#568) Where Are My Children (1916)
Directed & Written by Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber. Based on the play “The Unborn” by Lucy Payton and Franklyn Hall
Class of 1993
“Where Are My Children” tackles the delicate subject of birth control and abortion. I cannot stress enough that I am vastly under-qualified to discuss these topics. As always, I am here to comment on the movie and its depiction of the subject matter, not the subject matter itself.
The Plot: Powerful district attorney Richard Walton (Tyrone Power) and his wife Edith (Helen Riaume) are a well-off childless couple. Richard is under the impression that his wife is barren, but Edith’s secret is that she gets an abortion every time she gets pregnant, feeling that raising children would interfere with her social life. When their maid’s daughter Lillian (Rena Rogers) becomes pregnant by Edith’s brother (A.D. Blake), Edith quietly sends Lillian to her doctor (Juan de la Cruz) for “personal services”, only for the procedure to go wrong and lead to Lillian’s death. After the doctor is arrested, Richard learns that Edith and many of her friends were among his clients, prompting the title question, “Where are my children?”
Why It Matters: The NFR praises Weber for her “thought-provoking film”, though admits that it “may appear heavy-handed and stilted by modern standards”. An essay by Lois Weber expert Shelley Stamp pokes the right holes in the film’s often-contradictory message.
But Does It Really?: Oh we are skating on some thin ice here, people. I am all for having Lois Weber’s filmography on this list, and it was fascinating to see how the birth control debate was dramatized over a hundred years ago. That being said, “Where Are My Children” can be an uncomfortable modern watch; its obvious one-sidedness condemning any woman who dares to not have a child. It’s an extreme that I wish would appear antiquated in today’s cultural landscape, but honestly doesn’t feel too different from any pro-abstinence propaganda some far-right organization would produce. Wherever you stand on the topic of birth control, “Where Are My Children” is worth a watch for its place in history, and for the legacy of early female film pioneer Lois Weber.
Everybody Gets One: We’ve covered Lois Weber in our previous post on “Shoes“, but it’s worth a reminder here that Weber felt the medium of film should be a “living newspaper” to discuss the issues of the day, and birth control was a hot topic in 1916 (see “Other Notes”).
Wow, That’s Dated: This is a good time to mention that when this movie references birth control, they mean it in its broadest terms, and not any specific method. Birth control would not start to become legal in the United States until the 1930s, the condom being the first major form of birth control to be promoted. The birth control pill as we know it today wouldn’t arrive until the 1950s, or become commonly available until the 1960s.
Title Track: This movie began production under the working title “The Illborn”. It should also be noted that although many write-ups include a question mark in the title, “Where Are My Children” is presented in the film’s opening credits without one.
- “Where Are My Children” was based on a real-life obscenity case involving birth control. In 1914, when the birth control advocacy movement was starting to get its first major support in America, activist Margaret Sanger distributed her newsletter The Woman Rebel, which included promotions for contraception (it should be noted that while Mrs. Sanger was pro-birth control, she was anti-abortion). Sanger was arrested on obscenity charges (laws at the time prohibited using the postal service to deliver obscene writing or content), and fled the country rather than face trial. She returned in 1916 to open the very first birth control clinic in America…which was shut down nine days later. “Where Are My Children” was one of many films of the era that tackled birth control.
- This film begins with what may be the first parental guidance disclaimer before a movie. The Universal Film Manufacturing Company (as it was known then) suggests that no adult allow their children to see this movie unaccompanied, “but if you bring them it will do them an immeasurable amount of good.”
- For those of you who wonder what stance this movie will take, the first shot is the gates of heaven as the souls of children are waiting to be born, with text referring to “chance” children and “unwanted” souls. Strap in, everyone.
- Richard Walton is described as being “a great believer in eugenics”. This whole movie makes the case that while abortion should be allowed for lower class citizens, it is a crime for the upper class to not carry on their legacy. Yikes.
- One of the film’s less depressing pieces of trivia: Tyrone Power Sr. and Helen Riaume were married in real life. In fact, this is one of the rare movies where Ms. Riaume was not credited as “Mrs. Tyrone Power”.
- The doctor the women go to for their abortions is Dr. Malfit. Mal. Fit. Real subtle, everyone. Why not just call him Dr. Shady McQuack?
- “Practice teach men of this class the bold methods.” Why do we have so many euphemisms for sexual assault?
- Characters in this movie find out they’re pregnant when a superimposed child head with angel wings appear over their shoulder. Creepy, but I’m sure it beats peeing onto a stick.
- Nowadays it’s fairly safe to assume that your female movie directors have a liberal streak to them, which makes Lois Weber all the more interesting. Described as “relatively conservative”, Weber distanced herself from the growing Women’s Suffragette movement of the time, and made several films that condemned women who chose a life other than homemaker and mother. If only she had the wisdom of Madeleine Albright to guide her.
- The movie’s final shot shows Mr. and Mrs. Walton, now elderly, sitting by the fireplace, as the superimposed vision of their “unwanted” adult children and grandchildren appear before them. Okay, we get it! In an attempt to end this section on a lighter note: one of the children is Tyrone Power Sr.’s son (and future movie star) Tyrone Power Jr.
- “Where Are My Children” premiered with the level of controversy you’d expect it to have. The National Board of Review initially rejected the film on the grounds of “medical misinformation”, but eventually reversed their decision on appeal (with an “Adults Only” caveat). In addition, the film was subject to a lawsuit in New York, and was outright banned in Pennsylvania. Despite these controversies (or perhaps because of them), “Where Are My Children” was Universal’s most successful picture of 1916.
- Lois Weber’s next movie – “Shoes” – would also find its way onto the National Film Registry. The lead actress of “Shoes”, Mary MacLaren, appears in a bit part in “Children”, her first collaboration with Weber.
- Weber would return to the issue of birth control the following year in her film “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”. Lois herself played the lead role, a Margaret Sanger type who is arrested for advocating birth control. And now I’m reading sources that say Weber was an “ardent admirer” of Sanger? This is getting more complicated than I thought.
- While the conversation regarding birth control and abortion is still a controversial issue over 100 years later, film depictions have thankfully become more nuanced. Look no further than Eliza Hittman’s 2020 film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”, which addresses a teenage pregnancy with much more sympathy towards its protagonist.
- Margaret Sanger went on to found the American Birth Control League in 1921, eventually evolving into what we know today as Planned Parenthood. And– what’s this? Why it’s a link to Planned Parenthood’s donation page. How did that get there? Well, while you’re here…