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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.