Women’s suffrage movie ‘Mothers of Men’: Will women’s right to vote lead to the destruction of The American Family?
Directed by and featuring the now all but forgotten Willis Robards, Mothers of Men – about women’s suffrage and political power – was a fast-paced, 64-minute buried treasure screened at the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, held June 2–5. I thoroughly enjoyed being taken back in time by this 1917 socially conscious drama that dares to ask the question: “What will happen to the nation if all women have the right to vote?”
One newspaper editor insists that women’s suffrage would mean the destruction of The Family. Women, after all, just did not have the capacity for making objective decisions due to their emotional composition. It takes just one woman to prove that notion false.
Clara Madison (Dorothy Davenport*) is a lawyer who manages to be elected Superior Court Judge with the support of The Woman’s Party, as well as that of her lawyer husband, Grant Williams (Willis Robards), who is all for women’s rights. Clara shows herself to be tough on crime and even tougher on the bootleggers who later seek revenge on her.
‘Crafty Italians’ & a woman’s dilemma
The anti-women’s suffrage revenge consists of a plan to frame Clara’s husband for the murder of the town’s anti-suffragette newspaper editor. These “crafty Italians” (as the title card reads) firebomb the newspaper office while they are in the company of Clara’s husband. The editor is killed, but they are all caught and sentenced to death by hanging.
By this time, Clara has been elected State Governor. She is now in the position either to pardon her husband and accept the consequences of being a sentimental woman incapable of making objective decisions, or allow him to be executed.
What to do? Oh, what to do?
Willis Robards tells his story with admirable speed, 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.
According to online sources, in 1921 – the year after women gained the right to vote in the United States – Mothers of Men was rereleased as Every Woman’s Problem.
Dorothy Davenport: From women’s suffrage to ‘Human Wreckage’
* By 1917, Dorothy Davenport – daughter of stage and film performers Harry Davenport and Alice Davenport – was already a movie veteran, with more than 100 titles, mostly shorts, to her credit.
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 Jan. 1923 while undergoing treatment for his morphine addiction. Reid and Davenport had been married since Oct. 1913.
Also worth noting, Mothers of Men screenwriter, Hal Reid, was Wallace Reid’s father.
Mothers of Men / Every Woman’s Problem (1917)
Director: Willis Robards.
Screenplay: Hal Reid.
Cast: Dorothy Davenport. Willis Robards. Hal Reid. Mrs. Hal Reid (a.k.a. Bertha Westbrook). Katherine Griffith. Arthur Tavares.
‘The Strongest’: Action-less Man vs. Nature action drama
According to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival program guide, Alf Sjöberg and Axel Lindblom’s The Strongest / Den starkaste (1929) was one of the last silent films made in Sweden. I looked forward to an exciting action adventure, but came away disappointed.
It was not the filmmaking that failed to arouse my interest. Sjöberg’s direction – his career (Torment, Miss Julie) would stretch all the way to the late 1960s – was on target, eliciting the right emotions from the actors and telling the story through a series of well-framed scenes.
Each shot was meticulously composed, while the work of co-director/cinematographer Axel Lindblom contained breathtaking views of the Arctic region, filmed on location. In fact, the contrast between idyllic farm house and the bleak, desolate landscape of the Arctic Sea was impressive.
What I found tedious was The Strongest‘s snail-paced action.
Rooting for the hunted
Admittedly, I am not one who can empathize with hardship and deprivation that are freely chosen by the subjects. I respond better to more spontaneous and accidental encounters with the awesome power of nature. So this adventure had me at a disadvantage.
There is also a love story in the mix. The sea captain (Hjalmar Peters) and his lovely daughter (Gun Holmqvist) have a fairly pleasant life on their rural farm. The work is hard, but the family seems well suited to it.
Along come two suitors (Anders Henrikson and Bengt Djurberg) who compete for the lovely lady by accompanying her father aboard The Viking to hunt seals and polar bears. The animal lover in me, however, overcame my objectivity, as I rooted for the bears and seals all the way.
The live music accompaniment by The Matti Bye Ensemble made a perfect fit.
The Strongest / Den starkaste (1929)
Dir. & Scr.: Alf Sjöberg and Axel Lindblom.
Cast: Hjalmar Peters. Anders Henrikson. Bengt Djurberg. Gun Holmqvist. Gösta Gustafson. Kare Pederson. Maria Röhr. Sivert Brækemo.
Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema
Tinting, toning, hand-coloring, and stencil color are terms that hardly apply to films today. But in the earliest part of the 20th century they were frequently used for some glorious effects in the pre-Technicolor world. Mostly applied to short films or scenes requiring a fantasy element, hand-colored movies were a popular novelty that stretched back to the 1890s.
Of course, it was not a perfected technology and it never pretended to represent the true pallet of colors and hues. It was the effect that mattered.
The 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival program presented 15 marvelous examples of this particular genre. As I have a great fondness for this technique, I found this collection from Amsterdam’s EYE Film Institute the most exciting of all the films I saw at the festival. The selection was of special importance to me, as I had previously seen only one in the series.
Georges Méliès vs. Segundo de Chomón
Curiously, there were no Georges Méliès films included. On the other hand, there were several excellent examples by Segundo de Chomón, whom I often get confused with Méliès. But I’m not the only one who gets mixed up. The program guide confused de Chomón with director Gaston Velle for La Peine du Talion / Tit-for-Tat (1906), a humorous look at butterflies getting revenge against an entomologist on a hunt for specimens.
It all amounted to a satisfying experience in a garish fantasy world far, far away. The ever capable Donald Sosin provided the musical accompaniment.
‘Amazing Tales from the Archives’: Crash course in film processing
This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s presentation of “Amazing Tales from the Archives” was a crash course in film processing. For instance, preparing film for usage, perforating the strips around the edges, printing onto positive stock, editing, and delivering the final product to theaters.
We also get to see an “actuality film” of people arriving for work at the studio by train, and then thousands of hopeful applicants showing up for various screen tests. But my favorite clip was a publicity short featuring American actor Jackie Coogan (the titular star of Charles Chaplin’s The Kid) making a special appearance at a British studio in the 1920s.
‘The Last Warning’ and ‘Napoleon’ restorations
The Second Program was a brief introduction by Universal Studios regarding their restoration of Paul Leni’s The Last Warning, which was also screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The 1929 mystery thriller featured the studio’s top female star, Laura La Plante, in addition to John Boles (Frankenstein) and Margaret Livingston (Sunrise).
The Third Program was a lengthy discussion with Cinémathèque Française representative Georges Mourier, who went into great detail describing the ongoing restoration effort on Abel Gance’s 1927 release Napoleon which resulted in the audience filing out of the theater humming “La Marseillaise.”
San Francisco Silent Film Festival: From Pola Negri to Fritz Lang
Besides the women’s suffrage drama Mothers of Men, the men vs. nature actioner of sorts The Strongest, and the thriller The Last Warning, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival also screened a number of other titles, notably:
- A Woman of the World (1925).
Director: Malcolm St. Clair.
Cast: Pola Negri. Charles Emmett Mack. Holmes Herbert.
- Behind the Door (1919).
Director: Irvin Willat.
Cast: Hobart Bosworth. Jane Novak. Wallace Beery.
- Destiny / Der müde Tod (1921).
Director: Fritz Lang.
Cast: Lil Dagover. Walter Janssen. Bernhard Goetzke.
- Two Timid Souls / Les deux timides (1928).
Director: René Clair.
Cast: Pierre Batcheff. Jim Gérald. Véra Flory.
- Beggars of Life (1928).
Director: William A. Wellman.
Cast: Wallace Beery. Richard Arlen. Louise Brooks.
- When the Clouds Roll By (1919).
Director: Victor Fleming.
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks. Albert MacQuarrie. Kathleen Clifford.
Image of Segundo de Chomón’s The Tulips / Les tulipes, screened at the “Fantasy of Color in Early Cinema” presentation: Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Image of Georges Mourier at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation “Amazing Tales from the Archives”: Caroline Espeut / SFSFF.
Laura La Plante The Last Warning image: Universal Pictures, via the SFSFF.
Image of Dorothy Davenport in the women’s suffrage movie Mothers of Men: SFSFF / British Film Institute.
Image of Hjalmar Peters, Anders Henrikson, and Bengt Djurberg in Alf Sjöberg and Axel Lindblom’s The Strongest: Courtesy of the SFSFF.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.