Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The importance of being earnest… Where Are My Children? (1916)

Lois Weber’s work is always an interpretive challenge for the modern viewer but her films are precious primary evidence: gobbets of accepted wisdom and contemporary morality frozen in celluloid as surely as mosquitoes captured in amber. Our mission, should we chose to accept it, is to understand the reasons why by examining the historical context rather than taking a quick look through the prism of hind-sight.

Having read a number of reviews and comments many, for example, cannot avoid mentioning Eugenics and then making a direct link to its interpretation and implementation in Germany in the late 20’s and beyond.

Admiring a product of eugenics
There were different strands to this line of thought and many liberal-minded people, Sydney and Beatrix Webb and other members of the early UK Fabian Society included, felt that controlled breeding could help to improve society and lessen the level of suffering amongst the poor. That doesn’t make them right nor does it make them signed up members of a fascist movement that was not fully formed for over twenty-thirty years in another culture. Socially interventionist, “negative” eugenics, is abhorrent to most modern minds but you can see its origins in the context of the morals, medicine and poverty of the day.

Souls await the birthing call behind the pearly gates
Also, in an age of more fragile mortality there were many, many more who believed in Christianity in a literal sense and for whom the idea of pearly gates was very real. For these people a film that starts with the unborn souls of children descending from heaven was reassuringly-believable and not a source of mirth. Weber’s use of this device is especially effective when contrasted to the very modern attitudes of the self-serving socialites who spend the film avoiding responsibility in order to extend their leisure time… Not very “sisterly” you might think but these people were being dishonest and Miss Weber had a low tolerance for hypocrisy as established in one of her previous films.

This film is pro-choice but of a different kind. Amazingly abortion wasn’t outlawed in the USA until the 1860s and two generations down the line back-street terminations came with no guarantee of medical competence. Weber’s film is firmly against these practices preferring instead the kind of education about and practice of birth control as espoused by Margaret Sanger who was her inspiration here and specifically for one of the film’s two court room scenes.

The slums and their consequences
Sanger was a member of the Women's Committee of the New York Socialist party who took part in strikes and social activism in addition to her work as a visiting nurse in the slums of New York City’s lower East Side. She saw the impact of unwanted pregnancies on women who could barely feed themselves and yet information on contraception was prohibited on the grounds of obscenity by the federal Comstock law of 1873 as well as state law. Sanger vowed to change the laws and in 1914 launched The Woman Rebel newsletter to promote contraception using the slogan "No Gods, No Masters". She popularized the term "birth control" and proclaimed that each woman should be "the absolute mistress of her own body." In 1914 she was indicted before fleeing to Canada whilst her estranged husband was jailed for 30 days for passing on copies of her Family Limitation… which brings us back to the film…

Dr Homer tries to make his case
The campaigner is represented in the film by a man, Dr Homer (C. Norman Hammond), who is being prosecuted for the indecency of distributing a book on contraception. As our nominal hero, District Attorney Richard Walton (Tyrone Power Snr) reads out more from the book the more he can see the connections between birth control and eugenics. For himself he has always longer for children and yet to his great regret his wife (Helen Riaume, Mrs Power at the time) has yet to be blessed… He cannot understand why anyone would not want to have a family whilst at the same time believing that society would be better served if not everyone who can do should do.

Mrs Walton and her dog
He hears compelling evidence from Dr Homer about his heart-breaking experiences in the slums: families at war with themselves in a nightmare of poverty and alcoholism with violence and crime driven by the need to provide for more mouths than can be afforded and children who are malnourished and genetically disadvantaged…

Richard’s sister (Marjorie Blynn) has contracted an “eugenics marriage” and her off-spring will be inevitably fit, healthy and well-provided for. Cursed be those who pass up this opportunity and Weber is relentless in her disapproving view of the lounging classes, one dog for every aborted child and a relentless round of coffee mornings at each other’s opulent abodes.

Dr. Malfit's malpractice
Mrs Walton arranges a quickie abortion for her best friend Mrs. William Carlo (Marie Walcamp) with one Dr. Herman Malfit (Juan de la Cruz). She seems totally at ease in his forbidding surgery smiling knowingly at another woman who tries to hide her face in shame and yawning at the everyday inconvenience of having to be there.

"...bold methods..." in action
But such complacency cannot last as her brother Roger (A.D. Blake) comes to stay and takes an immediate shine to the housekeeper’s daughter Lillian (Rena Rogers). Weber is no less forgiving of his attitude as a title card sneers: “Practice teaches men of this class, the bold methods that sweep in-experienced girls off their feet”. And so he does but not without consequences that will have a devastating impact on all concerned.

No spoilers: The film is still hard-hitting and the final sequence is a poignant one… dear reader, a handkerchief may well be required.

The souls of the newly-conceived appear on their mothers' shoulders...
Weber marshals her cast well and Power is especially impressive as the man with the firmest of backbones. The story flows well and you can see why Weber was so well regarded – it is a fact universally utilized that she was the highest paid director of the day.

The film caused some controversy but broke records in such places as New York and Atlantic City (was that you Nucky?I). A comparison could be drawn with Birth of a Nation which was banned in Boston on the grounds of its depiction of the races whilst Pennsylvania banned this film on the grounds that it was “filth”… things were obviously moving too fast for the Quaker State but these issues remain controversial in some sections of society.

Marie Walcamp and Tyrone Power
I watched the 2000 renovation on the Treasures From American Film Archives 3 box set which comes with Martin Marks' marvelous modern score skilfully orchestrated by Allen Feinstein. It's a bit collectable I'm afraid but still good value. More details on the NFPF site.

Postscript: The film was *almost* shown in London recently but cancelled the day before screening… does controversy linger still over Lois Webster’s work? Hopefully it can be re-scheduled...

Helen Riaume

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