Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey
I’ve recently rotated back into a domestic relations division for the first time in years. I’m getting reacquainted with an area of law that I haven’t had to deal with in some time, which includes everything from refreshing my memory of the law to learning what the current jargon and acronyms mean. It occurred to me that domestic issues are frequently the subject of movies: sometimes serious, sometimes funny; sometimes with great actors, sometimes with people you never heard of; sometimes Oscar winners, and sometimes simply unwatchable. I decided that while I’m in this rotation, I’ll write about domestic themes on occasion, starting with this month, when I want to discuss three movies about child custody that reflect changing concepts about that emotional area, while also reflecting ideas that stay constant.
Man on Fire (1957) is a movie that was ahead of its time: it starts out with Dad having sole custody of the divorced couple’s son. Since the “tender years” doctrine was alive and well in most of the United States at that time, this was highly unusual. Dad loves his son very much, but is bitter toward his ex-wife, who has recently remarried to a State Department diplomat. The ex-wife initiates a custody battle, which is fought out in court. The judge awards full custody to Mom, and Dad goes off the rails. The child runs away, and soon we’re involved in a potential parental kidnapping. You’ll need to see the movie to find out how it resolves.
Man on Fire features a stunning performance by Bing Crosby (!) in a non-singing dramatic role, as the successful businessman father, Earl Carleton—and contrary to Crosby’s usual film persona, he is not a nice guy that you can immediately take into your heart. The film also features Inger Stevens in her film debut. The courtroom scenes are rough, and the way the parents go at each other is both uncomfortable and realistic.
In 1964, One Potato, Two Potato explored custody issues as well, but this time in the context of an interracial marriage. The film stars Barbara Barrie as a white divorcee who marries an African-American co-worker, played by Bernie Hamilton. The ex-husband (Richard Mulligan) shows up, and demands custody of his daughter, based solely on the idea that being raised in an interracial home was the wrong thing for the child. A court battle ensues, and you may be surprised by the result—or not. (Don’t forget that Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, wasn’t decided until 1967.)
Barrie won the Best Actress award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The movie was extremely popular with critics when it was released; indeed, it has been referred to as a “critic’s darling.” I remember seeing this movie when it was released (I was sixteen) and thinking it was seriously cutting edge. Having watched it again recently, I’m not sure that it’s aged that well, and you can find some critics whose retrospective analysis of the film is fairly negative. However, it gets very high grades from viewer reviews on both the IMDb and TCM websites. This isn’t an easy movie to find, although it was on TCM recently. Given our current social climate, perhaps you’ll find the issues raised by One Potato, Two Potato still timely and worthy of discussion. If nothing else, it demonstrates that perhaps we haven’t made the progress on racial matters that we’d like to believe we have.
For my last film about custody, I’d like to offer 2001’s I Am Sam. Sean Penn, who was nominated for an Oscar, stars as a developmental disabled man with an intelligent, precocious daughter, Lucy, played by Dakota Fanning. Lucy’s mother has abandoned them, but Sam does his best to raise his daughter, helped by a network of friends and other supportive people. As you might expect (this being a Hollywood movie), problems arise and Sam eventually loses custody of his daughter and is forced into supervised parenting time. Sam is referred to an aggressive lawyer (Michelle Peiffer) with a reputation as someone without much empathy or humanity. She decides to take Sam’s case, and as they prepare for court, Sam actually helps the lawyer solve some of her own personal problems. Once again, we get to watch extremely uncomfortable courtroom scenes, once again with a somewhat predictable result. But unlike some other movies of this genre, this one has a positive ending, one for which I have a special fondness, for reasons that you’ll see.
Of interest to me in these movies was that their focus is almost exclusively on the adults involved, rather than the kids, although I Am Sam is slightly better than the other two on that account. I suppose this isn’t surprising, given that the movies were made by adults to be watched by adults. But it also should serve as reminder of where our ultimate focus must be in real-life courtrooms. Many states, including Colorado, use a “best interest of the child” test when deciding issues of parental responsibility and parenting time—and that requires that our primary concern must be for the children caught up in the maelstrom of domestic cases, to give them the best chance to be safe and happy.