I had the extraordinary pleasure of my first viewing of Children of Divorce
I had no expectations before seeing Children of Divorce—I had never heard of it. Gary Cooper was the featured star at Capitolfest 2016, where old movie fanatics gather for a few days each August to watch silent and early sound films in a dilapidated movie palace with a fantastic pipe organ for live accompaniment. When I slipped into my seat
A passion for old movies and the people who made them can be consuming.
There was a show called Divorce Court on daytime TV when I was a kid in the ’60s. The opening credit was an illustration of a kid kneeling by his bed, hands clasped, praying, with a voiceover something along the lines of, “And please…make Mommy and Daddy stop fighting.”
Children of Divorce is the story of three kids whose parents did not stop fighting, and whose lives have been as a consequence uprooted. Kitty, the youngest, will grow up to be Clara Bow, with everything that entails. Ted (CK) grows into tall drink of water Gary Cooper, just beginning his long career as a major star, and Jean turns into Esther Ralston, of whom I knew nothing until seeing her her.
Children of Divorce is one of those wonderful surprises. It’s not a masterpiece, an “important” film. That is, unless you love old movies and enjoy stepping into a past that feels phenomenally remote, seeing stars you may know from their later work when they were just starting out (Gary Cooper), rising to their peak (Clara Bow) or already moving toward the end of their Hollywood career (Esther Ralston, **CK**).
In addition to all the usual stuff that strikes us in movies—acting, screenwriting, direction, set and costume design, cinematography—in old films we **enter** the past in a more fully dimensional way than we do in the imaginative act of reading, or looking at art from another time, or even speaking with our elders about their experiences in the past, that remote country. When we become open to old movies, when we fall in love with these visits to a past that is at once impossibly foreign and has brief moments that could be happening **right now**, time does not move relentlessly forward for us as it does in real life. Or at least we get to enjoy little respites from the grind of 21st century life.
Kitty’s end is dictated by her character. That’s what drives the plot. Another person in her situation might have reacted differently. She could have left Cooper, either with or without their daughter. She could have stayed, knowing that Jean and…Ted? love each other but are too honorable to give in to their love. Or she could have taken the road she chose, the only one she was able to see. Thing is that scene—it has a visual motif that I know from the famous Kane shot after he busts up Susan’s room, where he walks through a series of doors, becoming more and remote all the time. And I thought, Wait a minute—this scene is way more arty and stylish some of the rest of the movie. And it turns out there’s a reason for that.
Turns out that the execs or preview audiences decided that as directed by DIRECTOR TK, Children of Divorce was a stinker. At which point Schulberg (CK) brought in the young Turk Josef von Sternberg to reshoot the picture. Small detail: He would only be able to shoot for three days.
You know how Abbey Road kept these incredibly precise records of recording sessions, so that we have extraordinary detail about how the Beatles records came together? Who did what, when, how many times. How things changed.
That’s the film historian’s dream, records like that, which document the process of making the film. Who did what, when, how many times. How things changed.
Children of Divorce opened April 25, 1927. Place that in time: Two years before the Crash of 1929, and at the moment when sound was very new but starting to become a thing (CK).