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Jackie 'Butch' Jenkins,
ARE THESE OUR CHILDREN (RKO Radio, 1931), written and directed by Wesley Ruggles, is an early sound depiction of troubled youths that would be commonly themed later in the decade and beyond. Not a Warner Brothers programmer nor a realistic story directed by William A. Wellman, who specialized in this sort of material, this edition credits Wesley Ruggles for something in similar fashion and style. Though cast by younger actors playing high school students, the story shows a dramatic turn of a nice young man who becomes a different sort of individual after getting himself involved with the wrong type of crowd.
FORWARD: "Youth - love- and happiness - these make the world go round ... to all each day comes choice -- even how we must decide in one way leads to shadows - the other into peace and light." Set somewhere in New York City, the story introduces Eddie Brand (Eric Linden), a young 18-year-old high school student, sitting together on the stoop with Mary (Rochelle Hudson) at her apartment building. Eddie lives across town in a tenement apartment with his grandmother, Mrs. Martin (Beryl Mercer), and his kid brother, Bobby (Billy Butts), who always asks him for dimes. After losing out in a contest at his school. Eddie becomes bitter with ideas of quitting school and going to work. Instead, he meets up with Flo Carnes (Arline Judge), a wild party girl, who takes an interest in him. Accompanied by her friends, Maybelle (Roberta Gale) and Ernestine (Mary Kornmann), Eddie joins them with his friends, Nick Crosby (Ben Alexander) and Bennie Gray (Robert Quirk) at jazz clubs and dancing parties with other juveniles where they end up boozing up liquor and smoking cigarettes. With this becoming habit forming, Eddie neglects nice girl Mary for the flirtatious Flo, and angering his grandmother by returning home way past midnight in a drunken state in a "don't tell me what to do!" attitude. Feeling he's now a man, he can do anything he wants, quitting jobs, obtaining extra money through robberies, and becoming more dependent on liquor. After becoming involved in a Jamaica (Queens) murder, he and his friends are later arrested and put to trial, which becomes more of a big joke for Eddie.
ARE THESE OUR CHILDREN might have been about the juvenile delinquents set in February 1931, but centers more on the IS HE MY SON? title instead. Eddie Brand, performed by Eric Linden, in his movie debut. Though noted for playing weaklings or kid brothers, Linden never became a top-rank star attraction, though he did give some fine performances in latter movie roles as in Warner Brothers 1932 releases of LIFE BEGINS, BIG CITY BLUES and THE CROWD ROARS. He was exceptional in AH! WILDERNESS (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935) starring Lionel Barrymore, as the son who experiences life after high school. By the end of the decade, Linden drifted to poverty row studio films and bit parts before his retirement by 1941.
As much as Linden somehow didn't seem quite right as the good boy gone bad role, possibly due to his baby face, he did the best he could to make his character believable. Beryl Mercer, best known as James Cagney's mother in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (Warners, 1931), performs similar chores here as the caring grandmother who refuses to accept the fact that her grandson has gone down the wayward path. Also in the cast are William Orlamond (Heinie Kranz, a deli owner and friend of the family); Ralf Harolde (District Attorney); Wallis Clark (Prosecuting Attorney); and Reginald Barlow (The Judge).
Wesley Ruggles keeps the pace moving during its 84 minutes with Josef Von Sternberg-type directorial techniques with superimpose scene changes, along with style of his own ranging from character introduction of Eddie and Mary entered above movable hearts, along with circular twirls indicating moving forward to another time-frame. Max Steiner's conducted underscoring helps through the proceedings as well.
My introduction to ARE THESE OUR CHILDREN happened to be not by watching this on public or cable television, but at New York City's Museum of Modern Art movie department in New York City during its tribute to RKO Radio's 50th anniversary in 1979. Regardless of its age, it did have a good attendance for a nearly crowded theater viewing this long forgotten drama that probably has never been televised. There were some laughs at corny opening sequence along with gasp at a shooting of one of the characters in the story being my recollection by reaction of others in attendance.
The movie may be a depiction of troubled youths of the time, but one wonders if this to be a forerunner to similar films that proved favorable in later years, particular in the 1930s and especially the 1950s with the likes of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955) as prime examples. Had ARE THESE OUR CHILDREN been remade in the 1940s, maybe "Dead End Kid" star, Billy Halop, might have been a logical choice for the lead, or the 1950s with upgraded material and stronger modern acting style by James Dean. Or maybe it be best to leave well-enough alone.
Formerly presented on American Movie Classics prior to 2000, and occasionally broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, ARE THESE OUR CHILDREN, somewhat dramatic and little depressing, remains a curiosity drama from the time capsule, or a rediscovery of Eric Linden in one of his few top-billed roles. (**1/2)
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