Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she highlights the historical value of Lois Weber’s Where Are My Children?

Few filmmakers knew how to make silent films about women as well as Lois Weber. Social topics barred from most feature films were never off-limits for Weber, who came to fame thanks to her scandalous political films of the 1910s. Weber’s films were revolutionary for their time, and even now they depict historical events like the birth control movement and the complicated ideas that came with them in rare moving image form.

Thanks to Weber’s insistence on bringing tough realities into narrative film, we can see how women viewed the subject of birth control and abortion more than one hundred years ago in Where Are My Children? (1916). Weber fictionalizes Margaret Sanger‘s landmark obscenity case in an emotional story that is still fascinating to watch today. One of her first social issue films, Where Are My Children? kickstarted a career centered around crafting remarkable films about women’s issues, even if those issues are thought of differently today.

Co-written and co-directed by Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley, Where Are My Children? is not shy about its political stance on birth control. The film begins with a statement onscreen stating the importance of discussing birth control and Universal’s support of depicting the subject in a drama film. While the studio and filmmakers note the necessity of adults having access to this film, it does not condone unsupervised children being subjected to the topic of birth control. The choice to begin the movie with a stark declaration of intent gives viewers a clear indication of what they’re in for, which was something audiences in 1916 had yet to experience.

The film then enters Heaven’s gates, where a golden hue tints the angelic images of clouds and angels. The intertitle cards tell us that unborn children reside here until they are either born on Earth, often unwanted, or they’re sent back to Heaven, hinting at abortions. Immediately, this is much different than most movies we watch today that deal with abortion or birth control, but the religious perspective on reproduction was the perspective many people understood in 1916. Weber knew this and recognized the effect it would have on capturing its audience. To modern viewers watching today, it’s the first of several signs of this film’s age, but also of the historical value of the film, too.

Where Are My Children Prologue

The main plot of Where Are My Children? centers around District Attorney Richard Walton, played by Tyrone Power, Sr., and his wife, Mrs. Walton. They live a lavish life but lack the one thing Mr. Walton longs for: a family. His wife cannot have children and so he soaks up time with his nieces and nephews to fill the void. Mrs. Walton is a socialite and liaison between her high-class friends who need abortions and the one doctor she knows will perform them in secret. What she isn’t telling her husband is that she is capable of having children but isn’t ready to be a mother yet and has had several abortions herself.

One of the events that impact the Waltons is a case that Mr. Walton takes on involving a Dr. Malfit, who has been charged with obscenity for distributing pamphlets on the new idea of birth control. This is a direct reference to Margaret Sanger, who coined the term birth control and was charged with obscenity two years earlier in 1914. Sanger, like Dr. Malfit in the film, spent time as a nurse in the poorer neighborhoods of the Lower East Side of New York City. There, she witnessed similar scenes depicted in the film, including worn-down mothers with more children than they can feed. The overcrowding and lack of sexual education in poorer neighborhoods led Sanger to advocate for efforts of preventing pregnancy before the need for abortion.

Many adults did not understand how to prevent pregnancy on their own, since the topic of sex was far too foul a topic to discuss openly. This is what led Sanger to distribute several magazines and pamphlets on the subject, including one in 1914 titled Family Limitation. This is also what led to her being indicted for obscenity. However, she did not plead her case in court like Dr. Malfit does in the movie. Instead, she fled to England, where she hid out and educated herself on European birth control methods until the charges against her were dropped.

The Dr. Malfit case takes up a small portion of Where Are My Children?, but its role in the film and in representing the birth control movement as a whole is very important. Sanger is a figure with a complicated legacy as we look back at what she believed in during the years she advocated for birth control and eventually founded the first Planned Parenthood. She, like many scientists and doctors at the time, supported the concept of eugenics as a viable reason for birth control within the United States.

Eugenics is most notably connected with the torture and genocide perpetrated by Nazis during World War II, but before that, many prominent Americans advocated for some kind of “selective breeding.” Even before the Nazis, eugenics was grounded in prejudice and racist ideals that viewed poor families, disabled adults, or people of color as lesser choices for parents. Since the invention of birth control by Sanger and the Nazi’s eugenics “experiments,” the beliefs that backed eugenics have been discredited. However, it’s important to consider when we remember the birth control movement and first-wave feminism of the early 20th century.

Eugenics bleeds into Dr. Malfit’s case in Where Are My Children?, especially in the dramatized scenes of the doctor working with poorer families before his arrest. The people he takes care of are either helpless or drunks who are deemed unfit for parenthood. Many…


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