Audrey Kupferberg: Children Of Divorce

Dec 16, 2016

Flicker Alley, in partnership with the Blackhawk Films Collection, has just released the Blu-ray/DVD world premiere of a 1927 Hollywood feature, CHILDREN OF DIVORCE.  Working with preservationists from the Library of Congress, which holds the original nitrate negative and protection material on this title, and having these materials scanned in 4K resolution, Flicker Alley has presented the film in its very best form.  Plus, there is a new musical score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

CHILDREN OF DIVORCE has been on my must-see list for ages, but it hasn’t been widely available until now.  So many aspects of its production are significant.  First of all, it offers an interesting and still relevant story that begins with wealthy Americans living in Paris in the very early 20th century who marry for shallow reasons and divorce with relative ease.  They dump their children in a convent orphanage and go searching for the next fling, the next big adventure.  Years pass, and those neglected children of divorce grow to marriageable age themselves.  Tainted by the heartache of their own abandonment, they are confused and hesitant about commitments.

The film focuses on two pair of star-crossed lovers who are living privileged but mixed-up lives.  One very important feature of CHILDREN OF DIVORCE is the casting. Clara Bow, Hollywood’s original bombshell flapper, the “It Girl” herself, plays one of the leads.  In her early twenties at the time of the shoot, Bow is an icon of the Roaring Twenties.  She is a powerful combo of beauty, youth, energy, and sexual liberation.  And she can act!  In every film that I have seen which features Clara Bow, she is the strong focus of attention.  As Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe who followed in her footsteps, the camera adores her and the audience is steadfast in its devotion to her screen image.

But something different occurred as I viewed CHILDREN OF DIVORCE.  Clara Bow actually took a back seat any time the male star of the film -- the movie’s object of desire -- appeared on screen.  Who could command such formidable attention while sharing the screen with the “It Girl”?  Young Gary Cooper, that’s who!  Cooper had come to Hollywood in the early 1920s and had worked as an extra, stunt rider, and in uncredited small roles.  In 1926, he began as a featured player, and CHILDREN OF DIVORCE is one of his first leading roles.  Cooper is amazing as a young man who loves a wonderful woman but messes up his life by falling into a frivolous lifestyle.

Clara Bow was born in Brooklyn in 1905.  Her mother was mentally ill and abusive to her, and her father was an irresponsible drunk who raped her. She never graduated from high school.  She was high-strung, insecure, and mentally vulnerable for her entire life.  The Flicker Alley 2-disc set includes an hour-long documentary made about Clara Bow which really lays out the sad biography of this star.   

Gary Cooper came from a prominent Montana family, and his father was on the State Supreme Court.  He was educated in England, and then went on to graduate from college.  The differences in the backgrounds of Bow and Cooper shadow their performances in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE, as well as in other films.  Bow always has a sweet openness; she’s susceptible to life’s dangers.  Her career ended while she was in her late twenties; she couldn’t take the pressure.  Cooper displayed an even-tempered heroic nature, and won Oscars from his performances in SERGEANT YORK and HIGH NOON.   For all their differences, both coincidentally died at age 60.  CHILDREN OF DIVORCE was directed by Frank Lloyd, whose filmography includes such important films as CAVALCADE and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY.  Sources list the legendary director Josef von Sternberg as uncredited co-director.  Whether due to Lloyd and Sternberg, or whether it is the outstanding cast at the peak of their youth, each individual scene in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE is engrossing, and the total effect is potent and very pleasing. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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