An intelligent and well-crafted melodrama that contrasts the slums of the poor with the mansions of the wealthy and shows what happens when the two worlds collide. Part morality tale, part expose of child labor practices, this is a tear-jerker supreme. Have a box of tissues handy as you will need them.
I told you, get a box of tissues… I’m serious, get them. Yes, a whole box.
John Collins is a director with a reputation for innovation and a flair for modernizing old-fashioned melodrama. His death during the influenza epidemic was a great loss to the motion picture art and to his wife, leading lady Viola Dana. For all his acclaim, very few of Collins’ films are available to the general public, which is why I was particularly keen to review Children of Eve. Before we get started, though, some serious business.
For only the second time in the history of this site, I am going to issue a content and trigger warning. This film deals with one of the hottest political topics of its day: child labor. We are shown the appalling working conditions in a factory that is staffed by tween and teenage girls. There is a fire and many of them die, including an important and likable character in the story. The film pulls no punches and portrays these deaths realistically. Obviously, this might be upsetting to some readers and so it’s only fair to issue a warning.
Children of Eve opens with a student named Henry Clay Madison (Robert Conness) busy at his studies. Next door, a faded Follies performer named Flossie (Nellie Grant) is trying to evade the attentions of an admirer who won’t take the hint. She finally gets rid of him but as she examines her shabby surroundings and unhappy life, she is overwhelmed with self-loathing and smashes a picture on her wall entitled the Age of Innocence. Madison hears the noise, comes over and asks if he can repair the picture for her.
A romance blossoms between the pair as Madison tries to help Flossie better her life and leave the world of theater behind. However, everything comes crashing down when Flossie discovers she is pregnant with Madison’s child. Knowing that he will marry her and that this marriage will not be socially acceptable, she opts to leave him. Her note hints that she will kill herself.
In reality, Flossie gives birth to her daughter anonymously and then dies of a plot convenience. The girl is named Mamie and is brought up in the tenements with only her mother’s photograph to identify her. Madison, meanwhile, is given custody of his young nephew, Bert, and continues to build his business empire. The loss of Flossie has left him incapable of another romance and he becomes hard and bitter.
Seventeen years pass. Mamie (Viola Dana) is a feisty tenement kid who loves dancing, romancing and a little light shoplifting. Bert (Robert Walker) becomes a reformer, determined to bring education and a better life to the impoverished citizens of New York. Madison rolls his eyes at his nephew’s profession. He runs and large successful cannery that employs a workforce of teen and pre-teen girls. Fire escapes? Safety mechanisms on the equipment? Compensation for children maimed on that equipment? What are you, some kind of socialist?
(Normally, I like villains to be nuanced and Madison is portrayed as pretty one-dimensional in his horribleness. But you know what? Predatory factory owners don’t deserve nuance. Working people to death makes you an evil person. Period.)
One of Mamie’s little shoplifting jaunts goes wrong and she is forced to flee, taking shelter in Bert’s office. He takes the opportunity to try to convert her to the cause of law and order. Of course, it helps that he is really, really cute. Mamie makes rapid progress and Bert asks her to help him expose abuses in his uncle’s cannery. She is the perfect age to go undercover as a worker and gather the evidence that Bert and his allies need.
Unfortunately, plot devices are quite contagious and Bert comes down with one. While he is on his sickbed, Mamie tries to visit him but is turned away by Madison. He does not recognize his lost daughter and just considers her to be a ragamuffin clinging to his nephew. Mamie agrees to leave as she does not want to blight Bert’s social chances but vows to fulfill her mission at the factory.
(Spoiler warning for this paragraph.) Astute viewers will probably be able to guess the ending but not the emotional whammy it wields. Mamie’s undercover work in the cannery means that she is caught in the fire. She nearly escapes but is trapped behind the heavy fire doors and is fatally injured by the smoke and flames. On her deathbed, Madison finally discovers Mamie’s identity and grandly orders the doctor to save her life. After all, she is the daughter of a very important man. The doctor tells him that his money makes no difference, Mamie is dying.
(More spoilers in this paragraph.) At this point, the audience is drowning in tears (you did get tissues, right?) but once it is all over, the scene has a plastic aftertaste to it. Manipulation. It teeters on the edge of false sentimentality; it doesn’t really fall in but it comes close enough to cause some amount of resentment from the viewer. The whole idea that Mamie was killed by karma in order to punish Madison just does not sit well with me. Curse you, Universe! And, also, screenwriters!
On the plus side, the performances in Children of Eve are excellent. Viola Dana is a charming dynamo as a street urchin who takes a turn for the respectable but never loses the spirit and sparkle that makes her so appealing. The dance scenes are particularly fun as Mamie flips and twirls.
(Anyone looking for silent film costume ideas will want to check out this film. A creditable 1915 look for women can be accomplished with a button-down shirt (banded collar), a long a-line skirt, lace-up boots and a cloth cap.)
Also excellent are Nellie Grant and Robert Conness as the doomed couple at the start of the picture. These scenes were particularly risky as the story has been told a hundred times before and there would be a temptation to turn things maudlin but this is avoided for the most part.
As for director John Collins, he definitely deserves his reputation as an innovator. Muckraking journalism was at a peak during this period and Collins takes that spirit, the righteous anger against child labor and some very well-aged melodrama and shakes it together for something that feels considerably fresher than the sum of its parts. His pacing is punchy, his visuals are dramatic (particularly during the factory fire scene) and he is an actor’s director. Here’s hoping that more of his work will be made available.
While the ending left something of a bad taste in my mouth, the film succeeds as an example of melodrama done right. Collins shows confidence and flair as a director and he draws a beautiful performance out of Viola Dana. The film is skillfully crafted but viewing it was a bit of a chore, to be honest. The constant dreariness soon becomes exhausting. The picture is good but not necessary something I would recommend to a newcomer.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
Children of Eve was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber as part of their The Devil’s Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption collection.