Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Lois Weber

Where Are My Children (1916)

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.

Hypocrites (1915)


One thing that often surprises people about the early period of film history is that there were women in positions of authority and artistic control. The common assumption is that gender relations were so fixed in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that women were only there to be exploited and displayed for male pleasure. While there’s plenty to be critical of in terms of gender in front of and behind the screen, an accurate narrative is of course more complex. I’ve mentioned before some of the work of the woman who was a true pioneer of the cinema – Alice Guy-Blaché (and I hope to review more of her works soon), but I hadn’t yet had a chance to speak about her American protégé, Lois Weber. This post will correct that.

However shocked audiences are today or then by Weber’s gender, they were even more shocked by this movie’s content, which includes full-frontal female nudity, possibly the first time that occurred in a non-pornographic context in American film. Its inclusion emphasizes the fact that Weber clearly considered the cinema to be an art form (contrary to those who insist that no one but D.W. Griffith saw this at the time), and its use is deliberate to jolt a complacent audience into awareness of the movie’s message. This film is in that sense simultaneously subversive and also supportive of morality as it was understood by elite classes at the time. The fact that its “shocking” content was used to support a Christian message is precisely why it was able to succeed where a more explicit challenge to social order would have been completely suppressed.


The movie consists of a short series of overlapping vignettes. First, we are introduced to the actors in both medieval and modern dress through a series of dissolves. Then, we see the “naked truth” (and she is), who opens a gate, symbolically raising the curtain on the film. “Naked truth” is transparent due to traveling double exposure shots, but we can make her out pretty well. Our characters are then shown to us in a “modern church.” Gabriel, the pastor (Courtenay Foote, who would appear in “His Parisian Wife” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”), speaks to them all about hypocrisy, and through a series of close-ups and pans, we get a clear sense that his message is not understood by most of the listeners. This is emphasized when a group of wealthy-looking parishioners outside the church speak of asking for his resignation (“but keep my name out of it”) after congratulating him on a great sermon to his face. Gabriel reads about a statue in Paris representing “Truth” that has been censored, and he imagines himself transformed into a medieval monk. The next sequence involves him, still in monk’s garb, leading his flock on a path through the forest. He comes to a narrow path which breaks off from the main road and is steep to climb, and begins climbing it, urging the others to follow. Only a few do (or can). The message here is made clear when one of the wealthy parishioners refuses to put down a large bag of gold in order to climb the path.


The “meat” of the story begins when Gabriel finds the naked Truth in the forest, having left all of his followers behind, in part because he refuses to assist the one who seems truly sincere – a young woman who may or may not have a crush on him (Myrtle Stedman, later in “Peer Gynt” and “The American Beauty”). Since he cannot bring them to her, he resolves to bring her back to them. Suddenly he is in a medieval monastery, and “after meditation and fasting,” begins work on a secret statue. The one other monk who peeks at it is horrified, but says nothing. On the day of its unveiling, the entire town turns out in its finery. It is, of course, the nude. Everyone is shocked, and riot breaks out. Gabriel is killed. Then, back in modern times, he, accompanied by the naked truth, goes to various places in town representing “politics,” “society,” “the family,” etc. and the Truth holds up a mirror, showing him the base motives behind the apparently upright behavior of the citizens.


Modern viewers may find this heavy-handed or moralizing, or even funny at times – as when “immodesty” is represented by a group of young bathers in full-length bathing suits that cover them almost to their knees. Even I don’t really get the attitude taken toward “the Woman,” who clearly wants to do right but is consistently abandoned by Gabriel. But it is a very effective and surprisingly creative film. Camera angles and editing are quite modern – ahead, I would say of “The Birth of a Nation,” which was released in the same month. She uses close-ups frequently to bring us intimacy with her characters, and her use of panning cameras is well in advance of anything of the time, including “Cabiria,” whose pans famously inspired “Intolerance.” In the scene with the riot, the camera pans past each group of citizens, allowing them to have their personal reactions to the statue, and growing more chaotic with each movement.

It’s not surprising that this movie resulted in cries for censorship (it was banned in Ohio) and, it is rumored, even “riots” in some places. What is surprising is that it apparently didn’t hurt Weber’s career. The Moving Picture World gave it a very generous review and predicted “a long and emphatic popularity” for the movie. This seems to be correct, as Weber reputedly went on to work at Universal as one of their highest-paid directors and later was the first (and for a long time only) woman to be inducted into the Motion Picture Directors Association in 1916.

Director: Lois Weber

Camera: Dal Clawson, George W. Hill

Starring: Courtenay Foote, Myrtle Stedman

Run Time: 49 Min

I have not been able to find this for free on the Internet. A clip is here.