Crusading filmmaker Lois Weber presents a movie dealing with very modern “women’s issues” – birth control and abortion – but with a sensibility that will strike most as decidedly un-modern and possibly anti-feminist. The movie was censored and criticized at the time, but nevertheless made over 3 million dollars at the box office (a tidy sum at the time), probably in part due to the controversy it stirred.
The movie begins with a somewhat contradictory disclaimer from Universal, the studio that produced it. The studio “believes that children should not be admitted to see this picture…but if you bring them it will do an immeasurable amount of good.” Then, Weber launches into one of her over-strained metaphors, ala the “naked truth” from “Hypocrites.” Here, we see the gates of Heaven open to where little souls of unborn children eagerly await to come down to earth and take on human form. Well, we sort of see it. Actually on the print I saw it was mostly a blurry brown field. Anyway, apparently these souls are divided among “chance” children, “unwanted” children, and “those who were sent forth only on prayer.” Apparently, only this third kind are “fine and strong,” while the others could be defective or even “marked with the sign of the Serpent.”
With this confusing lesson firmly in mind, we now meet the hero of our story, Richard Walton (Tyrone Power), who is a District Attorney and “a great believer in eugenics.” He is a firm and upright-looking man, who looks in on a courtroom processing minor cases and scoffs that only the “ill-born” wind up in such places. Meanwhile, his wife (Helen Riaume, Power’s wife in real life as well) lies on a divan in the sunshine, eating chocolates and snuggling with lap dogs. We learn that she is childless, a source of great sorrow to Walton, who spends his time playing with his sister’s “eugenically born” baby and watching the neighbor children playing on the lawn. Walton prosecutes a case against a doctor (C. Norman Hammond) who works in the slums and has been caught distributing literature in favor of birth control. He strikes an obvious chord with Walton when he claims that unwanted children are the cause of misery and crime.
This world of serious concerns and solutions to the world’s problems is contrasted with the frivolous existence of his wife, who now goes to visit a friend (Marie Walcamp) who seems to be ill. She confides in Mrs. Walton that she is expecting, and Mrs. Walton tells her that she knows how she can get rid of the child, in order to go back to the world of garden parties and socializing. She brings her friend to the seedy office of one “Dr. Malfit” (Juan de la Cruz). Here, the “unwanted” child is sent back up to its heavenly source. Mrs. Walton goes home and blithely ignores her husband’s obvious pining after the neighbor children.
Now, Mrs. Walton’s brother Roger (A.D. Blake) comes to visit, coincidentally on the same day that the housekeeper’s daughter Lillian (Rena Rogers) returns from school. Roger takes an immediate and unsavory interest in Lillian, who shyly looks away from his lascivious glances. But, as they are staying under one roof, Roger gradually wears her down and soon the two are meeting clandestinely in the garden to kiss. Eventually, Roger comes to his sister with a problem – he needs to help Lillian out or he might have to marry her. Sis knows what’s up and sends him, and Lillian, to Dr. Malfit. Unfortunately, Dr. Malfit seems to do less well with young, innocent, lower-class girls than he did with the frivolous social butterflies, and he “bungles” the operation. Lillian makes it home in a cab, only to die a short while later in the Waltons’ home.
Mr. Walton, outraged at the circumstances, throws Roger out of his house and pursues an aggressive prosecution of Dr. Malfit, who tries to save his skin by threatening Mrs. Walton, but the judge refuses to have the names of his clients paraded in the court room. Mr. Walton does get a look at the book where Malfit has been recording his clients, however, and gets an eye-opener. He returns home, where the ladies are holding another house party, and announces that now he knows why so many of them lack children. He should, he says, prosecute them for manslaughter, but he contents himself with throwing them out of the house. When one tries to protest, he points out her name in Dr. Malfit’s register. Then he turns to his wife and asks the titular question. She slumps in disgrace. There is then a brief chilling epilogue where we see them aging in front of a fireplace, embittered and alone, while ghostly specters of their unborn children come out to them and show what could have been.
The interlacing of eugenics, abortion, and birth control might give modern viewers pause, but it was a fairly typical approach at the time. Margaret Sanger had recently made headlines across the country when arrested for distributing “indecent literature” similar to Dr. Homer in this movie, and her arguments were based not only on women’s rights but also on race improvement and the prevention of immoral abortion to get rid of unwanted children. Lois Weber wields this argument with the subtlety of a sledge hammer, and even goes further to suggest that “fit” rich white women are abusing abortion to prevent healthy children from coming into the world. Since Mr. Walton is the righteous victim, it even appears that she is arguing that a man knows best what is good for his wife and the world, and that women should not be included in the decisions that directly affect their own bodies.
That said, I think I see another argument being made here, one which seems less out of place for a crusading female director. The real problem in this movie is in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Walton, in what was known at the time as the “separation of the spheres.” Neither one has a clue what is important to the other, nor do they work to understand. Mr. Walton lives in his male sphere of work and law and “big ideas” while Mrs. Walton lives in a world of dogs, chocolate, and house parties. If they would at least talk to one another, they might be able to figure out how to create a partnership that would satisfy each of them. Instead, Mrs. Walton surreptitiously aborts her pregnancies and Mr. Walton ignorantly condemns her for it. The real tragedy is that any sense of love or even friendship seems missing in them from the very beginning of the film. It is this separation that leads to their ultimate fate of sitting, glaring at one another for the rest of their lives, unable even to speak the words of accusation each deserves to hear.
Beyond its didactic aspects, the movie is fairly dull by 1916 standards. The only character who really develops at all is Lillian, who goes from being completely innocent to naively in love to dying and then dead. Everyone else remains exactly the same as they are from beginning to end, except that Mr. Walton is a lot angrier by the end (he’s still the same man, though). Lillian is also the only character who gets much of my sympathy, either. Mr. Walton is too caught up in his beliefs to notice that his wife doesn’t share them and Mrs. Walton isn’t even interested enough to notice that he wants a child until it is too late. I’ve already observed that the opening “effects” sequence is unimpressive and while the double exposures at the end work well enough, they’re pretty much old hat by 1916. The editing is just passable, and there are no very interesting lighting effects or camera movements. The movie is of historical interest, not least because of the controversy it generated at the time (and probably does today), but it has little to offer in the way of entertainment.
Director: Lois Weber
Camera: Allen G. Siegler and Stephen S. Norton
Starring: Tyrone Power, Helen Riaume, A.D. Blake, Marie Walcamp, Juan de la Cruz, Rena Rogers, Cora Drew, C. Norman Hammond.
Run Time: 1 Hr, 5 Min
You can watch it for free: here.