Last year the Library published The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929, a sobering reminder of the astonishingly poor survival rate of this one sliver of motion picture history. And it’s not just silent features either. Although no comprehensive study has been done of shorts, features, and documentaries across all of film history, the survival rates in the sound era are probably less than we’d like or expect.
A case in point is 1935’s Children of Loneliness, which forthrightly addressed the topic of homosexuality. Still, despite the film’s missing status, various records exist which allows us to reconstruct the plot and tone of the finished product, especially an extensive review of the film in the June 1947 issue of “Vice Versa,” a short-lived magazine edited by Lisa Ben, the pseudonym for Edith Eyde, and regarded as a pioneering lesbian publication.
Children of Loneliness was very loosely based on Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 The Well of Loneliness, a boldly lesbian novel that still stands as an important literary work. As adapted by screenwriter Howard Bradford and the film’s director Richard C. Kahn, Hall’s relatively sedate story is fully jettisoned in favor of a far more lurid melodramatic tone.
The film’s plot concerns a young woman, Elinor, played by Luana Walters. Elinor works in a law office and shares a room with a “predatory” young lesbian named Bobby Allen (Jean Carmen). Elinor is fearful of Bobby’s overt affection and she seeks out a psychologist to sort out her feelings. The therapist, Dr. Lafarge (Wayne Lamont), is clear about his views on the subject, telling Elinor that Bobby’s desires are immoral. He states, “What this girl offers you is a false, barren substitute for the rich emotional life of a normal love…You should pity this girl. She undoubtedly belongs to the unfortunate class in who this condition is congenital. She was born that way and there’s nothing you or I can do for her. But you, I can help.”
Elinor heeds Dr. Lafarge’s advice and soon becomes involved with Dave (Allan Jarvis), a young male attorney and former football fullback who also works at the law office. Soon, Elinor and Dave are together at the weekend home of their employer, Mr. Grant. There, they meet Judith (Shelia Loren), Mr. Grant’s young adult daughter. Judith is hopelessly in love with Paul Van Tyne, a young artist…but Paul cannot return her love. Paul and Elinor become close, and he takes her to a café where same sex couples gather. “What sort of people are these?” Elinor asks, to which Paul responds, “These are the children of loneliness, nature’s tragic mistakes.”
Later, Bobby—who had earlier been fired from her job at the law firm—returns to the office to confront Elinor and Dave. At one point, she attempts to throw acid in Elinor’s face only to have it fly back into her own. Screaming in pain, Bobby runs out into the street. She is hit by a car and dies instantly.
Meanwhile, Paul fares no better. He receives the first major showing of his work but a critic acclaims them as surely having been painted by a woman adopting the name Paul Van Tyne. Terrified that the world now knows his “secret,” Paul commits suicide.
Children of Loneliness is a drama-filled 68 minutes, especially considering the fact that in many prints of the film, the movie begins—as does the more well-known Reefer Madness—with a filmed introduction by an “eminent expert,” in this case Dr. S. Dana Hubbard, author of 1922’s Sex Facts for the Young and Old. His take on the subject of homosexuality mirrors that of the doctor in the film in his invocation of words such as “evil,” “weakness” and “perversion.”
The tone of the film is echoed in the letter sent to the Library of Congress by the film’s producers when the film was submitted for copyright in March 1935: “Children of Loneliness concerns itself with the story of those unfortunate members of society known as inverts whose sexual instincts have been misdirected to such an extent that they approach the state of degeneracy.” It describes this “scientific presentation” as “an absorbing subject that deals with the manifestations, evil associations and mental complexes that affect and misdirect normal adults into channels resulting in homo-sexuality.”
Although Children of Loneliness didn’t have a wide distribution, contemporaneous newspaper accounts show that the film played Idaho Falls, Idaho, Ogden, Utah, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The film was marketed for “adults only” and often shown only at midnight screenings, both exhibition strategies intended to entice prurient interest.
Due to the film’s limited release, it was not widely reviewed, but when it was, the focus wasn’t always on the picture. For example, writing for the Motion Picture Herald in November 1937, William Weaver decried the film’s “inept” camerawork and other “B-minus” efforts. He also described his fellow movie-goers at the screening as “lisping” young men and “throaty” middle-aged women.
With luck, a print of Children of Loneliness will someday turn up, even as we note with some wistfulness that the Library returned the two prints submitted for copyright registration in 1935 for reasons explained here. Filled as it surely is with all manner of camp stereotypes, it’s still a fascinating cultural document. For example, the on-screen doctor’s statement that gays are “born that way” seems to suggest that the film, at times at least, had a somewhat more understanding view of homosexuals as something other than just predatory recruiters.
Of course, the true tragedy of all lost film is that we might just never know.