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This remarkable film has sometimes been described by historians as a
movie about birth control, but it isn't, although birth control is presented
as an alternative to abortion, which is the film's true subject. "Where Are
My Children" is probably the most forthrightly anti-abortion movie ever made
by a mainstream American studio, and how Lois Weber got away with it, I'll
never know; a film like this couldn't possibly be made
I have no objections to a filmmaker using a movie as a vehicle for his or her convictions, as long as they're honest about it, and this movie is honest. Weber follows the logic of her plot, and her convictions, right to their end, without flinching from the logical and merciless conclusion. This is a gripping and powerful tragedy, well acted, written and directed. There is one unforgettable moment in which a quiet little gesture by Helen Riaume tells volumes; she has taken her friend to a doctor who performs abortions (and has done so for her), and while lingering in the waiting room, Helen yawns, as if terminating a pregnancy is a completely casual matter. It is a perfect, subtle sign about the depth of her corruption.
"Where Are My Children" isn't perfect; the scenes of souls in Heaven's antechamber, "waiting to be born," are a little heavy-handed, even if they give Weber the chance to use the trick photography she was so fond of. But the skill with which this movie is made is remarkable for 1916; this is a much more powerful movie than Griffith's "Intolerance," the most famous film of that year. I was amazed by "Where Are My Children," and I will never forget it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Lois Weber primarily made message, sermonizing, or social-problem
films, and of the few films of hers in circulation today, "Where Are My
Children?" is the most polemic. It remains potentially objectionable
and morally and politically interesting today, as it was upon its
initial release, but the majorities on the issues and degrees of the
controversies has changed since 1916. Birth control is now largely
accepted, at least in liberal and developed nations. Abortion is likely
more controversial today in the sense that probably most moralists
viewed abortion as wrong in 1916, whereas people are now more split on
the issue. In other words, legal and moral acceptance of birth control
and abortion has expanded since the time of this film. On the other
hand, eugenics, which then was in vogue and appears to have been
considered the least lamentable in 1916 of the three subjects
addressed, is now mostly dismissed as racist and classist
pseudoscience, especially after its adoption by Nazi Germany.
The film's story centers on a married couple: a district attorney, who wants children and supports eugenics, and his wife, who is concealing her past abortions from him. The district attorney pleads for a birth control advocate in one trial (inspired by the then recent trial of Margaret Sanger) and then in a later case argues against an abortion doctor. Both of these issues serve the film's underlying promotion of eugenics for reproductive control; that is, contraceptives are desired to aid the non rich and white people in having fewer children, and abortion is decried for its use by rich white women, who supposedly have an obligation to have offspring. (Never mind that wealthier women, in reality, probably had the better access to contraceptives, whereas the poor more often resorted to potentially dangerous abortions.) The images of children's souls waiting at heaven's gate and the picture's final ghostly scenes also frame the film within Weber's Christian, spiritual beliefs. "Where Are My Children?" is a deplorably classist, racist, patriarchal and generally bigoted motion picture, and I wonder where people's minds are at when they see this film's main or only controversies as abortion or birth control.
Having already made such films as "Hypocrites" (1915), which contentiously featured nudity, Weber was, reportedly, the highest paid director in Hollywood. Apparently, the controversy from "Where Are My Children?" in particular, which was for a time not approved by the National Board of Review and was banned in Pennsylvania, convinced her to tone down the subjects in subsequent projects, despite the box office rewards controversy ensured (this film is said to have made some $3 million worldwide). Nevertheless, Weber was one of the best and most intelligent filmmakers of her time, and, consequently, this is a well-made film. "Where Are My Children?" features some especially nice lighting, aided by the reproduced tinting. The editing is expertly done, including plenty of matching, crosscuts and angle shifts. Weber used the doubles theme (couples, two trials, etc.) throughout to simplify the moral lessons, which is something she did to even greater effect in "Too Wise Wives" (1921), which included its reinforcement via reflections.
I find it interesting that Mrs. Walton is credited as Helen Riaume
(with no IMDb link). This appears to have been the same Helen Riaume
who is credited elsewhere as "Mrs. Tyrone Power," and was Tyrone Power
Sr.'s wife until the same year this was released. The content of this
film is unusual enough, and having a married couple playing the leads
and not credited as such adds to the interest.
In particular, the content was of a controversial nature in 1916, and is even more so today, with the sides reversed. The topic of abortion (called simply "birth control" in this movie) was not one that was raised often in films anyway, and moral guardians would have hesitated to let a movie through that favored the practice. The climate of Hollywood being what it is today, there might be no legal impediment to making a similarly anti-abortion film, but it would certainly be frowned upon, and perhaps de facto blacklisted.
What audiences of 80-plus years ago must have thought of this film is unimaginable....very provocative, powerfully written and acted. With a few expansions the story could even be interesting today: pro-life District Attorney finds out the secret behind all the childless marriages in his party-hopping wife's social circle. Final scene so bittersweet..and on the lighter side, some excellent women's fashion from the era in costuming. Highest recommendation.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film is part of a DVD set entitled "Treasures III"--a set of four
DVDs all about social issues and reform. The second disk (where you'll
find this one) is about women's issues in particular.
This is a very odd film when seen today. It isn't just that the film is about contraception and abortion but because of its weird eugenics message. Eugenics, if you are unaware of it, is the notion that the "fittest" in society have a moral obligation to procreate and the unfittest should must have their base desires under control or be eliminated in order to keep these "inferiors" from breeding. In 1916, this meant rich White folks had a moral obligation to make lot of babies and those who were less desirable (such as Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and the "feeble-minded") should be considered as prime candidates for birth control! Today this sounds terribly racist and like the Aryan ideal--it was a widely held and acceptable view at the time.
The story is told from the viewpoint of a prosecuting attorney and his family. The man wants kids but doesn't realize his lazy and selfish wife is getting abortions because kids will spoil her good time. Additionally, when her scum-bag brother gets the servant's daughter pregnant, the selfish wife sends this poor lady to her abortion doctor. However, when the servant's daughter dies, the husband prosecutes and finds out the truth about his wife. Then, in a closing moment, you see this couple through the years--childless and lonely--with the specters of their unborn children hovering about them.
While the film might be seen by some an an anti-abortion film, it is much more a polemic about White and educated folks not getting abortions or practicing birth control. In many ways, it's actually very well made and it generally makes its points, though they are a bit confusing and vague at times. However, some of the old fashion aspects of the film are very dated and strange--such as the trip to Heaven as the film begins to see the worlds where all the babies are kept until they are needed--the wanted ones, the unwanted ones, the surprise ones and the aborted ones. It's pretty creepy but also an amazing look into an important part of our history and the debates about eugenics.
The title, by the way, refers to what the saddened husband said to his now sterile wife after her repeated abortions.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I was amazed at both the subject matter of the movie, and how it was handled. This movie was incredibly even-handed; I can't understand how so many people insist that this is strictly an anti-abortion movie! Abortion is shown as both horrible and not: also condemned is the fact of women being forced to have children when they are not equipped to do so. The trial scene makes this very clear - not only is a reputable doctor shown as testifying for the benefits of abortion, but his views are fully aired in the movie. The rest of the film does show the prevailing society view - most notably the touching use of angels to represent children coming into the womb, as well as going back to Heaven. Of course, it is also quite possible that this might be a device of equivocation: that if the souls return to Heaven the same way they originally came down to earth, surely they can just come back down again...? But even more poignant than this depiction is the ghostly adult images of the children referenced in the title: the phantoms of what might have been not only surrounding the father, but quite firmly between him and his wife.
Although one may not agree with the sentiments of Where Are My Children?,
nonetheless it is a powerful film dealing with a controversial subject,
particularly for its day. Although Weber assumes a pedantic cloak in
telling her story, she avoids sensationalizing it. One may disagree with
her view of abortion as "perverting" woman's role in parenthood, but to me
the focus of the film is the tragedy of Tyrone Power's character not
the children he so desperately wants.
The cast is quite good and from a historical perspective, note that this is the only known film of Helen Riaume, who plays Mrs. Walton. Also worth mentioning is the lovely Rena Rogers (Lillian), whose character serves as the fulcrum for the plot.
The last scene of the film is particularly moving, with Weber superimposing images of people into the picture, one of her favorite cinematic techniques. I highly recommend the film and look forward to viewing it again.
I was very impressed. First of all, the acting was quite good for a silent film, IMO. They really got the emotions across very well. Also, the continuity and the results of the actions were very true. I wish I could get this movie.
I saw this silent movie late last evening on Turner Classic Movies. It surpassed my expectations (especially being that there was no sound and that it was made in 1916!); I could not take my eyes away. The interesting concept of "the place where unborn children are" was very powerful. The emotions portrayed in this movie very very strong; excellent acting by all. It is a movie that I will never forget, am still thinking about it today-it was that moving!
Quite apart from being one of the few chances to see a Tyrone Power
film (father, not son); this Lois Weber film is a powerful
anti-abortion piece - albeit one which is clogged with concerns around
birth control and what looks to be misguided focus on the process of
eugenics (i.e. determining strong genes and background before having
DA Richard Walton has always wanted children and cannot understand why his wife (played by the real-life Mrs Power, Helen Riaume) fails to conceive. Of course as we quickly find out, she has sent many unwanted children back to the portal of heaven where they wait to be called, by having numerous abortions and arranging for her friends to do the same, including the lazy social butterfly Mrs Carlo (Marie Walcamp).
There are three plot strands here - one concerning a progressive doctor (C Norman Hammond) who wishes to teach the poor about birth control and who is being prosecuted for obscenity; one concerning a virginal housemaid's daughter (Rena Rogers) who is seduced by Mr Walton's brother-in-law (William J Hope), with tragic consequences; and one about the trips to the abortion clinic of Dr Malfit (Juan de la Cruz) which are commonplace to Mrs Walton and her set.
Intercut with these stories are sights of the children waiting to be called into the womb - the unwanted as well as the wanted. This is perhaps the most artificial part of the film as the gates of heaven open and close to allow children to be called to earth or to return again to the portal of the unwanted. It works but looks rather old fashioned these days.
The ending is very moving, however, as Mr and Mrs Walton, knowing she is now unable to have children, are surrounded by the ghosts of their unborn as they descend into old age.
A preachy film but a powerful one. Amazing to think that items tackled here, over 90 years ago, could not be touched on again until the second half of the twentieth century.
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