Judge Bill Gibron never wanted to have kids and now, after watching this melodramatic artifact from 1930, he's sure he made the proper choice.
A decent drama from 76 years ago!
Adolf Wagenkampf and his wife Martha are truly blessed. This immigrant barber from Germany has five wonderful kids—Alma, Katherine, Ludwig, Johann, and Rudolph—and acceptance from his small-town friends. Realizing he now lives in a land of unlimited opportunities, he strives to set his babies on the proper path. Just as he is about to invest in a modest banking proposition, Adolph learns that one of his sons needs an extended stay in a dry climate to save his life. Naturally, he uses the down-payment money for his child's needs. Decades fly by, and now Adolph is an old man. The banking deal made his partner and friend Joe Higginson the richest man in town, while Adolph is still barely getting by, cutting hair. Worse, his grown children have all become petulant and problematic. Instead of a blessing, their individual antics have made them a burden and a curse. Worse yet, they constantly take advantage of their parents, looking for easy handouts and help when they are in trouble. Of course Adolph cannot say no. These are his offspring. But if he's not careful, the Sins of the Children will catch up with, and overwhelm, their well-meaning father.
If you like your 1930s Hollywood cinematic antiques on the mostly
melodramatic side, if you want your onscreen acting to be arch and slightly over
the top, if you think a good way to spend 90 minutes of your entertainment time
is watching some ungrateful older progeny crap all over their elderly immigrant
father, then Sins of the Children is the film for you. Derived as a
vehicle for showy Broadway star Louis Mann, this saccharine soundie wanted to
tap into the growing generation gap created by the debaucherous Roaring '20s, a
time when the children of the Ellis Island émigrés decided to spread
their wings and experience the decadent glories of the decade. Beginning with a
flashback to a turn-of-the-century household, Sins establishes the
amiable Adolf Wagenkampf as the universal benchmark of proud papas. Viewing
America as the land of golden opportunities, he pushes his wee ones to grab the
country's big brass ring and make a success of their lives. Fast forward a
couple decades, and we learn that life has played a trick on our Teutonic daddy.
With one son dead thanks to WWI and the rest of his kindred acting snooty and/or
ungrateful, our attentive parent gets a paternalistic pie in the face. All of
his efforts to raise happy, healthy kids have resulted in spineless, conniving
cads (and cad-ettes).
Honestly, if you can get through the first 30 minutes of this movie, you will eventually enjoy the syrupy, soap-operaish ride. Director Samuel Wood, who went on to make such notable fare as Goodbye Mr. Chips and the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, does a decent job of keeping the film lively and intriguing. Sure, the first third flounders under the rapid introduction of too many characters and the more or less necessary establishment of relationships. Yet once Mann has matured, playing the dejected old man with a healthy amount of performance ham, we get into the groove of this story. As each child shows up and undermines their father's confidence in his abilities to properly parent, we begin to root for the old coot.
In fact, Mann is so good at playing earnest and honest that we come to love him like a surrogate pop. More than once during this predictable potboiler we wish Adolph would adopt us. He's so naïve and yet so sincere, we just know he would save us from ourselves. As the finale finally plays out, there are several strange questions raised, queries regarding elements that seemingly come out of nowhere: When did these otherwise selfish bratlings develop principles? Will they ever get their ethical comeuppance? Why was marrying the town oaf such a sin in the first place? Love conquers all, of course, and as the family celebrates a comfy Christmas (thanks to one child's sudden success), we see that this was the main point of the movie after all. Sins of the Children is supposed to symbolize fathers as emotional martyrs. Mann and Wood do a wonderful job of illustrating this idea.
That cut-rate Criterion, otherwise known as The Roan Group (now part of Troma), likes to fancy itself a preserver of Hollywood's past. Frankly, many of the movies they "salvage" truly deserve to be forgotten. As for the transfer here, Sins of the Children looks amazing, especially for a film made nearly 76 years ago. The 1.33:1 full-frame print has a nice monochrome mellowness, meaning that the black and white is not as sharp as it could be. Still, there is a nice level of detail in the picture, resulting in a good technical presentation. The sound is equally first-rate. The Dolby Digital Mono is clean and crisp, and though Mann applies a broad brogue that would make your average Berliner weep, we have no difficulty understanding the dialogue. As for extras, Roan offers an interesting intro by New York Post critic Lou Lumenick, a couple of scenes from other Roan releases (specifically, The Vagabond Lover and That Uncertain Feeling) and an odd featurette on child star Bobby…Winckler. That's right, instead of focusing on Sins of the Children, Winckler's son Bill offers his hearsay stories about the life of a young child star in Hollywood. It's interesting, but has nothing to do with the movie at hand.
With the post-modern notion of the nuclear family constantly careening on the brink of a major meltdown, it's amusing to see a film that advocates the concept of kinship over self-interest. While it may seem like an artifact from an era drenched in primitive practices, Sins of the Children still offers some significant entertainment elements. It's regressive, put perhaps for all the right reasons.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Roan Group
• Introduction by New York Post Critic Lou Lumenick
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