#522) The Cry of the Children (1912)

#522) The Cry of the Children (1912)

OR “Kid Row”

Directed by George O. Nichols

Based on the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Class of 2011 

The Plot: With Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem as inspiration, “The Cry of the Children” centers on hazardous child labor, a major issue of the 1910s. A poor family all work at the same textile factory, except for youngest daughter Alice (Marie Eline), spared by her parents (Ethel Wright & James Cruze) to protect her. When the factory owner’s wife (Lila Chester) sees Alice, she wishes to adopt the little girl, but her offer is rejected. Shortly thereafter, wages at the factory are reduced and the workers go on strike. When the family’s money runs out, Alice is forced to work in the factory. It’s a cautionary tale about the perilous ramifications of child labor, because apparently that’s a thing we had to debate over?

Why It Matters: The NFR gives the film its historical context, and praises the film’s “fatalistic, uncompromising tone of hopelessness”. Once again, Edwin Thanhouser’s grandson Ned is on hand with an essay detailing this film and his family legacy.

But Does It Really?: We have arrived at another NFR impasse: two entries that more or less cover the same ground. Both “The Cry of the Children” and “The Evidence of the Film” are here to represent the popular yet short-lived Thanhouser film studio. “Children” is on here as a dramatization of a major issue of the day, whereas “Evidence” is more a lost-and-found silent movie that I deemed “unmemorable” in a previous write-up. If forced to choose, I’d pick “Children” over “Evidence” as the NFR’s Thanhouser entry, and that’s more than enough.

Wow, That’s Dated: Like many films of the early 1910s, “The Cry of the Children” tackles an important social issue of the day. The film was released in April 1912, one year after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that brought national attention to sweatshop working conditions, as well as two months after a textile worker strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts very similar to the one in this film. Child labor was also a topic of discussion in the 1912 presidential election, and Theodore Roosevelt’s stance against it was widely quoted in advertisements for this film. For the record, Roosevelt lost his re-election bid to Woodrow Wilson, who felt child labor was a state issue the federal government should not meddle in.

Other notes 

  • I covered the rise and fall of Thanhouser in my “Evidence of the Film” post. Long story short, Thanhouser had an 11 year run with several hits, but a massive fire and company mismanagement led to its liquidation.
  • The saddest part about the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem is that it was written 70 years before this movie came out. That’s how long child labor has been a topic of debate in this country. Not that working conditions are perfect now, but yikes.
  • Perhaps the worst case for this movie’s legacy: Even while researching this movie I can’t remember its name. At various points I’ve mistakenly Googled “A Cry for the Children”, “Where Are My Children” and “Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children!?
  • To add to the movie’s realism, the factory scenes were filmed in a real factory. Par for the course today, but seeing actual factory labor on film was an eye-opener in 1912.
  • As Alice, Marie Eline is really hamming it up, but she’s so cute! I see why she was dubbed “The Thanhouser Kid”.
  • So back in the 1910s, rich people could just walk up to any family and offer to adopt their child? Is this a “Citizen Kane” scenario?
  • A labor strike over wages and working conditions? Quick, someone call Barbara Kopple!
  • “It is good when it happens, say the children, that we die before our time.” WHAT!?
  • Thank god this is melodrama, otherwise this movie would be thoroughly depressing.
  • Hey, you can’t have a flashback in a short! We just saw this!

Legacy 

  • Numerous bills and congressional acts were proposed throughout the 1910s and 1920s to combat child labor, but were typically shot down by the mostly Republican Supreme Court. A potential amendment in 1924 was approved by Congress, but didn’t get past the state legislatures, and is still pending almost 100 years later. Today, while there are significantly more laws regarding child labor, it is still considered – you guessed it – a state issue the federal government shouldn’t meddle in.
  • As for “The Cry of the Children”, critics loved it upon release, but it was somewhat eclipsed by “Children Who Labor”, an Edison film that covered the same subject matter and source material. Wow, Edison really does not come across looking good in movie history. Or history in general for that matter.
  • Like “Evidence of the Film”, “Cry of the Children” is one of the few surviving films from the Thanhouser Studio, and lacks any major influence on modern film beyond its “historical significance”.

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