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Those interested in knowing more about this film, and many related
mostly silent-era films on eugenics, euthanasia, and social hygiene,
should see my book, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of
'Defective' Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915,
published in paperback by Oxford University Press.
I discovered and obtained grant funds to preserve the only surviving viewable print of the film, in a 1927 re-release, titled Are You Fit to Marry.
The film is a uniquely valuable historical document, revealing that an American doctor publicly allowed infants to die because he judged them hereditarily unfit. However, be forewarned, it is not great cinema.
--Martin S. Pernick, University of Michigan
The Black Stork. Written by Jack Lait, a reporter on the Chicago American, was produced in Hollywood and given a massive national distribution and promotion campaign. Haiselden played himself in a fictionalized account of a eugenically mismatched couple whom he advises not to have children because they are likely to be defective. Eventually, the woman does give birth to a defective child, whom she then allows to die. The dead child levitates into the waiting arms of Jesus Christ. It was unbridled cinematic propaganda for the eugenics movement; the film played at movie theaters around the country for more than a decade. National publicity advertised it as a "eugenic love story". One advertisement quoted Swiss eugenicist Auguste Forel's warning: "The law of heredity winds like a red thread through the family history of every criminal, of every epileptic, eccentric and insane person. Shall we sit still ... without applying the remedy?" In 1917, a display advertisement for The Black Stork read: "Kill Defectives, Save the Nation and See 'The Black Stork'." Dr. Haiselden came to the national attention by going before an inquest called when his letting a baby die by starvation became news. An inquest was convened a few days later. Haiselden defiantly declared, "I should have been guilty of a graver crime if I had saved this child's life. My crime would have been keeping in existence one of nature's cruelest blunders." A juror shot back, "What do you mean by that?" Haiselden responded, "Exactly that. I do not think this child would have grown up to be a mental defective. I know it." After tempestuous proceedings, the inquest ruled: "We believe that a prompt operation would have prolonged and perhaps saved the life of the child. We find no evidence from the physical defects that the child would have become mentally or morally defective." But they also decided that Haiselden was within his professional rights to decline treatment. No law compelled him to operate on the child. He was released unpunished, and efforts by the Illinois attorney general to indict him for murder were blocked by the local prosecutor. The doctor considered his legal vindication a powerful victory for eugenics. "Eugenics? Of course it's eugenics," he told one reporter.
The public at large remembers the case of Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, the Chicago physician who refused to operate on a newly-born deformed infant in order to prolong its life. This case inspired the writing of "The Black Stork." During the development of the story the terrible consequences that are visited upon the offspring of the man or woman in whose blood the taint of syphilis exists are pictured with uncompromising realism. Numerous types of mental and physical defectives are exhibited, and the entire picture takes the form of a clinic. In fact, about the only audience that the picture might be shown to would be a class of advanced medical students or those making a study of such conditions with a view to imparting such knowledge under proper conditions. The place to exploit it is not the moving picture theater. The revelation of such a subject is of vital importance to humanity, but only under proper conditions; these conditions are not to be found within the walls of a moving picture theater open to the general public. In other words, if "The Black Stork" be a fit subject for the public screen, then the books on the shelves of a doctor's library are fit subjects for places on the shelves of the juvenile department of a public library. I am convinced that an exhibitor who shows this picture with or without a preliminary examination will do himself and his community a distinct disservice, to put it mildly, and probably would commit an offense that by many of his patrons would be considered damnable. In saying this I would in no measure detract from the high and noble purposes that in all probability inspired Dr. Haiselden in his participation in the enterprise. As a propaganda picture, for exhibition before members of eugenic societies, it would reach its limit of usefulness. The story shows the source of the taint to have been in a slave woman, which, of course, means that the contamination is of a double character. The inclusion of the color question will give Southern exhibitors pause on this one angle alone. In the subject appear many deformed children, brought forward to exemplify the evil effects flowing from uneugenic marriages. The lot in life of their prototypes in every community can hardly be a happy one. What will be the position of one of these in a neighborhood following the showing of "The Black Stork," especially among his playmates? What of the parents? I submit this to the consideration of exhibitors who may give a second thought to the showing of "The Black Stork." The Moving Picture World, February 24, 1917
Should deformed and/or retarded and/or terminally ill babies be left to die without medical intervention or supervision, for the sake of purifying the White Man's Sacred Genetic Map? Should they be saved from a life of sexual ostracizing and silent-era slapstick retribution? Should non-Aryans be spared the horror of living in a WASPy pre-civil rights existence with a lot of ugly Caucasian actors in flat pancake makeup? Was Margaret Sanger truly a feminist pioneer or a Nazi sympathizer in flapper drag? Have you ever seen such an impressive array of real-life genetic mutants since before the 1932 release of Tod Browning's "Freaks" (even if the surviving print is shorn of 30 minutes)? Should this peculiar, maudlin, hokey, but undeniably disturbing forgotten "hygenic" classic be revived and discussed/vilified in the same way as D.W. Griffith's "Birth Of A Nation" continues to be almost a century later? You folks out there are welcome to Play God and Be The Judge Of That. That is, if you can actually find a copy. "The Black Stork," under the 1927 re-release title of "Are You Fit To Marry?" (I think that's it) is a true curio: a cinematic Black Mark (ho,ho,ho) on the legacy of the Wharton Brothers, pioneers in cheap celluloid entertainment produced on the poisoned shores of Cayuga Lake in Ithaca. For more information (and maybe even a copy, if it's legal), contact Terry Harbin....find his e-mail by visiting the IMDb review of "The Lottery Man" (1916), another Wharton winner featuring Oliver Hardy in drag, auctioned off as a white-slave lover to the (un)lucky winner.
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