Dec 21, 2016

Flicker Alley: Clara Bow and Gary Cooper in Children of Divorce (1927)

To contemplate Clara Bow and Gary Cooper together onscreen is to fear these irresistibly watchable stars will cancel each other out. After all, what else could happen when two performers who consistently steal scenes in other films appear with each other? In the 1927 silent Children of Divorce, nothing quite that dramatic happens, it's pure pleasure to see them together. Now the film is available in its DVD/Blu-ray world premiere, in what is also the 50th release for the always meticulous Flicker Alley.

Bow, Cooper and the elegantly appealing Esther Ralston are Kitty, Ted and Jean, childhood friends who have all suffered because their parents divorced and then essentially abandoned them, both physically and emotionally. They grow up fragile, but determined to avoid the mistakes of their progenitors. Instead, they make entirely different, more complicated missteps.

Kitty is in love with Ludovic (Einar Hanson), but he hasn't got enough money to keep her the way she pleases. Ted has money, but he and Jean are in love. Disregarding her friend's happiness, Kitty tricks a drunken Ted into marriage, and while he is disgusted by her actions, she eventually has the child that the more maternally yearning Jean desires. Of course there are consequences for her actions.

It's a lousy plot, but you don't realize it until the film is over. This is mostly due to the mesmerizing presence of its stars. With Cooper, you can't look away because you always wonder what thoughts are fluttering beneath those bashful giraffe eyelashes. When it comes to Bow, the opposite is true; every flicker across her face tells you exactly how she is feeling. Sometimes it is enchanting; occasionally it makes you feel like you've been socked in the gut.

This is not to short-change Ralston either. While she clearly doesn't have the charisma of her costars, she is charismatic. Her reassuringly thoughtful presence perfectly suits her role as a woman who yearns for a peaceful, maternal life.

The film is visually in tune with the emotions of its core trio, primarily due to a switch in vision. Credited director Frank Lloyd (Cavalcade [1930]) started with the production, but didn't draw compelling performances from his leads. The uncredited Josef von Sternberg was enlisted to film a sort of remake after hours, and was particularly effective in getting a heart wrenching performance from Bow, leading the director to speculate on how well she could do if Paramount Studios gave her better material. But that was not to be.

Children of Divorce has been restored by the Library of Congress from an original nitrate negative and a 1969 fine grain master in its holdings. While there was too much deterioration for a pristine restoration, it's impressive how sharp and clear the image generally is. For a brief moment in one scene the damage to the film was too severe to be repaired, and you are reminded of how fragile film is and how fortunate film fans are to have access to it at all, let alone an often quite beautiful print.

Special features include a booklet with an excerpt from David Stenn's biography of Bow, and notes about the music, making and restoration of the film. Also included: the 1999 television documentary Clara Bow: Discovering the "It" Girl, which is heartbreaking, but inspires a greater appreciation of what the actress had to offer.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the film for review.

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