Clara Bow and Esther Ralston in Children of Divorce (1927)

We’re ‘Children of Divorce’, We’re Doomed to Glamour!

Frank Lloyd's silent film explores how the other half suffers.

In the opening scenes of Children of Divorce, two little girls make friends at boarding school. Tiny dark-haired Kitty (Joyce Coad) and tall blonde Jean (Yvonne Pelletier) bond because they’re both children of divorce. In the world of this film, that’s got nothing to do with shared custody or single parents. It means they’ve been abandoned by careless, cocktail-swilling, party-hopping, big-chapeau-wearing, Eurotrash-hobnobbing moms who belong to a parasitic social class that could afford divorce (like the people who made Hollywood movies in the ‘20s).

It’s virtually a Marxist statement despite itself, although an incoherent one. To pick one obvious nit, the other kids in the school have also been dumped by parents of the same class who simply didn’t bother getting divorced first. Later, the “young set” they run with will be depicted as equally useless, idle, and prone to avoiding productivity, even though few of them can utter the badge of declaration spouted by the adult Jean (Esther Ralston): “We’re children of divorce!” Maybe so, but she doesn’t look that miserable.

For most Americans living in the era of the so-called Roaring Twenties, divorce was both expensive and legally difficult as well as being a social taboo: one set of circumstances reinforcing the other in a logical Moebius strip. As it began to loosen, divorce became a social topic to be analyzed among “the Smart Set” as novels, plays, and movies were written around this dramatic hook. The procedure was to titillate the mass audience with this fantasy while reinforcing a sense of tragedy created by such a moral transgression.

Soon enough, Hollywood would learn to write “remarriage comedies”, in which characters get divorced in order to remarry the same spouse. Children of Divorce, based on Owen Johnson’s novel, belongs to the ‘20s phase of social melodramas that gave audiences a glimpse of stocking only to make sure the ending would still dye it blue by reinforcing middle-class codes. Thus, we got semi-salacious flapper pictures like Our Dancing Daughters (1928) with Joan Crawford, and It (1927), which turned pert, petite Clara Bow into “the It Girl” while remaining a good egg.

Children of Divorce, the picture Bow made after It, is another of her “good bad girls” in contrast to Ralston’s “good good girl”. As the grown-up and symbolically named Kitty, Bow’s character refuses to marry the Italian prince (Einar Hanson) she loves because “poverty would make us hate each other”, since clearly, they’d have to live in a shotgun shack and take in washing instead of living in the mansion with her five-times divorced mother (Hedda Hopper). Instead, Kitty tricks boy-next-door Ted into drunken marriage, even though he loves her BFF Jean, whose moral compass will lead everyone into a chasm.

Ted is played by Gary Cooper in his gorgeous silent sex-object phase from The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926). Through a supporting role in Wings (1927), the latter also starring Bow, the two were famously having an affair. Ted is introduced astride leaping a horse, on his way to drink a cocktail, his hair flopping dashingly over his forehead. He even gets an Art Deco shower scene in this film. As a studious boy, Ted wanted to pursue the symbolic career of “building bridges”, which Kitty defines as “what you burn after going over”. But as one of the “children of divorce”, which in this instance just means “the idle rich”, he finds it all too easy to backslide.

In other words, this story is bilge (also known as swill, mush, tosh, eyewash, and balderdash). These time-honored terms of the day went with the territory. When attempting to dramatize social issues, such glossy constructions worked themselves into peculiar corners, of which this movie is a perfect example. It creates a complex situation that could only be fixed by allowing divorce to solve everyone’s problems — yet it won’t permit that. The prince even declares that his religion doesn’t allow it, and this logic allows for a bigger sin. After the Production Code crackdown of 1934, even this movie’s “solution” wouldn’t be permitted easily. Those of a deconstructionist bent could argue that the movie unwittingly makes the case for divorce.

Directed by old hand Frank Lloyd, with an eye for the carefully placed close-up and the telling dolly shot, this brisk 75-minute Paramount soaper makes its video debut in a Blu-ray/DVD combo scanned in 4K from the Library of Congress’ nitrate negative and their fine-grain master. It looks swell and comes with a classical chamber score by Rodney Sauer, who explains his choices in a note. The notes also claim the film was extensively reshot by Josef von Sternberg with cameraman James Wong Howe, though we only notice one scene of what would be called expressionist lighting.

A bonus is the enjoyable documentary, narrated by Courtney Love, Clara Bow: Discovering the “It” Girl, previously issued by Kino back in 2000. It argues that Bow’s persona had a rebellious modernity that still makes her interesting, and it’s certainly true that she’s more appealing and memorable today than co-star Esther Ralston.

RATING 6 / 10