Reel Streaming: The Not-So-Silent Scream ~ The Early Days of Abortion in Film
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 90
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
From its earliest years, the popular cinema has shaped the public’s understanding and perceptions about abortion, and that will no doubt continue now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned by the Supreme Court.
Although the landmark 1973 legal decision was on the books for nearly 50 years, there have continued to be restrictions placed on segments of the population when it comes to obtaining abortions—young women, poor women, and women of color, in particular. The recent American dramas Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), Unpregnant (2020) and Saint Frances (2019), all depict less affluent protagonists coming up against obstacles when seeking to get abortions. And those are only three films from the past couple of years—there isn’t time or space to cover the numerous television shows and streaming productions that are out there on the subject.
While the cinema of the past half-century has often tackled abortion within a wide range of genres—consider the satire Citizen Ruth (1996), the romantic comedy Obvious Child (2014) and the French thriller Happening (2021), to name a few—it’s the movies from the earliest days prior to Roe v. Wade that painted portraits of abortion that are probably the most terrifying. I’m referring to the early decades of commercial cinema and the first years of the Motion Picture Production Code, the infamous self-censorship set of “moral guidelines” that was adopted in 1930 and strongly enforced by the industry from 1934 through the mid-1950s.
The Code (also known as The Hays Code after Will Hays, the then-president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America trade association) regulated how sex, crime, religion, drugs, alcohol, obscenity and a number of other topics should be portrayed in the movies. On the subject of abortion, the Code stated that it was “not a proper subject for theatrical motion pictures.” Later on, in 1956, the amended Code stated, "The subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned. It must never be treated lightly, or made the subject of comedy. Abortion shall never be shown explicitly or by inference, and a story must not indicate that an abortion has been performed, the word 'abortion' shall not be used.” (Though the Code was only enforced through the mid-1950s, it dragged on until 1968, when it was replaced with the MPAA rating system that it still in place more than 50 years later.)
The Code was largely created by Catholic layman Martin Quigley, editor of the high-profile trade publication Motion Picture Herald, and the Jesuit priest father Daniel E. Lord, and overseen by PR veteran Joseph I. Breen, a prominent Catholic layman. But even before the rigid Code went into effect, there were a number of films, mostly made by the low-budget, independent B-movie studios of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” sector, that came out blazing regarding the issue of abortion. The first of these was the 1916 silent drama Where Are My Children?
Where Are My Children? was co-written and co-directed by Lois Weber, one of the era’s most prolific actresses and filmmakers, along with her husband Phillips Smalley. Along with D.W. Griffith, Weber was known as one of the country’s first auteur filmmakers in that she was involved in all aspects of production along with injecting her own personal ideas and philosophy into her material, much of which concerned the social issues of the day.
The film revolves around a district attorney (Tyrone Power, Sr.) prosecuting a progressive a physician who wants to teach the poor about birth control and who has been arrested for distributing “indecent” literature on birth control. The attorney is also involved in the case of a doctor who performs illegal abortions, and he learns that a number of society people, including his socialite wife Edith (portrayed by Power’s real-life wife Helen Riaume), have used the doctor’s services for their own illegal abortions
Inspired by the 1914 obscenity case of birth-control activist and sex educator Margaret Sanger, the film contains discussions in defense of eugenics while taking a firm stance against abortion, particularly for those upscale citizens who would produce “perfect” children. It suggests that abortion is inherently harmful to those who have one, both physically and mentally. The film ends with the diagnosis that the district attorney’s wife, who was secretly obtaining abortions so that pregnancy and children wouldn’t interfere with her lifestyle, can no longer have children because her body has been damaged by her choices. And as the years pass, the couple must contend with a lonely childless life filled with longing for the family they might have had.
Filmmakers Weber and Smalley returned to the subject again a year later with 1917’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which follows the life of a doctor’s wife, a birth-control advocate, who campaigns for sex education and careful family planning, leading to her arrest.
Now classified as a “lost film,” this unofficial sequel to Where Are My Children? echoed Weber’s anti-abortion opinions on the issue. But it floundered commercially, unlike its predecessor, which was widely viewed across the country and decades later selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1993 or being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
And I think that warrants another “Oy.”
Then there’s 1928’s sensationalistic The Road to Ruin, made toward the end of the silent era, and then remade as a sound picture in 1934. It was based on a story by Willis Kent, a prolific, low-budget filmmaker who went on also to produce the 1934 version, followed by a slew of other exploitation titles including Cocaine Fiends (1935) and Mad Youth (1940).
Both films follow the tragic trajectory of a teenage girl—named Sally in the 1928 version; Ann in 1934), whose life is led astray by drugs and sex and then destroyed by an illegal abortion. The preaching is none-too-subtle, with the biblical quote “The wages of sin is death” flickering in flames above Sally’s bed in the 1928 rendition.
It was around the time of the release of the second version of The Road to Ruin that the Motion Picture Production Code kicked in. Though the film was boycotted by the Catholic Church in some cities, it was cleared by local censors after some cuts. Like many exploitation titles from early indie filmmakers, it fed the public’s prurient appetite for taboo topics if it were packaged with a lesson of morality and a warning on such societal issues as drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, birth control and abortion.
A clear tone was set in these early films that tackled the issue of abortion, women who had abortions would generally go on to have unhappy endings, whereas those who considered getting abortions and then decided against them had more positive outcomes.
As the Hollywood studios and independent sector produced their content under the eye of the Code for the next two decades, moviegoers and, later, TV watchers, became more sophisticated and began to grasp how the personal views of content creators permeated their popular entertainments. And though they may have been unaware of it at first—and some might still be—the words and images and their accompanying power that viewers absorbed could and would shape their opinions and linger.
As for me, my first brush with the issue came with seeing Robert Mulligan’s 1963 drama-romance Love with the Proper Stranger as a young teenager in the mid-1970s. A disturbing scene at the midway point depicts Macy’s salesgirl Natalie Wood’s attempt to get a dangerous backroom abortion after learning she’s pregnant following a one-night stand with musician Steve McQueen.
It was an unnerving sequence that stuck with me for years, even as I reasoned that there must be other ways to cope with situations that arise with people who are just trying to live their lives. Other ways. Safe ways. Legal ways.
Love with the Proper Stranger put the image in my mind and in my case, it helped me begin formulating my own opinion on the issue.
But I also began to realize that a movie can never tell you the whole story. Neither can a strongly worded article or a heated debate with a loved one or an emotional story regarding a friend of a friend.
They can inform you, yes, but the decision is all yours.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.