Saturday, 4 February 2017

Clara's baby… Children of Divorce (1927) on Blu-ray

“Gary’s such a big boy, so strong, so manly and so bashful, I always wanna rumple his hair an’ listen to all his troubles.” Clara Bow

Clara Bow in Blu-ray high-definition and the clearest possible view of her soon-to-be-stellar co-star, Gary Cooper; what could possibly go wrong?!

Even in her annus mirabilis when every single film topped the charts from Mantrap, Kid Boots to It! – it was recognised that Miss Bow needed better scripts to fully reach her potential. Sadly, much as it tries, Children of Divorce was not to be it... Joseph von Sternberg was brought in to re-shoot and re-direct the ending and whilst elements of the work received high praise – Clara’s soon-to-be-ex, Victor Fleming saying that the final sequence was amongst the greatest in cinema – overall the audience is left unsatisfied by characters with obscure motivations. The film tries to make a serious point about the importance of family life and the damage done by un-committed parenting but… it feel half-hearted and more concerned with the big dramas of duty.

All this said, what it does have is the magical realism of Clara Bow – an “expression-engine” who could break the heart of the most cynical viewer with a quicksilver intensity possessed by few other performers. Next to her, the ridiculously handsome Coop struggles to get beyond mildly forlorn or slightly distracted… he’s eye-catching alright but not really enough to draw your focus from Clara.

Stories abound of Bow getting her beau-to-be the part in this film and/or fighting for him to keep it after a stinker of a start. There is still no denying his own potent star appeal but Clara’s was in full burn and Coop was still learning the ropes alongside this sexual superpower. As he said in an off-set interview: “…you couldn’t steal scenes from Clara Bow. Nobody could… She just naturally walks away with every scene she’s in.”

Mr Cooper
He was also up against the equally lovely and capable Esther Ralston.

Esther is so polished and focused and knows exactly how to present face to camera whereas Cooper is often at unflattering angles. The big galoot has charm to burn possessing what Colleen Moore called “that peculiar personality, that intangible quality that communicates on camera…” Yet here, in terms of craft, he’s miles behind Ralston who glides with effortless sadness through the film. Her Jean is the only character really sure of herself around whom Bow’s impulsive Kitty and Cooper’s confused Ted struggle to make the right choices.

Ralston knows how to pose for intense close-ups and works the camera so well throughout. There was a lot for Coop to learn.

Esther Ralston
The film had five writers and it shows with a wayward central message about damaging divorce and also the need for socially convenient marriage getting in the way of emotional fulfilment: we – or rather the upper set – marry for money and do not always follow their hearts. Sadness and despair can be the only result.

The film starts in a de-facto orphanage for the sons and daughters of divorced ex-pats living in Paris and it is here that a young Kitty (Joyce Coad) is dropped off by her mother, (Hedda Hopper in her acting days), who tells her she’ll see her in the Summer – that’s a long time out of the way. She is befriended by the young Jean (Yvonne Pelletier) who provides the unqualified affection her parents cannot. Soon they meet a fiery young boy, Ted Larrabee, who forms a strong attachment to Jean…

Soul sisters
Fast-forward some years to a party at a country house where Kitty (now Clara) entertains the smart set including the titled but broke Prince Ludovico de Saxe (Einar Hanson) who loves her but cannot afford to marry her. Sailing impressively over a hedge on horseback is Ted (now Coop) who lands impressively to gulp down a glass of champagne from Kitty. This scene took some 23 takes according to Bow biographer David Stenn and almost got Cooper fired.

Enter the grown-up Jean (Esther), now very wealthy and a target for any cash-strapped socialite but wealth is the furthest thing on Ted’s mind as is transfixed. Kitty bounds over, as she will many times, to push herself between the two and poor Prince ‘Vito dies a little more inside.

Vito dying a little more...
Jean still loves Ted but wants him to make something of himself before they can consummate their childhood pledge to wed. Kitty loves Jean but also wants to marry into success and if she can’t afford have the man she loves, that’s the Prince, she’ll take the next best thing once Ted has become a success as a bridge-building architect.

Kitty arranges a party starting at Ted’s office and ending up the following morning with the biggest hangover imaginable for, even though Ted struggles to remember, the two got married at the culmination of the previous night’s revels.

WHAT a hang-over!
It’s the worst of timings as Jean has written to Ted saying that maybe they should marry but chance has gone and she sentences herself to noble exile in Paris in order to give Kitty a chance at happiness…

Some years later Kitty and Ted along with their well-cast daughter – the spit of a juvenile Bow -  arrive in Paris and this convoluted quadrangle of love is about to come crashing down around their sad heads.

There are some bold images in the closing segment – perhaps from von Sternberg – but… no spoilers! Overall the main director Frank Lloyd works competently with the narrative in spite of a repeated need to flash back to the younger versions of Jean and Kitty as if to remind us that the child is mother to the woman.

But the restoration is super quality and you can’t fail to be moved by the three leads especially and of course, Clara Bow. When those sad eyes open wide and Klieg lights giving her ample tears a powerful glow, you’d have to be made of stone not to feel more than a little welling up of your own.

There a cracking score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra which incorporates contemporary songs within a carefully crafted whole: for instance, JS Zamecnik’s Heart of Dreams is a recurring theme beginning as the youngsters become friends and returning for every key moment.

To top it all the set also includes the Discovering the It Girl documentary narrated by Courtney Love which, if you haven’t seen it features contributions from David Stenn, Diana Serra Cary (Baby Peggy) and Clara’s son, Rex Bell Jnr.

Children of Divorce in excellent production from Flicker Alley and is available direct. It deserves to do well and let's hope for more Blu-ray Bow in the near future!

Buy it! Buy it NOW!

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