Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review – Where are My Children?

March 3, 2009

Where are My Children? – U.S., 1916

Lois Weber’s well-acted 1916 film Where are My Children? is about a man named Richard Walton (Tyrone Power Sr.), a district attorney who appears to be completely oblivious to the paradox that exists in his way of thinking. On the one hand, he strongly believes in the theories of eugenics and laments that many of the criminals he sees in court are “ill-born.” Sharing this position is a doctor on trial for distributing materials that advocate what the film calls “birth regulation.” In his capacity as a family doctor, Dr. Homer (C. Norman Hammond) has seen sick children who appear almost inhuman and couples so uncivilized that they turn on each other violently despite the presence of their young children. The implication is that the world would be better off had these people not been born. On the other hand, Walton is a man who loves children. He is a friend to the kids in the neighborhood, and when his sister visits, he cannot wait to pick up her infant child and make it smile. His own expression of joy, however, fades slightly when he sees his wife holding not their child but a small dog. Apparently, his genes, as well as those of his wife, are the kind that should be reproduced.

And yet there are many in his circle of friends who are in the same boat as he is. Try as they may, many of their homes continue to be empty of the pitter-patter of little feet. For Richard Walton, this is a tragedy; his wife is of a different opinion. At a social gathering, we see that she is a woman who enjoys the freedom that not having children affords her. Drinks are poured, cigarettes are lit, and a general grand time is had by all. Children, I suppose, would ruin this. At one party, Mrs. Walton (Helen Riaume) is approached by her friend Mrs. Carlo (Marie Walcamp), who informs her that she is in a family way, but does not wish to be. Mrs. Walton advises her to see Dr. Malfit, a doctor who can make Mrs. Carlo’s problem magically go away and whose office Mrs. Walton seems all too familiar with. As the film moves along, we meet Lillian (Rena Rogers), the daughter of Richard’s long-time maid, and Roger (A.D. Blake), Mrs. Walton’s playboy brother. Roger takes an instant liking to Lillian. Unfortunately, being inexperienced in the ways of smooth-talking men such as Roger, Lillian soon falls for his charms. In a movie such as this one, that can only lead in one direction.

Where are My Children? asks us to see the act of having children in two conflicting ways. If one is from a poor family, is of questionable health, or is less educated, the film seems to be saying that birth control is acceptable, as its application will benefit society. However, if one is of higher social status, is better looking, and is of supposedly healthier genetic stock, the decision not to have a child is tantamount to committing treason or betrayal. The film seems to be saying that it is not the act of abortion that is wrong but the fact that women of the upper class are undergoing it. After all, would Richard protest if those he views as of inferior stock started having abortions? Somehow I doubt it.

One of the interesting elements of Where are My Children? has to do with children’s souls. In the film, there exists something called “chance” souls. This kind of soul descends from heaven when a woman becomes pregnant, and a month later, whisper its arrival into its future mother’s ears. This either sends the woman into a state of euphoria or – as is the case with Mrs. Carlo – sends her into a state of panic. If a woman decides to terminate a pregnancy, the soul becomes “unwanted” and must make the sad ascent to heaven having been rejected. It is a strangely affective technique of reinforcing the notion that these abortions are against the will of heaven.

Watching Where are My Children? I had conflicting emotions. I felt uncomfortable with Walton because even though he is clearly the protagonist in the film, he is still advocating a theory that was used as the rationale for the slaughter of not only thousands of German citizens but also millions of those the Nazis deemed genetically inferior. I was also uneasy with the idea that all it would take for Mrs. Walton to be a good mother is the decision to have a baby, as if all women from the upper class were naturally skilled at raising children. However, Where are My Children? has a surprising amount of power and heart. We sympathize with Mrs. Walton, as she begins to realize the consequences of her actions all these years, and we wonder just how many of those in her social circle are experiencing similar regrets at this moment. More importantly, we feel for Richard Walton, especially in the film’s closing moments as visions of what might have been fill the living room that only he and his wife will occupy for the rest of their days on the earth. In the end, it appears the availability of abortion has robbed an honorable man of what he most wanted, and there is indeed tragedy in that, no matter what side of the issue you are on. (on disc two of Image-Entertainment’s Treasures from the American Film Archives III: Social Issues in American Film)

3 stars

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