Abortion, birth control and eugenics. Just a few of the light topics covered in this 1916 film directed by Lois Weber. Innocent days of early film? I think not! And, yes, you did read that right. Eugenics.
Look out, here comes the master race.
You know you’re in a silent movie when the hero can be casually described as a great believer in eugenics. Eugenics, the belief that superior genes should be passed on and lesser genes prevented from replicating, was a big deal in the silent era. While researching this review, I ran across several sources that claim eugenics has a bad name due to its incorporation into Nazi ideology. I would say instead that the Nazis took an evil ideology to its most evil conclusions—the actual annihilation of anyone deemed less than worthy— but eugenics always deserved a bad name.
Before we get started, I should issue a brief caution. The topics tackled in this film are, if anything, even more controversial and politically charged than they were in 1916 but I will be trying to discuss the hotter ones in as neutral a manner as possible. There are approximately ten gajillion political sites online and just a handful of silent film sites. I ask that you save any modern political remarks for sites that specialize in such content and restrict the discussion to the film. Also, please forgive me for referring to some of these issues in the past tense; I am aware that they are still alive and kicking today, I just don’t want them gumming up my comments. Thanks so much! (If the comments get too hot, I am shutting them down.)
Belief in eugenics was also incredibly mainstream in American society in the silent era. The question “Is there any insanity in your family?” quickly became a punchline but it was rooted in the notion of screening one’s partner for possibly inferior genes before marriage and children.
As you can see, we are off to a lighthearted start. Well, buckle up because it doesn’t get any easier from here.
Birth control was a hot topic in the 1910s. Margaret Sanger (her own support of eugenics has been used in bad faith attacks against birth control in general) had been arrested for sending diaphragms through the mail and opening a birth control clinic. Family planning literature was seen by many, including the Law, as indecent, actually pornographic, and the prevention of pregnancy and birth a mortal sin. But the fact remained that childbirth was risky, impoverished families could be trapped in squalor due to large families and infant mortality was terribly high. Children had a 10% chance of dying before their first birthday and six to nine women in a thousand died in childbirth.
Interest in and demand for birth control was at a high but the information remained closed to impoverished families desperate to slow the rate of pregnancies. With Sanger’s case making headlines and birth control as illegal as ever, the market was ripe for a movie. Sanger answered the call herself but, alas, her appropriately-titled picture Birth Control is missing and presumed lost.
Enter Universal Pictures. As a studio, Universal specialized in turning hoopla into box office success. The studio had scored a hit with its prostitution exploitation picture Traffic in Souls (1913) and the introductory title card in Where Are My Children? shows that they were hoping for the same box office returns. To cover themselves from the inevitable censor scissors, Universal claimed they were merely educating the public on an important matter. Funny how these important matters always seemed to revolve around sex but I give Carl Laemmle points for chutzpah.
Lois Weber specialized in directing films that were heavy on politics but I can certainly say that this was the most uncomfortable movie I have seen from her. As stated above, the film opens by announcing that its hero, District Attorney Richard Walton (Tyrone Power) is a great believer in eugenics. The theory, remember, was about not just preventing the “wrong” kind of births but also encouraging the “right” kind. And so Walton is very hopeful that his wife (Helen Riaume) will soon make him a father.
We know that the wife is trouble because she is introduced feeding her dogs chocolate. She has no interest in motherhood and has seen to it that none of her pregnancies came to term thanks to the subtly named Dr. Malfit (Juan de la Cruz), her friendly neighborhood abortionist.
Walton, meanwhile, is positively nutty about reproduction. He wants kids, millions of kids and he wants them now. The title cards tell us that he does not hold infertility against his wife but the performances of Power and Riaume tell us otherwise. He stares longingly at his sister’s kids and then gives his wife a pointed look. Oh, he’s a real barrel of laughs.
Walton has been given the task of prosecuting a physician for the crime of distributing a birth control pamphlet among his impoverished patients. Too many pregnancies lead to poverty, violence and suicide, according to the good doctor. (The film is mum on income inequality, prejudice against immigrants and food insecurity.) Actually, strike that. The film is actually telling us that too many pregnancies among the wrong sort of people (translation: non-WASP have-nots) lead to problems. Walton wants to have six kids at least. Are we not the supermen?
Meanwhile, Walton’s wife (the character’s lack of a given name is telling) has been helping her friend (Marie Walcamp, equally without an identity beyond “Mrs. Husband’s Name”) end an unwanted pregnancy with the discreet help of Dr. Malfit. Nobody in her social circle has children, for some reason or other. Still, she loves her husband and so Mrs. Walton decides she is ready to give motherhood a shot. One would argue that this film is actually presenting a pretty compelling case for women of all classes to have children only when they are ready and for a more equitable discussion of procreation between spouses but the filmmakers certainly did not seem to be aware of this.
And then the main plot of the film kicks in with the Walton’s housekeeper (Cora Drew) bringing her teenage daughter, Lillian (Rena Rogers), into the house to live with her. Lillian catches the eye of Roger (Alva D. Blake), Mrs. Walton’s wanton brother. (Explain to me about superior genes again?) Before you can say, “Hey, he looks like a sleazeball!” Lillian is seduced, pregnant and on her way to Dr. Malfit to have her problem “fixed.”
Will Walton catch on to the shenanigans in his household? Will he finally get his ten billion offspring? See Where Are My Children? to find out!
I… didn’t like this one. Not one little bit. Putting aside the squicky content and the inconsistent arguments and the inaccuracy, it’s kind of a flat production. Weber was capable of directorial fireworks but this is very much by the numbers. The double exposure of small, cherubic children appearing above the shoulder of an expecting mother has been praised but it was par for the course in 1916. Heck, it was no big deal in 1910. And the imagery of children in heaven awaiting birth is very much in line with pop religion of the time but it’s pretty dull and the same shot of the maternal gates is used and used and used.
On the plus side, there are some moments of beauty. A shot of a dead women lying under a gauzy shroud is eerily beautiful and Cora Drew gives a heartbreaking performance as one of the few sympathetic characters in the picture.
Tyrone Power (who, needless to say, was the father of the handsome young fellow of the talkie era, eyebrows don’t lie) was capable of great intensity but he can’t overcome his unlikable and, frankly, weird character. This is the master race? Between Walton and Roger, I think I will take my chances with the immigrants, thanks very much. (My great-grandfather emigrated from the Netherlands around this time and, no doubt, would have been considered unworthy of reproduction.)
Not that Mrs. Walton is any prize, of course, but her situation would have been stickier. There were few non-religious, socially accepted ways for a married woman to put off motherhood if her husband demanded it, regardless of how unprepared she was emotionally. Obviously, quite a few women did take measures but they would have to be discrete and illicit. (A woman could take the veil, of course, and there was a religious movement against all sex of any kind, even between married couples. Corn flakes were originally intended to aid in this unusual form of celibacy. Yes, corn flakes.)
And this brings me to the inaccuracy I was mentioning. It is highly unlikely that women of Mrs. Walton’s social circle would have let things go as far as abortion when they were among the entitled few who had access to preventative birth control. (Or, possibly, corn flakes.)
I am waiting a few minutes for the inevitable “YOU NEED TO LOOK AT CONTEXT AND NOT JUDGE OLD MOVIES BY MODERN STANDARDS” because I have laid a cunning trap.
You see, Lieblinge, it never actually occurred to me to make that particular argument. The history of medicine is not my specialty and I have to admit that this fact flew over my head. No, this argument was brought to my attention by Lynde Denig, a staff writer for Moving Picture World who covered Where Are My Children during its initial release. I will quote the pertinent passage in full:
“Advocates of the spreading of information such as is permitted in most European countries, base their arguments on the equal rights of the poor and the wealthy. The poor are burdened by large families because they do not know how to prevent them; the wealthy govern the processes of nature because they are able to pay for expert advice and treatment. Physicians of the stamp of Dr. Malfit are not patronized by women such as Mrs. Walton and her friends; in fact, safe means of checking child-birth are not a problem for the well-to-do. They are taken as a matter of course. The whole purpose of a campaign of the kind being waged by Mrs. (Margaret) Sanger and Emma Goldman is to place the same means within the reach of the less fortunate.”
It’s almost like silent era viewers were smart, astute and could process complicated topics presented in motion pictures. Shocking!
Denig also had some choice words about Walton:
“Instead of remaining a discussion of whether or not the birth of unwanted children shall be prevented, the interest is focused on abuses of preventative methods. It is no longer a question of principle, but of the practices of a quack doctor, and the pertinence of the picture is lessened by the types of characters presented.”
True, that! But this seeming inconsistency is very much in keeping with the theme of eugenics with the unwritten code that “superior” women are meant to act as brood mares and pop out as many “superior” children as possible.
This theme of eugenics also extends to the ending. (Spoiler, obviously.) Lillian dies from a botched abortion, which in turn exposes all of the society ladies in Dr. Malfit’s book. He inexplicably used everyone’s real name, you see. Walton is angry with his wife and she tries to make it up to him by having a child but is now incapable. And so the two grow old together with Walton bitterly asking “Where are my children?” for the next fifty years.
The obvious question is why didn’t they adopt? Well, the question of the adoptee’s genes or “stock” would have been very much in play. Couples agonized over the possibility of accidentally adopting an “inferior” child and there were even laws in place that criminalized placing a “defective” child with adoptive parents. I’ll give you a moment to collect your jaw from the floor.
So, instead, Walton stays married to a wife he hates and glares at her for the rest of his life. Darling man. Obviously, Mrs. Walton is no prize either but the idea of continuing to live with a spouse only to hate and punish them is profoundly disturbing. Oh, yeah, he would have been a great dad. Come to think of it, no, don’t adopt. The poor kid doesn’t deserve such a terrible home environment.
I am barely scratching the surface of the long, shameful history of eugenics in America and, frankly, I am not emotionally ready for a deep dive or a discussion of its modern continuation. And before we get more talk of “context,” yes, there was resistance to eugenics at the time but “the opposition wasn’t large or organized enough to effectively counter the influential network behind the movement.”
In his 1959 memoirs The Undefeated, George Paloczi-Horvath (born 1908) wrote that growing up in a well-to-do Hungarian household, he believed that the peasants were of a different breed. It was only when he saw the children of peasants who grew up with decent food and education that he realized his terrible mistake. Given opportunity and, you know, basic nutrition, they thrived and were every bit the equals of the noblesse. However, Paloczi-Horvath was the exception and a great many wealthy and privileged people preferred to believe that they were simply superior.
Where Are My Children? is fascinating in that the divide between what the filmmakers thought they were saying and what actually comes across the screen is as big as the Grand Canyon. The argument for superior genes is undercut by the loathsome behavior of the alleged master race. (Super-duper supermen, guys.) And the argument for birth control among the poor is undercut by its shrill condemnation of the methods among the well-to-do. A more honest picture would have had Mrs. Walton using preventative birth control as a more apples to apples comparison but the inaccurate narrative cheat of abortion essentially absolves Walton from expressly stating his contempt for the poor and underprivileged and demanding that his wife breed, breed, breed. For what it’s worth, Lynde Denig conflated birth control with abortion but a great many people considered the two methods to be quite different.
(By the way, I would be most curious to know how many children screenwriters Lucy Payton and Franklyn Hall had.)
According to Behind the Mask of Innocence by Kevin Brownlow, the picture was recut for English distribution and had all pro-birth control references scrubbed. Due to the sudden drop in healthy young men due to the ongoing war, officials were concerned about a population dip and did not welcome any information on family planning that was not along the lines of “Think of England and BREED!”
Lois Weber and Universal followed up Where Are My Children? with another birth control picture, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. More overtly based on the work of Sanger, the film openly advocates for birth control and ends with the main character spearheading the passage of legalized birth control. Unfortunately, that picture is missing and presumed lost. On the other side of the coin, the 1935 Swedish melodrama Walpurgis Night mimics the abortion plot thread from Where Are My Children? and urges the population to make more little Swedes. (That film was recently released on home video by the Criterion Collection.)
Naturally, the heavier enforcement of the motion picture production code made it more challenging for American studios to make films about reproduction in anything but the most infantile, stork-centric manner. It’s worth remembering that there was a time when a bit of guts, a bit of shamelessness and an interest in social issues could result in films covering these shocking topics.
Where Are My Children? is a profoundly disturbing reminder that a shameful belief system was once considered mainstream. It’s also proof positive that silent films were far more complex than many people realize.