Released mere days after his Cimarron won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1930-31, Are These Our Children? was intended as the debut of Wesley Ruggles, superstar auteur. The opening title gives Ruggles, director of Cimarron, a formidable "By" credit. Subsequent cards clarify that Ruggles came up with the film's story, while Howard Estabrook, who won an Oscar for Cimarron, did the "Adaptation and Dialogue." In some ways Children, a pet project of Ruggles' dating back to silent days, is more ambitious, or at least more pretentious, than the mostly plodding Cimarron, a film most likely on everyone's bottom ten of Oscar winners. Ruggles uses animated special effects throughout the picture, from an opening halo of romantic idealism surrounding protagonist Eddie Brand (Eric Linden) and his sweetheart Mary (Rochelle Hudson) to solar or cosmic imagery symbolizing Eddie's ups and downs. There's also something more going on than the juvenile-delinquency cautionary tale the title advertises. Eddie Brand is sort of an American Raskolnikov, though Ruggles soft-pedals the kid's megalomania until late in the picture, and does without any repentance until the last possible moment, and Children works better as an individual character study than as a snapshot of American youth.
Everything seems to be looking up for Eddie at the start of the picture, but his ego is built on a fragile foundation. The slightest setback demoralizes him. Seeing himself as an aspiring orator, Eddie is so humiliated when he flops (offscreen) at an interscholastic debate contest that he wants to quit school altogether despite the entreaties of his grandma (the long-suffering Beryl Mercer) and her friend Heinie the shopkeeper (William Orlamond). Eddie grows self-indulgent, hanging out with questionable cronies at The Orient, a BYOB dance club run by a happily unstereotyped Asian family, and cheating on Mary with Flo (Arline Judge). Restless and undisciplined, Eddie bounces from job to job and turns with his buddies to petty crime. Their criminal career climaxes with a cab ride to Jamaica, Queens, -- they call the driver "Amos" in a nod to the blackface cab driver of the radio -- where the boys break into Heinie's delicatessen in search of free hooch. Heinie defends his bottle to the death, which comes from Eddie's gun.
The boys think they're in the clear without reckoning on the cab driver, whose presence outside one of their hangouts is the only tipoff that the gang is drunkenly dancing into a police trap one merry night. The cabbie will be a star witness at the trial, where a contemptuous Eddie refuses his defense attorney's suggestion to plea to a lesser charge. He seems mainly to want the show to go on, having won the celebrity he craved all along. He uses photo ops to pontificate on current events in a "you don't understand me because you're stupid" way that may explain his failure at the debate contest. Yet just when you think he's throwing his life away by overruling his attorney and taking over the questioning the prosecution witnesses himself, Eddie shows that he had formidable forensic talent all along. Piece by piece he begins destroying the prosecution case, exploiting the Oriental proprietor's Fifth Amendment reticence about his hours of operation to keep his alibi alive, then annihilating the cabbie's credibility on a hunch that the man can't remember which prosecution lawyer had questioned him just the day before. It's worth noting that Ruggles also directed Mae West's epic courtroom self-defense in I'm No Angel, so maybe courtroom drama was the man's true calling. But back to our story: Eddie decides to cinch his acquittal by getting his co-defendants to take the stand and perjure themselves to establish their alibi -- but he doesn't reckon on one pal's (Ben Alexander) toxic mix of guilty conscience, fear for his own life, and jealousy over Eddie taking his girl. His triumph is snuffed out in an instant when his "pal" rats him out on the witness stand. All that follows -- Eddie's pathetic Death Row farewells to grandma, Mary and his kid brother -- is anticlimax. But when Are These Our Children? is going on all cylinders it's often queasily exhilarating as Eddie's mania (fueled by Eric Linden's fierce performance) carries you almost giddily along his road to ruin. While Ruggles is at his best in the courtroom and the clubs and apartments where the kids party their lives away, he's also good at changing the mood with quiet moments like Eddie's recurring solicitude for a stray puppy in front of his apartment building that remind you of his humanity even in his worst moments. Not everything works here -- those symbolic images are pure pointless pretentiousness -- but if you only know Ruggles from Cimarron, Are These Our Children? will help you believe that he actually could make a decent movie.