We all want to spoil our children. But how much is too much? That's a question Adolf Wagenkampf never thought to ask.
Adolf is a German immigrant who spares no expense at providing for his children. And why not, considering how they fill him with such great joy? Adolf's boundless delight at the mere presence of his family is infectious; you can't help but smile at the happiness that pours from this man, the simple pleasures of family and love evident in his every move. And cheer with him when he brazenly declares that "love is the key to success in the world," his heart, not bank account, making him a rich man.
But do his children love him back? Sure, but you wouldn't quite know it. This family has gotten used to taking advantage of their father's generosity and has grown blind to his sacrifice. In one scene, Adolf, who has bent over backwards to send all his children to college, finds himself in facing financial ruin when he defaults on a loan he took out to help one son open a medical practice. Off he goes to see this son, quietly and shamefully asking for a loan to help pay off his debts - and he is turned down, promptly shooed away by the son's callous wife who comes up with some lame fib about how they can't quite afford to help rescue the very man who gave everything to make them wealthy.
It's just another slap in the face for this patriarch; the same son earlier announced that he's changed his name, dumping the family history behind "Ludwig Wagenkampf" and becoming the Americanized "Lawrence Warren." The family can't believe this slight, but Adolf buries his disappointment, instead convincing himself that he his happy for his son in his time of new beginnings. Or even earlier: the son turns down a ride in the expensive limousine Adolf had rented to welcome him home, hopping instead in the car of his future wife. Adolf, hurt, ignored, puts on a happy face anyway.
So eager to please is Adolf that when a young manicurist arrives at his barbershop convinced that she's been hired (the result of a cruel prank by the rotten son of the local banker), he can't bring himself to send her away, taking on even more financial burden, just so someone else won't be upset.
Repeat this for a good hour and a half and you have the 1930 comic melodrama "The Sins of the Children," an early MGM talkie adapted from "Father's Day," a story co-written by the father-son team of J.C. and Elliott Nugent. The early sound boom found Hollywood scrambling to bring Broadway talent to fill the rosters of their new dialogue-heavy pictures; "Sins" was no exception, its expert cast featuring such names as Robert Montgomery, Francis X. Bushman, Jr., Robert McWade, and Clara Blandick, who would later gain eternal recognition as Auntie Em in "The Wizard of Oz." (The junior Nugent also appears on screen, sneakily enough in the most favorable of the children's roles; he co-wrote the screenplay, too.)
The cast provides solid support to the film's touching, dramatic side, but most importantly, this is a showcase for Mann. His performance lights up the screen, both heartbreaking and jubilant, often at the same time. It's through him that the movie ultimately works, keeping the story's more melodramatic elements grounded thanks to a likable, believable human touch.
Mann was a stage veteran who only appeared in one other film, a small role in a 1914 (!) feature called "Your Girl and Mine." He died less than a year after "Sins" arrived in theaters, at the age of 65, cutting short what might have been an exceptional film career.
"Sins" was directed and produced by Sam Wood, the MGM journeyman who in three decades cranked out 81 pictures, among them such varied classics as the Marx Brothers' "A Night At the Opera," the Ginger Rogers weeper "Kitty Foyle," the Lou Gehrig biopic "The Pride of the Yankees," and, uncredited, a good chunk of "Gone With the Wind." With "Sins," we can see Wood bravely experimenting with the limits of talkies; unlike many stationary productions, Wood's camera is frequently in motion, capturing such stunning shots as one at a train depot (with the train slowly crawling along to the left of the screen, reminding us that this is not a set) or one in which Wood seems to have placed the camera inside a fireplace.
Despite Wood's playfulness with the camera, he never abandons his focus on the emotions at the core of the story. He quietly lets the actors take us to where we should be, underlining but never overplaying the sweeping melodrama of the piece.
(Note: Right about here, I'm going to be tossing out some spoilers. Those of you who don't want to read such things will want to skip ahead to the "The DVD" part of this review.)
It's only in the screenplay that we find any key flaws, and while they're not that deep, they do present a few problems, almost all of which come at the story's desire to leave us with a happy ending. The final scene - which takes place at Christmas, no less! - finds Adolf on the verge of ruin, only to be saved by the one son who always believed in him. Which works quite well, actually… until we suddenly get the rest of the family showing up, too, offering hugs, presents, and songs of love. The movie's haste in getting to the happy part forces a stumble, as it's never explained why exactly these formerly spoiled, thoughtless people would suddenly decide to show their father how much they appreciate him. It makes a nice surprise, yes, and the film leaves us with the same warm and fuzzy feeling that Frank Capra would later provide in the famous finale of "It's a Wonderful Life," but the price of the surprise is a bit of a logic gap that's too big to ignore.
"Sins" gets its DVD debut thanks to the Roan Group, the company known for its ugly, cluttered DVD artwork and its honest affection for classic film.
Oh, dear. When the film is described to us as "rarely seen," now we know why. While the transfer itself is commendable, with nothing in the way of digital artifacts and such, the original source print used has definitely seen better days. The black-and-white imagery is washed and faded, and one shot is marred by some particularly nasty (albeit very brief) frame damage. The sad thing about forgotten gems like this is that because full-blown restoration is expensive and therefore reserved for the more popular titles, this is about as good as it will ever look. Presented in the film's original 1.33:1 full frame format.
The sound is even worse off than the video, a tinny mono track from the early days of sound pictures that's picked up quite a lot of hiss over the years (and it probably wasn't the cleanest in the first place). I had to crank up my equipment just to be able to understand the dialogue, which comes across muddy far too often. No subtitles are included.
The film starts up with a brief introduction from film critic Lou Lumenick. There's some fascinating information presented here, although you have to deal with the facts that the whole thing was produced on particularly ugly videotape - it looks like somebody at Roan just took a camcorder over to Lumenick's office - and that Lumenick is often shown looking off to his left, awkwardly reading directly from his script. This introduction begins when you choose "play movie" from the main menu; while you can skip over it and go straight to the feature, there is no option to begin the movie without having this pop up first.
On to the bonus features section, where Lloyd Kaufman, the king of Troma Films (Troma is the owner of Roan), sits down with historian Frank Thompson for an eight-minute interview. Much like the Lumenick piece, this one is highly informative but terribly presented - more camcorder (Kaufman can be seen holding one), and there even seems to be some construction going on in the background. (Thompson's comments are punctuated with banging hammers and the beeps of a truck backing up.) If you can get past the distractions, you'll be treated with a very enjoyable and enlightening conversation.
Now come the stranger extras. Let's start with "The Life of a Child Star: Bill Winckler On His Father Bobby Winckler," which is pretty self-explanatory. This seven minute piece has Kaufman, again with his trusty camcorder, interviewing Bill Winckler in what appears to be a Santa Monica hotel room where DVD covers from Roan releases have been haphazardly taped to a lamp in the background. Winckler runs down his father's life both as a young actor in Hollywood and as an adult away from the film scene. The thing is, the senior Winckler isn't in "Sins." At all. He is, however, in several of Roan's other releases, making this a commercial of sorts for the company's library. Winckler's stories are charming, but still: huh?
Next up: instead of offering classic trailers, which are probably lost to time, or creating new ones, which probably cost more than Roan is able to spend, the disc instead gives us two decent-sized clips from two other Roan DVD releases: "That Uncertain Feeling," a comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and "The Vagabond Lover," a Rudy Vallee musical. To be honest, it did the trick - the very funny "Feeling" looks spiffy enough in its restoration that I'm not eager to pick up a copy.
Finally, the most peculiar of all extras: a 55 second film, produced by Troma in what I'm guessing must have been the late 70s or early 80s, called "Radiation March." It's an avant-garde public service announcement about pollution. Interesting to watch, but as seems to be the theme with this disc, what, exactly, do pollution and interpretive dance have to do with a Sam Wood drama from 1930?
While the film's look and sound are pretty lousy, at least we have the film at all. Roan has obviously done the best they could with the material on hand, and the liveliness of the supplemental material (yes, even the stuff that has nothing to do with the movie) reveals how much care was put into this disc. While casual movie buffs will probably get by just fine making this a rental, I'll go ahead and give it a full Recommended rating, especially when Roan's usual bargain pricing is taken into account. Admirers of classic movies, especially the heartwarming fare from Frank Capra, are sure to find plenty to like here.