Tuesday, June 27, 2017

FILMBAY 2000 Greatest Films of All-Time (1888-2016) by Year - 0145 - WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN? (Phillips & Lois Weber Smalley, 1916, USA, 62m, BW)



(Phillips & Lois Weber Smalley, 1916, USA, 62m, BW)


WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN? (Phillips & Lois Weber Smalley, 1916, USA, 62m, BW)

Cast: Tyrone Power, A.d. Blake, Juan De La Cruz, C. Norman Hammond, William J. Hope, Marjorie Blynn, William Haben, Mary MacLaren, Anne Power, Tyrone Power Sr., Helen Riaume, Marie Walcamp, Cora Drew, Rena Rogers
Director: Phillips Smalley, Lois Weber
Rating: NR
Running Time: 60 min.


Richard Walton, a district attorney, is presented with an obscenity case: A medical practitioner, Dr. Homer, has been arrested for distributing 'indecent' birth control literature. On the stand, Dr. Homer makes a strong case for legalizing contraception. He recounts three incidents from his medical practice, each shown in a brief flashback: children are exposed to violent abuse in a family riddled with alcoholism; an impoverished family is unable to provide adequate medical care for their sick children; and a single mother, abandoned by her male lover, commits suicide with her young infant.

Meanwhile, Richard's wife, Edith, has been keeping a secret from him for many years: she has been seeing a doctor, one Herman Malfit, who performs abortions so that her busy social life will not be interrupted by the inconvenience of pregnancy. She suggests it as an option for her friend Mrs. William Carlo, who is with child. Mrs. Carlo has the abortion.

The Waltons receive two new guests in their house almost simultaneously: Edith Walton's ne'er-do-well younger brother, and their maid's young daughter, Lillian. Smitten by the brother's advances, the maid's daughter is seduced and soon finds herself pregnant. She is taken to Dr. Malfit and then abandoned by the boy after the operation goes wrong. Making her way back to the Walton mansion, she collapses and dies from the botched abortion.

Following Malfit's arrest and trial, Richard Walton examines the doctor's ledgers and realized that his wife and many of her friends are listed as having received 'personal services.' He returns home, furious, to find them lunching at his home. He banishes his wife's friends, saying 'I should bring you to trial for manslaughter!' and confronts Edith with the cry, 'where are my children?' She is overcome with remorse. As the years pass, the couple must contend with a lonely, childless life, full of longing for the family they might have had.


The film was inspired by the obscenity case of Margaret Sanger in New York. It stands as one of the best surviving examples of Lois Weber's social problem films. Eugenics and family planning are discussed didactically in the film, and examples of desirable or undesirable children (the results of good or bad breeding respectively) are shown.

While the film presents an argument for birth control, it takes a firm stance against abortion, portraying the wealthy women as procuring abortions on a whim when pregnancy threatens to interfere with their social lives. According to some critics, the film also portrays abortion inaccurately, suggesting that it is inherently harmful to patients both physically and mentally. At the time Weber made the film, 'back alley' and 'illegal' abortions were prevalent and quite often resulted in destroying women's ability to have future children. It is left somewhat unclear at the film's end as to whether Mrs. Walton can no longer have children because her body is damaged by a long-term overindulgence in abortions, or simply because she has passed the age of childbearing.


The film was written by Lucy Payton, Franklin Hall, Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley. No director is credited. Future star Mary MacLaren made her debut in this film playing the Walton's younger maid. Shooting took place in the Los Angeles area, and at the Universal studio facilities in Hollywood. The Waltons are played by Tyrone Power, Sr. and Helen Riaume, who at the time were real life husband and wife. Anne Power, their daughter, has a small role.

The film makes use of several trick photography scenes, with an emphasis on multiple exposures to convey information or emotions visually. This is so particularly in the final scene of the film. As a recurring motif, every time a character becomes pregnant, a child's face is double exposed over their shoulder. Weber returned to the topic of birth control the following year, with a film called Hand that Rocks the Cradle, in which she plays the principal role of Louise Broome, a birth control advocate imprisoned for her work.


The husband-and-wife team of Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber directed, with Lois also writing the script. It is clearly a message film exploring both the horrors of abortion and of bringing unloved children into the world. They are seen as feminist issues. It was a controversial film when released, censored in certain areas of the country. But for Universal Studios this was a landmark film made by its showcase director, who was considered by the public to be the equal of Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith. Lois was receiving an enormous salary of $5,000 a week at the time, but history has been unkind to her missionary zeal films. Those films have become outdated. Lois has become a forgotten figure in movie lore, as her films were either lost or never shown. This film was restored this year by the efforts of The Library of Congress.

The moralizing might look reactionary to a modern viewer. It most likely will be appreciated most by the film historian and those interested in knowing the social issues raised in the early 1900s. The film is about the upper-classes and how they get away with everything, including murder. Its popularity at the time was because it gave the public a chance to see how the wealthy handle the same problems that the poor and middle-classes must face. Most of the audience that went to see the film was from the latter two classes.

The film is set in an unnamed big city where the district attorney, Richard Walton (Tyrone Power, Sr.), lives in a sprawling mansion with his childless wife (Helen Riaume). He is a proponent of eugenics and is trying the case of a Dr. Homer, who is a proponent for birth control. Homer, in his experience of working in the slums, feels that only those children who are wanted should be born. But the all-male jury was not sympathetic to his theories and found him guilty of malpractice. Walton returns to his mansion after his court victory, disappointed that his wife hasn't given him any children. Mrs. Walton is an avid party-goer, socializing with a group of ladies who are social butterflies and who are not that interested in motherhood. Mrs. Walton advises one of her society ladies to go to a Dr. Malfit (Juan de la Cruz) to get an abortion, where she has had two already without her husband's knowledge.

By coincidence, Mrs. Walton's bachelor brother (Blake) comes to stay with her at the same time the housemaid's daughter (Rena Rogers) comes to stay, while she looks for an apartment. Her brother takes advantage of the inexperienced girl and makes her pregnant. When the girl tells him the news he goes running to his sister, who tells him to get hold of Dr. Malfit to perform an illegal abortion. This abortion goes badly and the girl dies, but not before she tells her mother the truth. The outraged district attorney brings Dr. Malfit to trial, and he is convicted and given a harsh sentence of fifteen years of hard labor.

But Dr. Malfit lets the district attorney know that the district attorney's wife had two abortions and that her society friends had a number of abortions which leads to the melodramatic scene, where Walton confronts his wife and cries out in anguish: "Where are my children?" As a result of her abortions, Mrs. Walton can no longer have children, and the film ends as we see shots of the couple getting older and growing further apart in their cold mansion. It is a home, where the silent question of the film's title haunts them for the rest of their lives. 

This is a fascinating film as regards how fundamental moral issues could be shown on cinema during the 1910s and how moral values have shifted since then. Even more strongly than D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, this film defends the superiority of the white race and how it should be defended. The film is in the first place defending eugenics, i.e. the fact that the reproduction of people with desired traits should be encouraged and reproduction of people with undesired traits should be reduced. The enthusiastic adoption of this theory by nazi Germany demonstrated how pernicious it was. The film postulates that there are three categories of babies waiting to be born, the "chance" children, going forth to earth in vast numbers, the "unwanted" souls, that were constantly "sent back" and bore the sign of the serpent (devil?), and those souls fine and strong, sent forth only on prayer and marked with the approval of the Almighty. 

This explains the position taken by the main protagonist, District Attorney Walton: he thinks that there is no reason to prosecute somebody defending birth control, as he is working with poor people producing children who from a eugenics point of view are deemed undesirable. On the other hand he is deeply shocked when he discovers that his wife and her friends, who from the same eugenics point of view would produce perfect children, are getting abortions because motherhood would interfere with their leisurely life. It is therefore not an anti-abortion film, as it is now regarded by some people, but a film about the wrong people undertaking abortion. 

The unwanted children are just "sent back" to heaven. What is also striking, given the fact that the film was made by a female director, Lois Weber, together with her husband Phillips Smalley, is the very negative depiction of women. They are liberated enough to drive their own cars but the only thing in their life seems to be having drinks or tea together and refusing motherhood out of pure selfishness. This is all the more surprising that the person who inspired the scene of the man prosecuted for publishing a book about birth control was actually a woman, Margaret Sanger. Why did Lois Weber turn this positive female character into a man? Note also the patriarcal approach, Walton doesn't ask "Where are our children?" but "Where are my children?").

From the cinematographic point of view, the film presents several interesting characteristics. Acting is quite natural for the time and cross-cutting is used very efficiently. While camera movements are limited to a few small pans, the frequent change of camera angles and shots gives a dynamic editing. Lighting is also very creative, notably the use of backlighting for the close-ups of female stars. The last scene with the couple getting old together with the ghosts of the children appearing at various ages is quite convincing.

One of the great secrets of American film history is just how weird much of silent cinema truly was.  I think we tend to assume that because silent movies are old, they also have to be primitive, corny, silly, slow, and out-of-touch.  And, often times, they are!  But, if you’re a serious student of film, you owe it to yourself to watch as many silent movies as you can.  It’s important to know the history of what you love and a film like Where Are My Children? is quite definitely a part of that history. This visionary drama implies that souls come through a heavenly gate and may be born as wanted or unwanted children. If an unwanted child is aborted, the soul simply remains behind the heavenly gate. While men treat this issue in punitive ways, the women seem to be more practical and are the ones who take the risks. This drama reflects the birth control issue that was raised at the time by Margaret Sanger.


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