WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN? (1916) B/W "silent" 62m dirs: Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley

w/Tyrone Power (Sr.), Helen Riaume, Marie Walcamp, Cora Drew, Rene Rogers, A. D. Blake, Juan De La Cruz, C. Norman Hammond, William J. Hope, Marjorie Blynn, William Haben

From the website www.cinema.ucla.edu, this article about the film by Jan-Christopher Horak: "An overzealous prosecutor accuses a local doctor of performing illegal abortions, unaware of his own wife’s complicity in helping wealthy socialites, including herself, avoid pregnancy. Previously, the prosecutor had supported a doctor convicted of sending birth control literature through the mails (a subplot based on the sensational 1915 trial of suffragette and feminist Margaret Sanger). Thus, writer-director Lois Weber’s Where Are My Children? served up mixed messages: on the one hand, condemning abortions, while on the other, advocating birth control, especially for working class women. Not surprisingly, as did Traffic in Souls, Weber’s content and themes caused a huge controversy and was actually banned in some states, though film critics generally praised the film for its sensitive handling of difficult moral and social issues. Where Are My Children? was also Universal’s biggest moneymaker of 1916.

"Though little known today, except in film academic circles, Lois Weber was one of the most powerful women in Hollywood in this time period. She was an outspoken feminist and social reformer who consciously used her films for social advocacy, and like D.W. Griffith, controlled every aspect of production from script to post-production. In 1916 alone, Weber directed no less than 10 films for Universal. The success of Children and other films allowed Weber to become the first American woman to own her own film studio, while continuing to distribute through Universal. She was not, however, unique at the studio, where a whole cadre of women directors worked in the 1910s, including Grace Cunard, Cleo Madison, Ida May Park, Ruth Stonehouse, Elsie Jane Wilson, and Ruth Ann Baldwin. However, by 1920, as Marc Cooper has demonstrated, they had been driven out of director’s chairs and into 'feminine' film professions, like scriptwriting and editing. In 1993, Where Are My Children? was named to the Library of Congress’ National Registry of this country’s most significant film works."

From www.acinemahistory.com, this article about the film: "This is a fascinating film as regards how fundamental moral issues could be shown on cinema during the 1910s and how moral values have shifted since then. Even more strongly than D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, this film defends the superiority of the white race and how it should be defended. The film is in the first place defending eugenics, i.e. the fact that the reproduction of people with desired traits should be encouraged and reproduction of people with undesired traits should be reduced. The enthusiastic adoption of this theory by nazi Germany demonstrated how pernicious it was. The film postulates that there are three categories of babies waiting to be born, the 'chance' children, going forth to earth in vast numbers, the 'unwanted' souls, that were constantly 'sent back' and bore the sign of the serpent (devil?), and those souls fine and strong, sent forth only on prayer and marked with the approval of the Almighty. This explains the position taken by the main protagonist, District Attorney Walton: he thinks that there is no reason to prosecute somebody defending birth control, as he is working with poor people producing children who from a eugenics point of view are deemed undesirable. On the other hand he is deeply shocked when he discovers that his wife and her friends, who from the same eugenics point of view would produce perfect children, are getting abortions because motherhood would interfere with their leisurely life. It is therefore not an anti-abortion film, as it is now regarded by some people, but a film about the wrong people undertaking abortion. The unwanted children are just 'sent back' to heaven. What is also striking, given the fact that the film was made by a female director, Lois Weber, together with her husband Phillips Smalley, is the very negative depiction of women. They are liberated enough to drive their own cars but the only thing in their life seems to be having drinks or tea together and refusing motherhood out of pure selfishness. This is all the more surprising that the person who inspired the scene of the man prosecuted for publishing a book about birth control was actually a woman, Margaret Sanger. Why did Lois Weber turn this positive female character into a man? Note also the patriarchal approach, Walton doesn't ask 'Where are our children?' but 'Where are my children?').

"From the cinematographic point of view, the film presents several interesting characteristics. Acting is quite natural for the time and cross-cutting is used very efficiently. While camera movements are limited to a few small pans, the frequent change of camera angles and shots gives a dynamic editing. Lighting is also very creative, notably the use of backlighting for the close-ups of female stars. The last scene with the couple getting old together with the ghosts of the children appearing at various ages is quite convincing."

From the Library of Congress website, www.loc.gov, this essay about the film by Shelley Stamp, Professor of Film & Digital Media at the University of California Santa Cruz, adapted from her book Lois Weber in Old Hollywood (which won the Richard Wall Special Jury Prize from the Theatre Library Association): "Late in 1916, as Margaret Sanger stepped up her campaign to legalize contraception, commentators noticed that birth control had become a popular topic in several 'weighty picture dramas.' (1) Of the many films released on this issue, Where Are My Children? was by far the most popular, profitable and controversial. Written and directed by Lois Weber, it was part of an ambitious program of films she made on key social issues in the mid-1910s, including addiction, poverty, and the fight to abolish capital punishment. She considered cinema a 'living newspaper' capable of exploring contemporary debates for popular audiences. 'Lois Weber,' ne contemporary commentary noted, 'can deal successfully with subjects which other directors would not dare to touch for fear of condemnation.' (2)

"Weber's script, adapted from the stage play The Unborn by Lucy Paton and Franklin Hall, intertwines legal battles around contraception with more intimate marital struggles over reproduction, focusing on the character of District Attorney Richard Walton (Tyrone Power). Richard comes to favor family planning during the trial of a doctor accused of circulating contraceptive information to impoverished working-class women overburdened with large families, poor health and abusive relationships. Yet Later, while prosecuting another doctor for performing abortions, Richard discovers that his wife and her society friends have been availing themselves of the doctor's services. His climactic cry, 'Where are my children?' accuses Edith Walton (Helen Riaume) and her friends of murder. Where Are My Children? thus makes a eugenicist argument in favor of birth control for working-class and immigrant families, while lambasting privileged white women for not 'bettering' the race, vilifying them further through their association with abortion, rather than contraception. As several reviewers pointed out at the time, this dichotomy inverted family planning practices of the day, for it was impoverished women, less likely to have access to adequate contraception, who were often forced to rely on unsafe abortions, while their wealthier counterparts practiced safe and effective family planning with tacit help from the medical establishment. Interweaving these multiple story lines through patterns of crosscutting, the film makes clear that while men legislate reproductive issues in public courtrooms, women, excluded from these debates, carry on clandestine conversations in private.

"The film's message about sexuality, reproduction and contraception is further clouded by a subplot involving the housekeeper's daughter Lillian (Rena Rogers). A naive young woman, she is lured into a liason with Edith's lothario brother Roger (A.D. Blake). Lillian becomes pregnant --- 'the wages of sin,' a title informs us --- and ultimately dies from an unsafe abortion she procures with Edith's help. Lillian's narrative adds another dimension to the film's portrayal of unplanned pregnancy and complicates its overlay of abortion and contraception. If Where Are My Children? seems to advocate birth control for impoverished women, while simultaneously denouncing Edith's wealthy circle for their reliance on abortion, in Lillian's case the message is less clear. Would Lillian's life have been spared if she had access to reliable contraception? The film does not go so far as to promote reproductive freedom for consenting, unmarried adults, a case Margaret Sanger was indeed making in the 1910s, but Lillian's subplot introduces the topic of sexuality outside reproduction, albeit with a rather clichéd tale of a male predator and his gullible victim.

"With its frank treatment of sexuality and reproduction, Where Are My Children? presented something of a challenge to the National Board of Review, then charged with approving pictures released by the major companies. Mindful of the fact that it was one of the firth films to address these issues, the Board openly debated whether a topic that had been so widely discussed in print media could be banned from the screen. (3) Yet, after convening a panel of medical experts to assess the picture, the Board voted to reject Where Are My Children?, not on the grounds of its subject matter, per se, but because it presented medical misinformation. Cranston Brenton, Chairman of the National Board, feared that the picture 'so confuses the question of birth control and abortion that even a second viewing of the picture failed to make the distinction clear. (4)

"Eager to release a film made by one of its best directors on a highly topical subject, Universal fought the Board's ruling. The studio added a disclaimer to film prints asking whether a 'subject of serious interest' ought to be 'denied careful dramatization on the motion picture screen,' operating as if the Board had censured the film because of its controversial subject matter, rather than concerns about its potential to mislead viewers about contraception and abortion. After hosting invited screenings for prominent clergy and social reformers in New York, Universal put the film into national release --- still without securing Board approval.

"Film industry trade papers chronicled the battle with great interest, for rarely, if ever, had a major production company flouted the Board's condemnation with such untested subject matter: it was still illegal, after all, to disseminate contraceptive information in any medium, let alone one designed for such a mass audience. Most in the trade felt the subject had been handled with tact and defended the cinema's ability to grapple with such controversial topics. (5) Lynde Denig of Moving Picture World was the most enthusiastic, praising the filmmakers' 'sincere, courageous and intelligent effort.' Not simply a good picture, Where Are My Children? provided a model of how photoplays should advance 'if they are to contribute to a better understanding of ... the complexities of modern society.' (6)

"While obviously eager to endorse cinema's ability to tackle weighty issues like contraception, trade commentators were more reluctant to endorse the film's particular message. 'It starts off seemingly as an argument in favor of birth control and suddenly switches to an argument against abortions,' Variety complained. (7) With no differentiation 'between birth control, race suicide, and abortion, the New York Dramatic Mirror objected, the film ended up with a 'confusing' message. (8) Those within the film industry were not the only ones to condemn the film's contradictory logic. When Where Are My Children? played in Portland, Oregon, members of the local Birth Control League protested that the film's failure to distinguish between 'birth control properly speaking and abortion' generated 'misunderstanding and confusion' about their objectives. (9)

"Despite these objections, the film drew large audiences across the country in 1916, released just as activist Margaret Sanger was embarking on a nationwide speaking tour, drawing wide-spread attention to the battle over birth control. While banned in Pennsylvania by that state's Board of Censorship, Where Are My Children? encountered little trouble in other markets. Even Boston's censorship commission, notorious for its strict enforcement, did not prevent the film from being shown in that city where it proved so popular that some 2,000 patrons were turned away on opening night and it continued to generate 'enormous business' during a run of several months.

"So popular was Where Are My Children? that one year later Photoplay complained it had spawned a 'filthy host of nasty-minded imitators.' (10) Weber herself returned to the topic in 1917 with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a clear call for legal contraception less clouded by eugenics than its predecessor. In her last appearance onscreen Weber played birth control advocate Louise Broome, a thinly veiled portrait of Sanger. Imprisoned for circulating birth control information, Broome ultimately wins the fight to legalize contraception. 'What do you think?,' the film's final title asks, inviting audiences to talk amongst themselves.

"1. Motography, 9 December 1916, 1297.

"2. Marjorie Howard, 'Even as You and I, A Drama of Souls at Bay,' Moving Picture Weekly 14 April 1917, 18

3. Letter from McGuire to the General Committee, 18 March 1916, Box 107, National Board of Review of Motion Picture Collection, New York Public Library (NBRMPC).

"4. Unidentified correspondence, n.d., Box 107, NBRMPC.

"5. See 'Birth Control Discussion with Conditions Plainly Pictured,' Wid's, 20 April 1916, 524; New York Dramatic Mirror, 22 April 1916, 42; and Variety, 14 April 1916, 26.

"6. Moving Picture World, 29 April 1916, 817.

"7. Variety, 14 April 1916, 26.

"8. New York Dramatic Mirror, 22 April 1916, 42.

"9. 'Control League Differs,' Portland Oregon News, 18 November 1916, n.p., Box 107, NBRMPC.

"10. 'Next Needs in Anatomy,' Photoplay, April 1917, 100.

"The Views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Library of Congress."

Notes collected on the film for a lecture about women directors:

Lois Weber: Moralist Moviemaker: b. 1882: Allegheny, PA; d. 1939: Los Angeles, CA:

her obituaries included her lengthy career: 1908-1934: 22 years & her many roles in Hollywood:

acting / writing / directing / producing / designing sets / editing:

she also discovered, coached & advanced careers of many actors

1908: silent era: Weber & husband Phillips Smalley worked for Gaumont Studios: made lots of films:

Weber: wrote scenarios & dialog, directed & acted: 1st American woman director

1911: Weber & Smalley put out 2 2-reelers every month:

each film: Weber co-wrote, co-directed & acted in: her output:

by her own estimate: between 200 & 400 films: but fewer than 50 identified as hers

Weber: by 1915: a director at Universal: earning $5,000/week:

highest paid director in Hollywood: man or woman

Weber's belief: films could be used to inspire social improvements: could lead way to social improvements

Weber: making morality message movies: but eye on box office, too: 1916: at peak of her success:

WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN? huge box office success: big audiences: $3 million: at time of nickelodeon!

banned by PA censor board: 2 inflammatory messages: abortion is crime / birth control is necessary

Weber: wrote script from story by Lucy Paton & Franklin Hall: explosive themes addressed:

in 2-paragraph preface to film: text:

1. if birth control can be discussed in books, films should be able to deal with it, too

2. film not appropriate for kids without parents:

maybe 1st instance in Hollywood of self-imposed censorship


district attorney learns he's childless because his wife had abortions: using them as birth control:

he calls her murderess: then forgives her: intertitle:

"but throughout the years with empty arms & guilty conscience she must face her husband's unspoken question: 'where are my children'"

most of film deals with "race suicide": abortion on demand as practiced by "group of vapid social butterflies":

society women using abortion as birth control: no birth control for women in 1916:

film: realistic for contemporary audiences: they saw everyday women: appealing characters:

choosing alternative to motherhood

Weber: made clear distinctions between "charitable human issues" & "slackening moral standards":

all her life: championed ideals of Christian fundamentalism

made 4 more films about birth control: including: 1917: HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE

Weber: at end of her life: shut out of studios: men had taken over: Hollywood: now big business:

died alone & penniless: Weber's good friend writer Frances Marion: paid for her funeral:

Marion: 1st woman to win Oscar for writing screenplay: 1930: THE BIG HOUSE

1 of many women forced out of studios when men / big business took over