Where Are My Children: Crash Course Film Criticism #4

Where Are My Children: Crash Course Film Criticism #4

They make movies about all kinds of things
these days. From superheroes saving the universe and women
of color using math to win the space race, to the brutal horror of something like The
Human Centipede. Ew. But there are some topics that filmmakers
shy away from, even today. While movies can take bold stands on controversial
issues, they usually root stories in safer territory. In fact, back in the 1910s in the heart of
Hollywood, a director named Lois Weber found a lot of success making films about the most
pressing social issues of her time. And one of her signature films is a drama
from 1916 that took on one of the most contentious subjects in American life: abortion. [intro music plays] Lois Weber was kind of an anomaly in the early days of Hollywood. She was an extremely successful filmmaker
in an industry that’s dominated by men. Weber began her film career in the transitional
period of cinema history, around 1907 to 1913, when mainstream movies started to look like
movies today. They were feature-length fictional narratives,
told with traditional film grammar, and supported by a star system. A big name associated with the time is D.W. Griffith, who used sophisticated tools of
film grammar – things like close-ups, cross-cutting, and subtle performances – to involve audiences
in the emotions of his characters. Collaborating with her husband Phillips Smalley,
Lois Weber made a series of wildly successful films that also experimented with film grammar
to engage people. She pioneered some unusual techniques, from
split screens to superimpositions. She was one of the first filmmakers to experiment
with synchronous sound. And she was the first female director to own
her own film studio. Not only that, but all of her early films
tackled hot button issues more directly than the work of most of her peers. With titles like Shoes, The People vs. John
Doe, and The Devil’s Brew, she took on subjects like child labor, capital punishment, and
temperance. In 1917, she made a film called Is a Woman
a Person? – released as The Hand the Rocks the Cradle. It was about Margaret Sanger’s real-life
arrest for spreading information about birth control. Weber was quoted at the time saying, “My
close study of the editorial page has taught me that … its effect is far reaching upon
thousands of readers. I feel that, like them, I can … also deliver
a message to the world … that will receive a ready and cheerful response from the better
element of the big general public.” One reason she was able to grapple with these
social issues so directly is that she was making her films before 1930. That’s when Hollywood instituted the Motion
Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, which we covered in Crash Course
Film History with Craig. Besides prohibiting things like nudity, sex,
violence, and drug use, the Hays Code said that films couldn’t directly address controversial
issues. Filmmakers had to rely on subtext and innuendo
instead. So Lois Weber’s films can be kind of startling
for us to watch nowadays. We’re used to old, black-and-white movies
feeling restrained or stuffy – not confronting social issues that are still relevant even
today. And one of the best examples of her work comes
from 1916. Where Are My Children dives straight into
the controversial topic of abortion. The film combines Weber’s sophisticated
grasp of cinema, her deep desire to explore social issues, and her sometimes flawed point
of view. There are a couple ways to dissect Where Are
My Children, and first we’re going to look at it through a historical lens – in terms
of social issues as well as filmic techniques. Where Are My Children tells the story of a
District Attorney named Richard Walton, played by the imposing Tyrone Power, Sr., and his
wife, known only as Mrs. Walton, played by Helen Riaume. The couple is childless, and the film goes
to great lengths to show how much Mr. Walton wants kids. We see him looking wistful, enjoying the neighborhood
children, and fawning over his sister’s baby. Mrs. Walton, we discover, would rather play
with her puppy and hang out with other high society women than raise children. When one of Mrs. Walton’s friends confides
in her that she’s pregnant, Mrs. Walton brings her to Dr. Malfit, a physician who
has performed abortions for Mrs. Walton and many of her friends. Also… Dr. Malfit? Coulda just named him Dr. Bad Guy or Dr. Evil. But, whatever… As the film progresses, Mrs. Walton has a
change of heart and decides that she is ready to start a family. And then, we’re told that her history of
abortions has left her unable to bear children. Meanwhile, her lecherous brother comes to
visit and seduces her housekeeper’s young daughter, leaving her pregnant. The young woman seeks help from Mrs. Walton,
who sends the girl to Dr. Malfit. This time, the procedure goes badly and the
young woman dies. Enraged, Mr. Walton attacks his brother-in-law
and prosecutes Dr. Malfit, who is sentenced to fifteen years hard labor. Before the doctor is taken away, he warns
Mr. Walton to examine his own family before he starts casting blame. In the doctor’s ledger, Mr. Walton discovers
his wife’s name, along with many of her friends. He confronts them and accuses his wife of
murder. In the film’s final moments, we see the
Waltons sitting by the fire, visited by the spirits of the children they never had. It’s a remarkable effect that keeps unfolding,
as the Waltons grow old before our eyes and their now-grown children fade into and out
of the shot one last time. Not exactly a happy ending! Now, this film grapples with tough ideas like
reproductive rights, which isn’t an easy conversation to have. But if you look closely at what the movie’s
trying to say, what at first seems like a progressive stance ends up being a bit self-contradictory. Early in the film, Mr. Walton somewhat reluctantly
prosecutes a man for distributing pro-birth-control literature, which at the time was illegal. During the man’s testimony, we flash back
to his work with the poor, their homes full of disease, domestic abuse, and even suicide. The defendant argues that if these women had
access to birth control, there would be less suffering in their communities. When the jury, which is clearly made up of
only men, vote to convict the defendant, Mr. Walton seems troubled by the verdict. So at face value, Where Are My Children seems
to be advocating for more access to birth control, or at the very least more access
to information about birth control. However, its argument is based on a notion
that we now recognize as deeply flawed: eugenics. Eugenics was a pseudo-science that was popular
in the early 20th century. Essentially, it’s the idea that controlling
which humans can have babies could increase so-called “desirable” genetic and behavioral
traits across a population. It was an incredibly racist and classist movement. Proponents of eugenics like Karl Pearson of
the University of London argued that the relatively high birth rate among the poor was a threat
to civilization. Taken to its logical extreme, eugenics was
practiced by the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s, paving the way for the Holocaust. And while Weber’s film does argue for
access to birth control for poor women, the wealthy women are punished for seeking
abortions. They’re subjected to Mr. Walton’s fury,
Mrs. Walton can’t have children anymore, and the housekeeper’s daughter dies. In general, the film portrays the women of
the elite class as selfish and irresponsible,basically shaming them for not wanting to be mothers. That’s reinforced by Mr. Walton, who’s
presented as a noble and ultimately tragic figure because he never gets the family he
wanted. So while it’s cool that this film directed
by a woman grapples boldly with controversial subject matter, it’s important to recognize
that it also falls victim to some grave misconceptions and prejudices of the time. We can think critically about this film as
a sort of cultural time capsule because of our current understanding and discussions
of these complicated ideas. But we can also evaluate this film from a
technical point of view. And through that lens, it’s a remarkably
sophisticated work, for being made just twenty-one years after the birth of movies. At key moments throughout the film, Weber
uses close-ups to great effect. Remember that camera technique and language
was still being developed alongside actors’ performances. When the housekeeper’s daughter realizes
she’s pregnant, Weber cuts to a closer shot to register her conflicted emotions. Or when Dr. Malfit is sentenced to hard labor,
we get a close-up to see his desperation. And that moment leads to Weber’s most
sophisticated use of dramatic irony, which was also pretty new to cinema in 1916. Dramatic Irony is where the audience understands the
full significance of a moment or action, but the characters in the story don’t yet. After Mr. Walton has read Dr. Malfit’s ledger
and found the names of his wife and her friends, he returns home to confront them but doesn’t
speak right away. We know what’s about to go down, but Mrs.
Walton and her partying friends don’t. And that suspense makes the eruption of anger
that much more effective. Now, other filmmakers at that time were good
at special effects, and Weber had skills too. The film opens with a title card announcing:
“the great portals of Eternity,” followed by a special effects shot of a huge gate opening
to reveal pillars, angels, and celestial clouds. She’s using forced perspective, superimpositions,
and smoke to create an impressive, heavenly effect. But Weber also used special effects to get
us to feel for the characters. She found ways to trick our eye and affect
our heart. Twice when characters discover they’re pregnant,
Weber superimposes a little cherub into the shot, as though an angelic unborn soul is
whispering to the would-be mother. It’s an impressive way to give us important
plot information, especially in a silent film. But this also helps us empathize with the
characters’ conflicted emotions. And the final shot of the film, where the
aging Waltons are visited by the spirits of the children they never had, is undeniably
moving. No matter how you feel about how the filmmakers
portrayed the characters and the idea of abortion, this shifting image illustrates the pain and
regret that can come with thinking about roads not taken. So Where Are My Children is a landmark achievement,
representing a director at the height of her power, combining technical mastery with a
deep understanding of complex human emotions. And it’s Lois Weber’s time capsule that
tackles a social issue so controversial that most modern mainstream filmmakers hesitate
to touch it today. Next time, we’ll travel across the globe
and ahead in time to an equally heartbreaking story of social taboos and unrequited love
from a contemporary master of cinema: In The Mood for Love, directed by Wong Kar-wai. Crash Course Film Criticism is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel and check out a playlist of their latest shows, like PBS Infinite Series, PBS Space Time, and Origin of Everything. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in
the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these nice people and our
amazing graphics team is Thought Cafe.

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  1. The topic of abortion and birth control is most likely going to come up in these comments, so let's all be civil and nice to each other, especially when you don't agree with the person.

    Wait, nevermind…

  2. This guy sucks!!! Why do we have to watch criticism of All the film's he likes. His choices are awful. What about Casablanca.

  3. how is eugenics a pseudo-science though? deciding who gets to breed or not DOES in fact mean you get the positive/negative traits you want. just look at how we made hundreds of specialized dog breeds from maybe 3 or 4 species of canine. (i believe dogs have ancestors from wolves, coyotes and a few others IIRC)

    if selective breeding would work in dogs, is there any reason to think doing it long enough in humans would not produce similar effects?

  4. I thought this was about all of the kidnapped Yemeni babies by the Israeli government. Israel still hasn't come clean on this.

  5. this was a very fascinating video would have loved to see that movie though very conflicting indeed but also relevant today

  6. As a content creator that spends hours trying to make videos, I always have a deep level of appreciate for channels like these that always provide quality content.

  7. I loved this so much and I can't wait to watch more Crash Course Theater …but I wish they would make it like film and make it 3 parts so we can also have production (though I know it's more complex)

  8. The viewpoint, showed in this movie from a century ago, is still prevalent. Women are still shamed for not willing to fulfill what are traditionally seen as their "womanly duties" (getting married, bearing children, being the primary caretaker of the said children, etc.). Abortion remains as controversial as ever and even birth control comes constanlty under threat. Nothing has changed.

  9. I really want to watch this now, I want to judge the film's arguments for myself -this video felt biased AF at points.

  10. I don’t really see how being for birth control and against abortion is considered a contradiction. While some people are against both, most pro-lifers are okay with birth control.

  11. But, if Mrs. Walton had been using birth control, she would not have been rendered infertile. The film can be read as anti-abortion and pro birth control.

  12. I don't believe this story is about eugenics. I think Weber chooses to show the counter-argument, the benefits of abortion, before showing her true opinion, that abortion is self-destructive and removes a god-sent gift.

  13. I do feel like people unfamiliar with the popularity of eugenics at the time of this movie won't see the connection. This is something that requires a more detailed explanation in order to do it justice. Also, just because the movie parallels the central assumptions of eugenics, that does not mean it is necessarily about them. If anything it is more an indication that it is a product of its times, influenced by yet a distinct thing.

  14. >roastie finally ready to have a family
    >killed one too many of her own unborn babies
    >becomes infertile
    >dies childless with regret

    Yeah, the reason this film wouldn't even get played in a university course is because it's a warning AGAINST abortions

  15. Mrs. Walton would’ve bought the housekeeper’s baby, like rich people used to do. The fact that the baby was already related is ideal.

  16. Another interesting and relevant woman director is Alice Guy. She made "The Consequences of Feminism", very funny and still pretty actual too.

  17. HEYY GUYSS! could anyone help me to reach 900 subscribers on my channel i really appreciate to those people who particpate to reach my GOAL✔ thanks it means a lot!!😄😁

  18. when bringing up eugenics, why was there no mention of Margaret Sanger? she was an OUTSPOKEN proponent of eugenics, ESPECIALLY in regards to Black people.

  19. I'm trying to find these people who care so much that women aren't having children. I've never met one in real life.

  20. I quite enjoy Crash Course, but the writers tend to fall often in the mentality of privileged elistist coastal liberals, because the ideology they try to spread obviosuly comes from those bubbles, they don’t understand how how underprivileged people think, they simply consider their opinions as wrong because they are uneducated…that’s very bigoted.

    Example, it’s very clear when they strawmen different opinions, such as being pro-birth control is contradictory to being against abortion…it really isn’t. It’s a nuanced opinion, something CC seems to see as inherently wrong for some reason because it’s currentYear.

    Nuance is what makes this topic controversial, not others being inherently wrong. If you see the opinions of others as wrong because of their time, you are not open-minded, you are just parroting what you were taught to think.

  21. So because it shows that abortion is painful and has a profound and negative affect on people the film is relegated to a "time-capsule showing the prejudices of the time"? I'm pro-choice but you can't say that because it shows the negative aspects of abortions and doesn't completely affirm your opinion it is wrong or outdated.

  22. Abortions were also really dangerous back then though because most of the doctors that performed them werent at all qualified to do so

  23. Hold on a sec.

    How is arguing that the poor should have access to birth control "eugenics"? Shouldn't women of any demographic have control of their body? Or are you insinuating that the husband thinks the poor should not have children but his rich wife should? As opposed to him believing in life beginning at conception? Can't you be a proponent of birth control and against abortion? SHOULDN'T you be (if you are against abortion)? After all, the best way to prevent abortions is to prevent unwanted pregnancy to begin with.

    I think this argument fails in that we never see the wife attempt to use birth control to prevent pregnancy to see her husband's reaction.

  24. "Pro-Birth Control" and "Anti-Abortion" are not contradictory positions. Also, advocating birth control access for the poor is not intrinsically about eugenics. I can see where you make the connection, though.

  25. I’ve never seen the movie, and am going just on what I’m seeing here, but maybe the movie is pro birth control because it is the choice of the women in bad situations. And going against abortion because #1 they should have used birth control (in whatever form there was at the time), or #2 the abortions were done behind the father’s back when he wanted to have children. Maybe that needs to be a conversation between the couple before a baby is made. But who knows how a conversation would have gone back then…….

  26. It sounds like Weber may have seen, as many do even today, a clear distinction between birth control that prevents pregnancy and abortion, which terminates pregnancy. 
    Whether one agrees with the significance of that distinction or not, to ignore it–as the narration of this video did–seems kind of … blind.

  27. She took her artwork seriously, Art is meant to be controversial, to make us think. I’ll definitely go watch this move, but where can I find it?

  28. Hum, representing it as a time when people were pro-birth control for the poor, and against abortion for the well-off. And… a current day U.S. where having an abortion costs only a tenth of the cost of giving birth, so that only the very well-off can afford to comfortably have a child in hospital, is different how exactly?

  29. eugenics is not a pseudo science, it just may seem like one to a modern liberal film student, but it has well established scientific credentials, its just dangerous to practice when it comes to humans because of our biases, however we practice selective breeding with every other animal with very obvious and easy to see results, and since scientifically humans are animals, apes to be precise, we in theory could do the same thing with people

  30. eugenics is still practiced now thats why we have the HPV vaccine

    thx for this ha bisky vid i enjoyed learning about this movie i didnt even know existed

  31. Why wasn't Margaret Sanger, who the story was largely based on, mentioned as the largest advocate for eugenics?

  32. Eugenics are real, I see complaints of "Why should we care?"; it is because the Government and Psychology are going to practice eugenics and decide who breeds. Eugenics was brought up by psychology with the premise that we are "born that way," and that our ability to know the difference in bad behavior is entirely in the breeding. Meaning, people with bad breeding cannot understand law, much less follow it, and do bad anyway, because it is always how you are born: This removes the conditions of sin, morality, and evil and blames a condition that is natural evil, where you have no self-control by breeding. This has been used to justify sterilization by psychology and done to hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, especially in pre-World War Two Germany, and this for anybody with a problem, because the problem is not sin of wrong-choices nor errors, where the problem is breeding and being low-bred. This is classic dehumanization, where being born wrong is the cause of your end.

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