Train Wreck Cinema
By Ed Garea
Are These Our Children? (RKO, 1931) – Director: Wesley Ruggles, Howard Estabrook (uncredited). Writers: Wesley Ruggles (story), Howard Estabrook (adaptation). Stars: Eric Linden, Rochelle Hudson, Beryl Mercer, Arline Judge, Ben Alexander, William Orlamond, Billy Butts, Roberta Gale, Mary Kornman, & Robert Quirk. B&W, 84 minutes.
Why is a bad movie bad? That’s a question I always ask myself after I’ve seen a stinker. Sometimes it’s a group effort – bad writing, bad directing, bad acting, and bad production values. But this is usually the case with Poverty Row productions. In the case of major studios, it often comes down to bad writing, bad direction, and bad casting of leads.
In the case of Are These Our Children? it comes down to a combination of bad writing and bad direction. The production values are excellent and the acting is quite good. This is a case of a missed opportunity, as it is an early JD film and takes as its subject a hot topic in the headlines. But Wild Boys of the Road it isn’t, instead coming across as preposterous and maudlin, especially later in the film. It boggles the mind as to how a major studio such as RKO could release this without much revision. Released only five days after his Oscar-nominated Cimmaron, it is intended as a display for the talent of auteur director Wesley Ruggles. Yet, he’s replaced during filming by Howard Estabrook. This wasn’t the first time this happened to Ruggles. He was also replaced during the filming of MGM’s The Sea Bat by Lionel Barrymore.
Having seen a number of Ruggles' efforts, he comes across to me as either superbly competent or wildly incompetent. This film is a case of the latter. Using corny animated special effects throughout the movie, from the halo of romantic idealism he paints around screen couple Eddie and Mary to even cornier imagery between scenes to symbolize Eddie’s fall from grace, Ruggles only succeeds in making himself, and the movie, ridiculous. The images come off as if they were straight out of a Poverty Row admonitory film warning what happens when youth are exposed to drugs or sex.
As the film opens, we are introduced to our protagonist, Eddie Brand (Linden), a high school student of promise, though as it turns out, not as much promise as he would have everyone believe. His faithful girlfriend Mary (Hudson) at his side, it seems as if the world is his oyster. He lives with his grandmother (Mercer) and little brother Bobby (Butts). A frequent visitor to their Manhattan apartment is his grandmother’s good friend, Heinrich “Heinie” Krantz (Orlamond), who we learn has just opened a delicatessen in Jamaica, Queens.
Eddie is preparing for an important oratory contest on the Constitution at his high school. Although everyone from Mary to Heinie advises him to go slowly, Eddie is already counting his chickens before they hatch, convinced that his victory is only a matter of showing up. So guess what happens? Yes, in the next scene, Eddie is walking away from school dejected for he bombed big time in the contest. But it was the fault of the judges, not him. (Amazingly, for someone with a big ego, the slightest setback is devastating – indicative of bad writing.) As he walks despondently, he’s called over by Flo Carnes (Judge) and her cronies. It seems that Flo wants to get back at her boyfriend Nick Crosby (Alexander) by flouting another man at him. Though she doesn’t know Eddie, the mere fact that he’s passing by dejected makes him prime for the picking. She invites him to join her and the gang at the Orient Club for a little socializing. It takes Eddie almost no time to accept; he doesn’t even pause to think it over for any amount of time – he’s game.
At the Orient Club – a BYOB joint run by an amazingly unstereotyped Chinese family (Will wonders ever cease?) – Eddie gets to know Flo and her friends Maybelle (Gale), Agnes (Kornman), Nick, and Bennie Gray (Quirk). At first, Eddie agrees to hang out but refuses to partake in drink. Until he has his first, that is. (We don’t know when this happens as it’s never made clear in the film.) Soon Old John Barleycorn has Eddie by the short hairs. He ignores Grandma’s pleas that he slow down, hanging out until all hours with the gang, boozing it up at jazz joints and dance halls, and robbing strangers at gunpoint to pay for the fun. His personality grows more and more cocky as he becomes more and more dependent on alcohol. He drops out of school and drifts from one job to another.
One night the gang is riding around in a cab after leaving a club when the girls decry the lack of liquor. Eddie asks the cab driver where they are, and when the driver tells him, Eddie gets a brainstorm. He has the driver pull over and wait with the girls while he, Nick and Bennie get the booze. They knock on the door of a closed deli, it’s none other than Heinie’s – as if that’s a surprise. Heinie lets them in reluctantly, as they are noticeably under the influence. Eddie tells Heine straight out what he’s there for, the hidden bottle of liquor Heinie keeps for his best customers. Heinie denies such a thing exists and tries to stop Eddie when he begins rummaging through the deli’s back room. When Heinie tries to stop him, Eddie pulls a gun and shoots poor Heinie dead. Though his buddies are shocked, for Eddie it’s all in a day’s work; he’s found the bottle.
At first, it looks as if Eddie and the boys have gotten away scot free, but when the cab driver reads about the killing in the paper and sees them cavorting drunk outside a club a few days later, he puts two and two together and goes to the police, who arrest Eddie and the gang as they are partying at Flo’s place.
It looks bad for Eddie at the trial. His lawyer advises him to take a plea deal to a lesser charge. But Eddie, all stoked up over the publicity he’s getting, tells his lawyer that he’ll handle his own case from now on. The lawyer remains as a legal counsel. He starts off brilliantly, making mincemeat out of the cab driver by focusing on the fact that the driver can’t even remember which prosecution lawyer had questioned him only the day before, so how could he be so sure that Eddie, Nick and Bennie committed the crime? He also tears down the owner of the Orient Club by taking advantage of the proprietor’s reluctance about his hours of operation, taking the Fifth Amendment.
However, everything comes tumbling down when Nick is called to the stand. Eddie has told him beforehand to stick to the alibi they originally gave to the police. But apparently Nick’s conscience, possibly combined with the sentiment he’s been voicing to Eddie throughout the film of taking away his girlfriend Flo, gets the better of him. One moment he’s moving along, perjuring himself with ease. Suddenly he breaks down and confesses all to the astonishment and hysterical dismay of Eddie. It’s all over. The judge sentences Bennie and Nick to life imprisonment while reserving the death penalty for Eddie.
As he sits awaiting execution, Eddie discusses his situation with Grandma, little brother, and the faithful Mary about where it all went wrong – the folly of his life and the path he chose to walk. The final scene has Eddie reciting the Lord’s Prayer before going off to be fried. Watch your step there kids, this could be you.
As discussed above the script is pretty bad. One of the little goofs, practically unnoticed today, but sure to have been spotted when the movie was in its original run, was the fact that Eddie was able to go with ease from job to job. This is 1931 Depression America. Jobs were extremely difficult, if not downright impossible to get. Yet Eddie moves about in the employment world as if there’s not enough people to fit all the vacancies.
The most preposterous moment in the film occurs during the courtroom scene. Enamored of himself because he’s become fodder for the tabloids, Eddie gives a series of interviews to reporters pontificating on current events in an obvious "you don’t have a clue about me because you're so stupid” manner, which may help to explain just why he bombed in the oratory contest. He then – incredibly – tells his lawyer mid-trial that he’ll take over the case himself. And he’s good at it, demolishing both the cab driver and the owner of the Orient Club on the stand. Remember, this is a kid who’s a high school dropout. Suddenly he’s more proficient than Perry Mason. Johnnie Cochran has nothing on this kid. If he were that smart he would have won the oratory contest in a breeze. It only serves as evidence of more bad writing.
The scene with Eddie and the family in the clink while he awaits execution is handled in such a maudlin manner that, if Ruggles is trying to evoke any sympathy for Eddie, he fails miserably, given what has been going on throughout the picture. Some writers see Eddie as a sort of American Raskolnikov, but this overlooks his megalomania and the fact that he only repents at the end of the picture, when the outcome is a forgone conclusion. And it wasn’t even Eddie’s conscience that got the better of him during the trial, but Nick’s. I find myself in agreement with blogger Samuel Wilson, who opines that the movie “works better as an individual character study than as a snapshot of American youth.”
What the movie does have going for itself are the fine performances from the cast. This was star Eric Linden’s screen debut, and he’s compelling as Eddie Brand. This was also his best performance as well – it was all downhill from here. Working his way down the credits at RKO, he also acted in films for Warner Bros. and Universal, where he landed choice roles such as James Cagney’s brother in Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars (1932), Lionel Barrymore’s callow son in Sweepings (1933), and as the domineered son of Laura Hope Crews in The Silver Cord (1933). His roles and work diminished to the point where he was working supporting parts in Poverty Row productions such as Ladies Crave Excitement (Mascot, 1935) and Born to Gamble (Liberty, 1935).
He then signed with MGM and landed the plum role of Richard in Ah, Wilderness! (1935), starring alongside Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, and Aline MacMahon. But it was Mickey Rooney, who played his younger brother Tommy, who garnered the notices. He stayed at MGM for a few years, appearing in supporting parts. When he did headline a film. it was for a Poverty Row studio such as Grand National or Monogram. His last role for MGM came in Gone With the Wind, where he had a very small role as a Civil War amputee. His last film was Criminals Within (with Children co-star Ben Alexander) for PRC in 1941, after which he retired from movie and worked on the stage. After he married in 1955, he worked for Orange County, California. He died on July 14, 1994, from cardiorespiratory arrest.
Arline Judge began her career as a dancer in Jimmy Durante’s nightclub act. She met director Wesley Ruggles on a train. He gave her the juicy part of Flo in Are These Our Children?, and that same year became the first of her eight husbands (he was 32, she was 19). Most of her career was spent making low-budget B’s, with her last appearance in 1964 as a guest star on TV in Perry Mason.
Overall, Are These Our Children? promises much, but delivers little, and what it does deliver is handled in a such heavy-handed, pretentious manner that it becomes ludicrous. As stated earlier, the only difference between this and films like Reefer Madness, She Shoulda Said No, Sex Madness, and The Cocaine Fiends are the superior production values that come from a major studio.
In 1937, RKO applied for a certificate from the Association of Motion Picture Producers so they could reissue the film, but the application was denied on the grounds that the "picture caused a great deal of unfavorable reaction when first released, by reason of its detailed portrayal of the wild life among high school students.”