For His Son (1912) A Silent Film Review

In order to make a fortune, a physician concocts a soft drink with a special, secret ingredient. It’s called Dopokoke, can you guess what’s inside? Drugs, movies and the history of American soft drinks collide in this picture.

If your weird uncle on Facebook made a movie…

A seemingly innocent beverage was quietly making addicts of its fans. It was turning girls into “wild nocturnal freaks” and boys into shivering sex pests. No, it’s not Four Loko, it’s… Coca-Cola.

This beverage will really pep you up!

Coca-Cola was nicknamed “dope” at old-timey soda fountains and the “coke” in Coke is a gag even today and the debunking website Snopes even has an entire department dedicated to “Cokelore.” Questions of Coca-Cola’s purity and wholesomeness were serious business in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the film For His Son is one of the many strange curios left over from the great soda pop scare.

The film was one of many shorts directed by D.W. Griffith when he was with the Biograph film company. Griffith fancied himself a reformer and social issues were popular topics for many directors during the nickelodeon era. Everything from divorce to prostitution to feminism to alcoholism and, yes, even drug addiction was seen as fair game.

To deal or not to deal, that is the question.

For His Son opens with a physician (Charles Hill Mailes) pondering his problem: he adores his only son (Charles West) but he doesn’t have enough money to keep the young man happy. He is tempted to use his medical knowledge for unethical profit but pushes the idea aside. The son seems to be doing all right for himself, actually. If his room décor is any indication, he’s a college kid and he’s engaged to Blanche Sweet.

The physician still feels guilty about the lack of pocket money and so he decides that he will earn money quickly and easily by concocting a soft drink. But aren’t soft drinks a risky venture? Well, his secret ingredient will keep patrons coming back for more. After all, you can’t say no to… COCAINE. And thus Dopokoke is born.

That Dopokoke Tired Feeling

The name, a play on the Coke in Coca-Cola and its soda fountain nickname of “dope,” is sure to be met with chuckles nowadays. Fair enough. I should emphasize that this name was not intentionally kitschy and the film itself was presented with the utmost seriousness. The favorable review in Moving Picture World states that the picture was intended as a “tract” and suggested that theaters advertise it as “a strong arraignment of harmful soft drinks.” In other words, this is presented with all the naivete and unintentional hilarity of one of those D.A.R.E. presentations. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it caused a few titters back in 1912.

Dopokoke is a hit because, you know, drugs and there is now plenty of money for both father and son. Unfortunately, Dopokoke proves to be entirely too appealing and it soon ensnares both the physician’s secretary (Dorothy Bernard) and the son himself. (The son and his friends eschewing the saloon in favor of the soda fountain may be a reference to Coca-Cola and other soft drinks positioning themselves as temperance beverages.)

Oops.

The son soon progresses from soft drinks to intravenous injections, loses his fiancée and takes up with the secretary. Soon, the pair is living in squalor and the son dies of a heart attack just as his father arrives to assist him. Curtain.

One is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quip, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

COCAINE????

Seeing the cast of Biograph regulars dramatically brandishing a gigantic bottle of talcum powder with COCAINE boldly printed on the label is pretty amusing, as is the whirlwind romance between the son and the secretary. “You’re a junkie? What a coincidence! I’m a junkie too! Woot! Let’s get hitched!”

And the reactions from the characters when they discover that Dopokoke has coke in it… Horror and then glee as they’re clawing their way into drawers and safes to get more of the stuff. The passage of time is not conveyed well; one moment they are a bit jittery and the next they are ready to audition for The Walking Dead.

COCAINE!!!!

Now, I want to emphasize that the silliness of this film is not due to it being a silent picture from 1912. In fact, having seen a fair number of drug and temperance pictures and having read the literature released by activists of the era, I have to say that For His Son is definitely on the goofier end of the spectrum. I consider the anti-alcohol story, magic lantern show and silent film Buy Your Own Cherries! to be the gold standard of cautionary material; it sidesteps a lot of preachiness and tries to gently persuade through interesting storytelling without inciting panic. It’s easy to see why it was such a popular piece of temperance entertainment.

The performers in For His Son do what they can, bless them, and Dorothy Bernard makes the most of her character’s slide into addiction. Blanche Sweet isn’t given much to do beyond being in love and then acting horrified when a syringe falls out of her fiancé’s pocket.

“I do all the drugs!”

Charles Hill Mailes and Charles West do fine as the father-son duo, though I wish that the picture had done a better job of establishing why the physician threw aside his principles when he did. I get he wanted to spoil his son but why this time as opposed to the other hundred times the son asked for money. The intertitles describe him as a good physician but there seems to be no option between genteel poverty and Breaking Bad.

The picture does move along and it does amuse, so I can’t classify it as a bad film. After all, any movie that entertains has fulfilled its goal. But For His Son set up a double mission of entertaining and swaying opinions. I know nobody today would give up soft drinks on its say-so but I honestly think that it probably wasn’t very convincing in 1912 either. I certainly can’t find any evidence of public sentiment against Coca-Cola after the release of the picture. In fact, it isn’t mentioned much at all after the initial reviews were posted.

Gimme that sody pop!

I have to wonder, though, if For His Son backfired. I don’t drink dark sodas anymore and I went out and bought a Coke after seeing it. I did manage to avoid falling into addiction and disgrace but it’s probably only a matter of time. I am curious to know if any soda fountains or purveyors of bottled drinks saw an uptick in sales, however small, after For His Son opened.

Now, I brought public sentiment into the conversation, so this seems like a good place for a segue. We need to dig a bit into historical context in order to fully understand how For His Son stands in relation to American opinions toward drugs, soft drinks and Coca-Cola in the 1910s.

Sales are high, customers are higher.

It’s worth noting that John Pemberton, the inventor of the original Coca-Cola formula, held a medical degree and that his son, Charley, was an alcoholic. Charley died in 1894 after being discovered unconscious and with opium—not cocaine—found nearby. While he was not known to be a drug addict, the death was generally considered to be accidental. The sudden passing of the younger Pemberton was covered in the news at the time and so it would not be outside the bounds of reason to conjecture that Griffith might have run across these reports.

Patent medicine was a cultural phenomenon in America during the nineteenth century and the ingredients were… pretty scary. The proprietary, non-prescription blends were almost entirely unregulated, heavily advertised and quite possibly poisonous—and were purchased by the gallon. In fact, a remedy ad from the time For His Son was released (after the golden age of quackery) boasted that its cure did NOT include “Mercury, Iron, Cantharides, Morphia, Strychnia, Opium, Alcohol, Cocaine, etc.”

(Not sure how poor, innocent iron got lumped in with this bad company but it is possible to overdose on it.)

Coca-Cola started out as a patent remedy—it was named for the cocaine-laden coca leaves and the caffeine-laced kola nut— before it was permanently associated with fizzy water and its branding evolved into the refreshing, non-medicinal variety we see today.

Rumors of cocaine content had plagued the soft drink since the beginning. In fact, an 1891 piece in the Atlanta Constitution asserted a direct connection between the beverage and cocaine addiction and it was hardly alone. It’s true that there was, well, coca in Coca-Cola and we can’t be sure how much cocaine was in the original formulation (and, likely out of fear of legal repercussions, Coke ain’t telling) but the amount was severely reduced due to public pressure. The Coca-Cola sold in the early 1900s contained as little as 1/400th of a grain per ounce of syrup, Of course, this does not mean that Coke knockoffs were drug-free or that soda fountain patrons could not add their own.

Still, the entire “coke in Coke” story should have been old news by 1912 but both the cocaine and caffeine (seen as equally bad by certain reformers) put Coca-Cola at odds with a powerful political movement. The purity of the American food supply was a subject of great concern in the early part of the twentieth century and for good reason. Food-borne illnesses were commonplace (the illness and death statistics from unpasteurized milk alone are horrifying) and Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, which exposed practices of the meat packing industry, hit the American public right in the literal gut. (Sinclair had actually hoped to build support for socialist worker protection policies.)

This would not have actually been an option in 1912.

Doctor, chemist, and pure foods activist Harvey Washington Wiley was the father of the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which cracked down on sneakily adding shady additives, dangerous ingredients and took aim at false claims. Wiley was a passionate crusader for safety and clear labeling in food and medicine and he used his government post to further his goals. He set his sights on Coca-Cola. Even if there was no cocaine, it still contained impure caffeine, after all. Meanwhile, influential temperance activist Martha M. Allen condemned Coca-Cola as containing cocaine, caffeine and as much alcohol as an equivalent amount of beer.

(For those of you keeping score at home, the Coca-Cola formula of the time did contain a decent hit of caffeine but only trace amounts of cocaine, the only alcohol was from oils and extracts and the booze content was infinitesimal once properly diluted. There’s as much of the hard stuff in gam-gam’s chocolate chip cookies.)

Somehow, the “Poison!” label fails to convince.

Wiley’s investigations of Coca-Cola actually did uncover some pretty appalling sanitation problems in both the syrup manufacturing and soda bottling. An independent laboratory proved that Coca-Cola was indeed no longer cokey but Wiley was already committed to the fight and was more than willing to go to war on the caffeine front. Matters came to a head in 1909 when a large quantity of the syrup was seized by the U.S. government. (The syrup, of course, was meant to be diluted with carbonated water at soda fountains.)

The 1911 trial (“The United States vs. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola”) made headlines and likely inspired aspects of For His Son. The government’s case was that since Coca-Cola did not contain coca leaf or kola nut, its name was misleading to the public. In other words, the government was making the case that Coca-Cola did not contain cocaine. The unsanitary factory conditions were also brought up with additional appeals to racism as the prosecution made sure to emphasize that the sweat and saliva of black workers dripped into the syrup vats. (Mark Pendergrast recounts this eccentric trial in his book, For God, Country and Coca-Cola.)

Coca-Cola triumphed in court as the judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the soft drink did indeed contain small amounts of coca leaf (cocaine removed) and kola nut and that the caffeine in Coke was not an added ingredient under law. Wiley had actually been correct on many counts: the beverage was manufactured in unsanitary facilities, contained little of its namesake ingredients and its manufacturer was coy about its caffeine content. But by focusing on the notion that moderate caffeine consumption was tantamount to consuming poison, Wiley opened himself up to attacks on behalf of popular coffee and tea. (Wiley did not object to naturally occurring caffeine, only caffeine as an additive no matter how small the quantity, which may have made sense to him but failed to convince anyone else.)

Just say no, kids!

Wiley ended up resigning from his government position but continued to assault Coca-Cola from his regular column in Good Housekeeping magazine. He advocated for his readers to drink coffee for their caffeine hit instead of relying on soft drinks. Coca-Cola’s court woes were not over, the case went to the Supreme Court and the company later ended up voluntarily reducing the caffeine content of its formula. Ironically, Wiley’s campaign against caffeine increased public awareness of and demand for this pick-me-up; the end result was a caffeinated America. Even Dr. Pepper, which positioned itself as the anti-Coca-Cola, embraced Wiley with open arms and advertised that the soft drink did not contain caffeine or cocaine, added the former to its formula in 1917.

I should also note that the Coca-Cola scares of the late 1890s and early 1900s were spurred on by newspapers falsely claiming that black Southern field hands were getting high on cocaine and/or Coca-Cola and raping white women. Coca-Cola seems to have faded from this narrative but lurid accounts of cocaine-addled black men continued to be published in major newspapers at the time For His Son was released. Considering D.W. Griffith’s documented history of racism and particular obsession with “preserving the purity” of white women, I think this is a historical fact that deserves consideration when we discuss why he was so strangely passionate in his condemnation of this particular soft drink.

(And before we laugh the “Coca-Cola causes rape” scare off as exaggeration, remember that equally delusional conspiracy theories are alive, well and just as dangerous today.)

Soda fountains: dens of sin.

In fact, it seems that For His Son has much in common with those photocopied fliers warning parents that drug dealers would offer their kids free samples of LSD hidden on temporary tattoos. (This myth circulated around my grade school at least three times that I can remember. I think most American kids in the Gen X/Millennial range had some experience with it.)

And by the way, I recommend The War on Drugs That Wasn’t: Wasted Whiteness, “Dirty Doctors,” and Race in Media Coverage of Prescription Opioid Misuse by Julie Netherland and Helena B. Hansen, which covers race in media accounts of drug addiction from the 1910s to the present day.

Another bit of context that is worth exploring is the question of how For His Son compares to other drug pictures released around the same time. Was it particularly groundbreaking? Was it the first?

It was not. It was not the first drug film, the first exploitative drug film or the first drug film to showcase the human toll of drug addiction. (I’m only considering films in which drugs seem to have been a major plot element, not pictures with incidental drug use.)

The 1907 Kalem film Chinese Slave Smuggling portrayed smugglers as using opium to incapacitate the young women being trafficked and the advertisement for the film featured the silhouette of a Chinese man with an opium pipe. The 1909 Selig release In the Bad Lands was a melodrama dealing with the perils inflicted on an army garrison when it is discovered that their surgeon is a morphine addict.

Selig returned to the topic in 1910 with The Smuggler’s Game, which was about Chinese immigrants and opium smuggling in California. According to a description in trade magazines “California is the country of best things, a semi-tropic land of enchantment, marred only by the threatening Yellow peril, carrying with it that demon cycle—opium—that lays the weird image of death in its wake and furnishes the plot of this great picture.” (Author’s Note: Yikes.)

On the more sympathetic end of things, Essanay released The Curse of Cocaine in 1909. Of all the films I read about when researching this review, it is the one I would most like to see. It’s about the wife of a physician who is curious about cocaine and samples her husband’s supply. She descends into addiction, her husband discovers her condition and after some struggles with her cravings, she finally enters a sanitarium for successful rehab. From the descriptions, it sounds as though the wife is treated in a sympathetic manner and the message is one of treatment rather than condemnation. The film received rave reviews for its realistic settings, clever acting and superior photography and was declared to have high “art value.”

A 1909 item in Moving Picture World describes a visit to the set of The Curse of Cocaine. The author noted with approval that the sanitarium padded cell was “not the usual painted upholstery, but the real thing” and praised the attention to detail and solidness of the construction.

The doomed couple in “For His Son”

As for films that were not exactly lurid (at least from the descriptions in trade magazines), IMP went to the morphine well at least twice in 1910 alone. The Irony of Fate was a rarity in that it portrayed the drug being used correctly and under the care of a physician. The problems arise when the other people in the house decide that the morphine syringe must have had some sinister meaning. Chaos ensues. The Senator’s Double, which used the old identical stranger trope, went in an even more fanciful direction. When an addicted senator is incapacitated due to a morphine mishap, the lookalike takes his place.

So, whether sensational or sympathetic, audiences of the era were quite used to seeing drugs and drug addicts portrayed in popular films from major studios. Unfortunately, many of these pictures are lost or just unavailable to the general public but we can see just from this small sample that For His Son was not particularly unique. Even its much-lauded realism of For His Son seems to have been pre-dated by Essanay by a good three years.

“Drugs are fun!” is quite a pickup line.

For His Son is in the middle of the road with its message, probably on par with the IMP releases of 1910: less lurid than many, goofier than most, no dens of smugglers but plenty of melodrama and silly, drug-related behavior from its characters. Whether or not it was a thinly-disguised biopic of the Pembertons, it clearly takes more than a little of its inspiration from the original Coca-Cola scares rather than the caffeine-based litigation that was more current when it was made. (Remember, even Wiley had backed off the cocaine front years before.)

The story of For His Son moves along swiftly and it retains the audience’s attention but that’s likely due to it being unintentionally hilarious. The performers give their all and are to be commended for keeping a straight face throughout.

(stares directly at camera)

More than anything, though, For His Son is a strange film to view in hindsight due to its hysterical moralizing primarily based on Gilded Age Pizzagate and its central theme being “Watch what you do for money and success because you may cause literal harm and death to innocent people and that would be evil.”

Yeah, Mr. D.W. Griffith, how about that? How about that?

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s D.W. Griffith set, as well as the Saved from the Flames collection, which is a condensed version of the PAL release Retour de Flamme.

☙❦❧

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4 Comments

  1. Meme

    I do wonder about whether it was cocaine or cola leaf extract in Coke, and if there’s a significant difference. Also, Heroin was over the counter at this point, so why bother with the fizzy water?

    Do you think the Leaping Fish was influenced by these films a little bit? I also got one of those LSD flyers at school … with a temporary tattoo. I don’t know if it was just bad timing or the principal didn’t like the brand or what.

    1. Movies Silently

      There was kola leaf in it, which contained cocaine, though the drug had been mostly removed a decade before FOR HIS SON was made. The drugged patent medicines added a veneer of respectability, much the same way someone who would never dream of trying cocaine today would have fewer qualms about pain pills, which is the opioid public health nightmare in a nutshell.

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