- Mothers of Men (1917) movie review: Starring popular silent era leading lady (and later director) Dorothy Davenport and written by her father-in-law, playwright Hal Reid, this curious socially conscious drama tackles the issue of women’s suffrage in the United States. Are females too emotional to be politically objective?
Women’s suffrage movie Mothers of Men poses the then pressing question: Can American society survive the onslaught of female political power?
Directed by and featuring the all but forgotten Willis Robards, the 1917 socially conscious drama Mothers of Men – about the issues of women’s suffrage and political power in the United States – is a fast-paced treasure that was unearthed at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
I thoroughly enjoyed being taken back in time by a movie that dares to ask the question: “What will happen to the nation if all women gain the right to vote?”
One newspaper editor insists that women’s suffrage would mean the destruction of The Family. Besides, women do not have the capacity to make objective decisions due to their emotional composition.
It takes just one female to prove that notion false.
Clara Madison (Dorothy Davenport) is a lawyer who manages to be elected Superior Court Judge with the support of both The Woman’s Party and of her lawyer husband (Willis Robards), who is all for women’s rights.
Following her appointment, Judge Madison shows herself to be tough on crime and even tougher on the bootleggers who later seek revenge on her. There’s more: Those against women’s suffrage plan on framing the judge’s husband for the murder of the town’s anti-suffragette newspaper editor.
Here’s how: While in the company of the husband, “crafty Italians” (as the title card reads) firebomb that particular newspaper office, killing the editor. After getting caught, they’re all sentenced to death by hanging.
A woman’s dilemma
By this time, Judge Madison has been elected state governor. She is now in the position to either pardon her husband – and accept the consequences of being a sentimental woman incapable of making objective decisions – or allow him to be executed.
Oh, what to do?
Could those “crafty Italians” provide a solution to the women’s suffrage dilemma?
Willis Robards tells his story at an admirable pace, making this suspenseful – and now historical – drama a pleasure to watch. Adding to the remarkable experience was the musical accompaniment by the ever brilliant Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Mothers of Men (1917)
Director: Willis Robards.
Screenplay: Hal Reid.
Cast: Dorothy Davenport. Willis Robards. Hal Reid. Mrs. Hal Reid (a.k.a. Bertha Westbrook). Katherine Griffith. Wilson Du Bois.
“Women’s Suffrage Movie Defends Female Right to Vote” notes
Every Woman’s Problem
 As found in the AFI Catalog, in 1921 – the year after women gained the right to vote in the United States – a five-reel (approx. 50-minute) version of Mothers of Men was released as Every Woman’s Problem. One key difference in the credits was the addition of Jack Natteford as scenarist, adapting Hal Reid’s screen story.
As for the title change, that may be explained by a 1920 release also named Mothers of Men. Directed by Edward José, and featuring Claire Whitney, Gaston Glass, and Martha Mansfield, this other Mothers of Men was a World War I-set mix of wholesome romance, out-of-wedlock copulation, and espionage intrigue.
Mrs. Wallace Reid
Beginning with the 1923 drug addiction drama Human Wreckage, Davenport also became a sporadic film director, generally of sensational/socially conscious dramas. By then a widow, she was usually billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid.
One of the top movie stars of the era, Wallace Reid (The Valley of the Giants, The Affairs of Anatol) died at age 31 in January 1923 while undergoing treatment for morphine addiction. Reid and Davenport had been married since October 1913.
“Women’s Suffrage Movie Mothers of Men Review” endnotes
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.
Dorothy Davenport Mothers of Men movie image: SFSFF | British Film Institute.
“Women’s Suffrage Movie Mothers of Men Defends Female Right to Vote” last updated in October 2021.