena Smith, set in 19th-century Vienna and starring Ralston – it looked tantalisingly good from the little clip which remains, a Viennese street scene.

Children of Divorce was actually directed by Frank Lloyd for Famous Players-Lasky Corporation/Paramount Pictures, with a million-dollar budget, but the studio bosses weren’t happy with the results and didn’t think it was good enough to release. So von Sternberg was brought in and did some re-shooting – unfortunately it wasn’t clear which parts of the film he remade, although apparently he increased the use of shadows and made it more atmospheric. There was a quote from him in the brief notes we had at the BFI showing saying: “I took an ice-cold million dollars and warmed it up.”

Must say I couldn’t quite see where the million-dollar budget had been spent – much of the film is set in Paris, but it was all made in California, so I suppose a hefty chunk of the cash may have gone on creating the sets for the Parisian sequences, which do look French to me.

The film is based on a novel by Owen Johnson, and begins in an American “divorce colony” in Paris straight after the First World War, where parents leave their daughters at convents for months on end while they themselves apparently lead a debauched life – there are brief glimpses of drinking and flirtation. (I’ve just been reading the book Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore, which has a chapter about American ex-pats, many of them divorced, living in Paris during this period and does mention Harry and Caresse Crosby leaving her two small children in a convent, so this kind of thing must have happened to some extent.)

Little Kitty Flanders is left at a convent by her mother and befriended by another girl, Jean Waddington. The two girls meet an American boy, Teddy Larrabee, also the child of divorced parents, who climbs over the wall to get away from a confrontation between the adults – the three make friends and Teddy says he wants to marry Jean when he grows up. I was impressed by how much the children in these opening scenes look like the adult stars – the young Kitty, in particular, is a dead ringer for Clara Bow, while the young Teddy also looks quite a lot like Gary Cooper. (A weak point of the film is the way it persistently intercuts brief clips of the children later on, instead of leaving the audience to pick up the echo in a later scene.)

Clara Bow, Esther Ralston and Gary Cooper

The film then cuts to America some years later, where we meet the grown-up Kitty (Bow) at a garden party, as her old friend Jean (Ralston) arrives for a visit. Soon they meet up with  “that wild Ted Larrabee”, as the inter-title describes him (Cooper) – now a bored rich young man who knocks back endless cocktails and jumps his horse over the hedge as he once climbed over the convent wall. It becomes clear that Jean is also wealthy, but Kitty is poor and expected to marry for money. Kitty is in love with a European prince, Vico (Einar Hanson), but he has no money either and, in one of the film’s best inter-titles, she tells him: “Vico, you’d be a good second husband, but you are too much of a luxury for a poor girl’s first.”

Clara Bow and Einar Hanson

Ted falls instantly in love with Jean and begs her to marry him, but she wants to see him changing his dissipated ways first, and asks him to take a job, going back to his childhood ambition of becoming an engineer. He complains at first: “What’s the point of building bridges when I’m rich enough to buy them?”, but eventually obeys her and travels away from home to work. Unfortunately, Kitty catches Ted in a weak moment, gets him extremely drunk and somehow marries him overnight (it’s never explained how they could get a licence at such short notice!), so he wakes up in the morning, horribly hung-over, to find her in his bed and his life in ruins. Later all four main characters meet up in Paris again and it becomes clear how all their lives are falling apart, but Kitty now has a child – and Jean is implacably opposed to divorce because of the way it blighted her own childhood.

Esther Ralston and Clara Bow

I won’t give away all the later melodramatic plot twists, but emotional complications abound and there are many tears all round – Cooper seems to spend much of the film on the verge of weeping, and there is even a scene where Bow seals a letter with her tears rather than licking the envelope in the normal way. I think Bow and Ralston are both excellent as Kitty and Jean – after seeing Bow in this and Wings, I can really see why she was such a great star and would love to see more of her work. I’m also becoming quite a fan of Cooper, but have to say he seems a bit stagey at times in this film compared to the amazing naturalism of his brief role in Wings, and it doesn’t help that he is absolutely caked in make-up, his beautiful face almost looking like a white mask at times. I know heavy make-up was necessary in films at this time, but his does seem a bit over the top even so. All the same, it’s interesting to see him playing against type as a weak character, and I suppose his “wildness” and unhappiness in this movie looks forward to the self-destructive character he plays in the opening scenes of Sergeant York.

The film has been beautifully restored and is another title which would surely be worthy of a DVD release, maybe in a Cooper or Bow box set. In any case, I’m very glad to have caught it at this festival.

Gary Cooper and Clara Bow

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23 thoughts on “Children of Divorce (1927)

    • Thank you, Raquelle. I hope so too – Paramount seem to be really bad at releasing DVDs, but, as this one stars Gary Cooper, I’m wondering if there may be more hope for it seeing the light of day than for those with lesser-known stars.

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  1. Judy, it isn’t Paramount that’s the problem, it’s Universal, who own all Paramount films pre around 1960. They’#re very slow to release great films that aren’t their own.

    And Judy, as I commented at WitD, email me on rollo.tomassi@btinternet.com I may have some news for you.

    Allan

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    • Thanks for the information about Paramount and Universal, Allan – it’s interesting to know where the problem lies. I hope Universal get around to releasing some of these in the future, but won’t hold my breath!

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    • I’m not 100% sure, but if it’s a silent I think it’s still controlled by Paramount. I think the package of films controlled by Universal only includes talkies, e.g. Wings is still controlled by Paramount.

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  3. Watching a silent film in a theater with live accompaniment is a real joy. The film sounds a bit soapy but Bow and Cooper would be interesting to see. Nice!

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    • Thanks! Yes, it was great to see it in a cinema – I’d really like to see more old films in this way, but as my local independent film theatre has closed down it now involves a trip to London! Hope to do it again in the future.

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  4. Thanks, Miguel – I do wish Wings would be issued on an official DVD! I’d be interested to learn more about the studios and who owns the catalogues now. Sadly, I get the feeling less is being issued on DVD in general these days, apart from things like Warner Archive.

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  5. It is indeed a completely different experience to watch a silent film with piano or organ accompaniment in a theatre than to take it in at home. In this sense, silent cinema is particularly better served with this multi-faceted approach, as it’s a historical replication of how it once was. Needless to say this feature, starring Bow and Cooper, part of the Von Sternberg season. I haven’t seen this film yet (but will) but your enthusiasm has actually matched what you related upon your recent viewing of WINGS here, and that’s pretty much reason for celebration.

    Have a great holiday season Judy! You and yours!

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    • Many thanks for the encouragement, Sam. I’d definitely like to see more old films in cinemas, and silents in particular, since, as you say, it makes it such a different experience. Wishing all the best to you and your family over the Christmas break too!

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  6. Paramount does own most of the silent films, not Universal and there may be very good news on this film next year. It is a complicated web of rights clearances but things are looking interesting.

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  7. Wasn’t Gary Cooper just beautiful. Again and again actors who became “rugged” or tough-guy kinds of types began life as beautiful (feminine looking) men. So too the suave type (Colman). It’s a look that is no longer favored or has to be qualified (as in Rufus Sewell).

    Ellen

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    • Thanks, Ellen. Cooper really was amazingly beautiful as a young man. I’d like to see more of his silent films – he made quite a few of them before going on to become a star in talkies, though not all of them survive.

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  8. In response to the recent comment you left on my blog, I saw it in a very popular website so you might try it there.

    As for Paramount and their catalogue, I wouldn’t hold much hope. The studio hasn’t released in the US anything new in a few years. From what I read around the web, the management doesn’t think a classic film would sell unless it has John Wayne or Audrey Hepburn in it. Since Wings has neither…

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  9. Thanks very much, Miguel, I’ll do as you suggest. Wings is also online, but it would still be good to see it released properly, though I won’t hold my breath.

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  10. … we can now exhale as Wings was released on a BluRay!

    It seems that the studios, Paramount and Universal, ought to cash in on the boomlet that might arise from Wings being out, and figure out how to release remaining Clara Bow films that DO exist… Over the Rainbow (her first movie) Maytime (recently discovered in a New Zealand vault), Black Lightning, Daughters of Pleasure, My Lady’s Lips,and Poisoned Paradise (all made on the cusp of her stardom).

    If they want to “test the waters” a release of the talkies Her Wedding Night and Kick In might indicate the level of interest in Clara Bow. I’m betting the legions of fans would pay to get access to any of these films. I’ve read somewhere that it costs tens of thousands to restore a nitrate film, and all of the above titles are or have been restored. UCLA or the Eastman House can’t recoup those costs by just letting a few museums hold them close … get them out TO BE SEEN (that’s what a movie is for!).

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    • Stuart, I don’t know why I never replied to this comment, but apologies for that. I definitely think more Clara Bow films should be released on DVD and totally agree with you about getting them out to be seen!

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  12. Another reason to visit London some day (as if I needed more). Sadly I have not seen Clara Bow but once in “It”. However, I was ecstatic to see Gary Cooper in “The Winning of Barbara Worth” which, from what I can tell, was his first credited role. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, I highly recommend it.

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    • Amanda, I think this was the only time that ‘Children of Divorce’ was shown in London, but it is occasionally shown at festivals in the US too, so I hope you get a chance to see it – I do wish it would get a DVD release. I also recently saw ‘The Winning of Barbara Worth’ and agree it is a great early role for Cooper. Thanks for the comment!

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