Saturday, September 9, 2017

Well, I don't have any children....

I mentioned the TCM lineup the other day featuring movies by woman directors. One that I hadn't seen before but I saw somebody recommend, was Where Are My Children?. It's not available on DVD, but the movie was made in 1916 which means that it's in the public domain and is available on Youtube:

The Library of Congress print that TCM ran has an intertitle card at the opening stating that this is about the adult topic of birth control, which is only partly true. It's about a bunch of related themes, of which birth control is one. Richard Walton (Tyrone Power Sr., father of the Tyrone Power with whom people are probably most familiar) is a prosecuting attorney who is an advocate of eugenics, which was promoted as a way of ensuring good birth and that the population would not be saddled with the mentally and physically unfit. (It would later be used by governments across the political spectrum from US states to Nazi Germany to Sweden to force wrong people into forced sterilization, among other horrors.) Walton is shown at the beginning asking for mercy for a doctor who distributes birth control information in the slums -- people who in Walton's view clearly shouldn't be reproducing.

Meanwhile, back at home Walton has a lovely wife (played by Power's real-life wife, credited as Helen Riaume) who is unfortunately childless. Mr. Walton can't undertand why his marriage hasn't been blessed with children, but what he doesn't know is that his wife is behind it. The Waltons are the sort of people who shouldn't (in his world view) be using birth control because they're the right people. But Mrs. Walton is using primitive birth control in the form of abortions from Dr. Malfit (Juan de la Cruz). And she's helping her social circle maintain their childles frivolity by directing them to the abortionist.

Ultimately, a botched abortion will leave Mrs. Walton infertile, leading to the moving finale. But before that, we see the maid's young adult daughter, who gets knocked up by Mrs. Walton's brother. Oops, gotta get her an abortion too. Only that abortion gets even more botched than Mrs. Waltons, and the poor girl dies, which leads Mr. Walton to start a vicious prosecution of Malfit for being the monster that he's perceived to be by 1916 standards. But there's stuff that Mr. Walton doesn't know....

Where Are My Children? is a fascinating movie for a bunch of reasons. It's a decidedly polemical movie: producer/director Lois Weber makes no secret of where her loyalties lie. Some of the political views of the day will be obviously controversial if anybody presented them today. Abortion is no longer performed in back alleys, of course. But perhaps the more interesting one is how unapologetically birth control is presented as being vital to keep the wrong class (and race, although that's not mentioned in the movie) from reproducing too much. Point out today that this was a big thrust of the Margaret Sanger types, and the condemnation will be fierce.

The actors give pretty good performances even considering how the requirements for acting changed once talking pictures came to the screen. Lois Weber apparently liked special effects, and there's one repeated effect of the "souls in Heaven" waiting to be born. There's also an effects shot in the finale that works much better.

Where Are My Children? is ultimately worth seeing not just for the historical value of the issues it discussed.

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