Sunday, 2 September 2012

Viola Dana in Children of Eve (1915)

Viola Dana
The New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, resulted in the deaths of 146 workers most of them women and girls with some as young as eleven. The management had locked doors to the stairwells and exits in order to prevent theft – common practice at the time but a major contributor to the scale of the tragedy.

The fire gave rise to legislation providing better safety standards and various attempts to prosecute the company owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris. It also inspired the growth of organised labour and a fight for better working conditions in “sweat shops”.

Children of Eve was the first full-length feature to be directly influenced by the tragedy and is an uncompromising depiction of class divergence: the American dream and the blindness of some to the costs of ambition.

Written and directed by John H Collins for the Edison Company, it stars his wife, Viola Dana as Fifty-Fifty Mamie a woman from the New York slums who, as her name perhaps suggests… can go either way in life.
The film starts in a modest apartment block in which one Henry Clay Madison (Robert Conness) studies hard to better himself. Next door lives a good time girl called Flossy (Nellie Grant) who is an actress at the Follies who, when we first see her, is by far the worse for drink and being pursued by one of her admirers. The neighbours begin an unlikely relationship with the Christian man trying to prevent the woman from falling. 

Yet, just a he is attaining success, Flossy leaves him after deciding that she is not worthy of him and also, after what we later understand to be, getting pregnant… not such a chaste young man perhaps?

She falls deeper and deeper into the mire of poverty and after she perishes, her baby is taken for adoption.

Cut forward and we find that baby grown up as Mamie, making her way in the underside of society and mixing with crooks and felons such as her chum “The Gyp” (Tom Blake) with whom she frequents bars and low-rent dance competitions – which she often wins, her petite frames (Dana was just under five feet), allowing Gyp to throw her around most impressively!

Across town, Madison has become a huge success and immensely rich. His adopted son, Bert, is a Christian reformer who frequents the part of town in which Mamie lives, cannot change the attitude of his hard-hearted step-father. Whether the pain of Flossy’s leaving helped create this is not known but the situation can hardly be unconnected.

So far so… typical. But, where the film really begins to hit home is when Bert meets Mamie and gradually persuades her to change the course of her life. He gives her a bible and tries to persuade her to help others.
At the same time, Gyp is asking her to enjoy the craic with their pals and, shockingly, to help hide him from the law after he kills a copper.

Mamie is strong enough to choose the right path and is selected to become a factory inspector – her looks and physique making her the ideal candidate to merge in with child labour!

The film’s fateful final sequence is superbly directed by Collins and is genuinely thrilling as well as moving. A fire starts in the factory and it is soon clear that there is no where for the largely teenage workforce to easily escape to.


Collins positions his camera at ground level and also on a raised platform as he films the flames in what looks close to real time. The raised camera shows the front of the factory with flames and smoke belching through doors and window and then, in one horrible synchronised movement, the windows on the upper floors are all open by terrified children.

The fire-fighters arrive and work the building best they can but soon the bodies begin to pile up on the ground in front… horrific and all the more so because of the tragedy that inspired the film.

I won’t go too much into the aftermath as too much will be given away… needless to say it is unflinching and its message is clear. I know little of progressive American politics from this era but I can see that the injustice of the tragedy was widely recognised and that this film would have found wide support.

Hopefully it played some small part in helping the reformers case and the subject matter remains vital to this day with child labour still an issue in parts of the World.

Collins showed lots of energy and control in his direction and would have gone on to make many interesting movies. Sadly he lost his life in the 1918 flu pandemic.

His wife is easily the film’s standout performer. I knew nothing about Viola Dana before this film but she was a highly competent actor – not to mention dancer... with Gyp’s help! She copes with the full range of comedy to tragedy without overplaying. Not as cheeky as Pickford or as winsome as Talmadge, she nevertheless wins your sympathy from the get-go.

Dana went on to make films up until the early talkies and survived long enough to give a number of interviews about the glory days. She died in 1987 aged 90… almost 70 years after narrowly avoiding the flu which killed her husband.

The centenary of the Triangle Fire was commemorated by the Remember the TriangleFire Coalition an alliance of more than 200 organizations and individuals formed in 2008. They continue their program of education and remembrance.

Children of Eve is available as part of the Kino Blu-Ray set, The Devil’s Needle and Other Tales of Vice & Redemption, along with two other films… of which more anon. The print is very good for its age and there’s also extensive out-takes from the fire sequence. Kino and the Library of Congress are to be applauded for preserving such social commentary.


  1. John Collins directed his wife Viola Dana also in Blue Jeans (1917).
    Dana was a very big star...she died in the 90's and I was privileged to meet with one of the last people to interview her who lives in Rochester, N.Y.
    I'm a huge fan of Dana's, Collins and movies about fire engines...thanks to my research linking....

    1. Thanks very much for your comments Bonnie. Dana is superb in this film and it's so sad that Collins passed away so young - especially when you realise how long his wife lived.

      It's great you had the chance to meet someone who met with her - we carry these people forward as memories just a generation or two out of reach.