|The Cry of the Children (1912) – Silent Short
Run time: 29min | Short, Drama
Director: George Nichols
Writers: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Stars: James Cruze
Based on the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, this is a powerful indictment of the use of children for hazardous and unhealthful work in factories that often resulted in their death and mutilation. It features some real footage of factory conditions, as well as a fictional story contrasting the home lives of workers and owners, and an attempted strike.
This is a powerful movie, made by angry filmmakers whose indignation over the injustice they depict still packs a punch many years after the film's initial release. Unlike many dramas of its era this one won't provoke any unintended laughter today, not even when the acting looks a bit primitive or, during the climax, when a character who is deceased reappears before her awed family in the form of an angel with white feathered wings. We regard these moments with the same solemnity they must have inspired when the film was new, for the issues addressed in The Cry of the Children are no laughing matter. This film is remembered primarily as a protest against the exploitation of children by greedy capitalists, but it is also an examination of the vast disparity between the quality of life enjoyed by the Haves and endured by the Have-nots in this country. The filmmakers do not promote any specific political agenda or solution, nor do they exhort the audience to organize, strike, or overthrow the bosses; they simply tell their tale and leave you, the viewer, to mull it over and draw your own conclusions. This strikes me as a far more effective way of reaching people than to preach the gospel of any particular "ism."
The Cry of the Children was produced by the Thanhouser Company of New Rochelle, New York, a studio in existence from 1909 to 1918, and it stands as the studio's best-known release. The story presents a stark contrast between the daily lives of a mill worker, his sickly wife and their three children– two of whom work in the factory –and the mill's wealthy owner and his pampered spouse. The worker and his family live in shabby rooms with no heating, where the children, two girls and one boy, share a single bed. There's no silverware, no china plates. When the mother coughs and clutches her chest her husband looks horrified. Does she have tuberculosis? (Forget about "health insurance" in 1912.) The family's only joy is little Alice, a curly-haired charmer who is the one member of the family not enslaved by factory work. Scenes at the mill, obviously filmed at a genuine mill and not in a studio, reveal workers who look hollow-eyed and exhausted. It's a jolt when we are suddenly introduced to the owner of this mill, seen in his home: it is luxurious, filled with overstuffed furniture and ornate fixtures. The owner and his wife are well-dressed and surrounded by servants who fuss over them and cater to their every need. Happenstance brings the mill owner's wife into contact with little Alice, and the lady is so charmed by the little girl she tries to adopt her. The worker and his family refuse to give up their daughter, even when the boss reaches for his wallet and offers them cash for their child. (And I can hear the audiences of those 1912 store-front theaters, hissing the rich couple and cheering when the working parents refuse his offer). But later, when the mill owner refuses to grant his employees a living wage, the workers go on strike and their living conditions worsen considerably. When life becomes intolerable little Alice goes to the mill owner's home and offers herself up for adoption.
I won't reveal the ending here but suffice to say it's not a cheery one. When The Cry of the Children reaches its finale you're likely to feel deflated and depressed; and then, as you think about what you've seen, you get angry. That was surely the producers' intention when they made this movie and their work, seen today, is still effective. Eventually, child labor laws were enacted that eliminated the conditions illustrated here, but the gross disparity between the lives of the working poor and the idle rich is essentially the same as ever, and just as unfair and outrageous. This old film can't be dismissed as a quaint historical artifact because it still provokes the viewer to think about this disparity, to wonder why we live like this and whether it's possible to change. Here's a film released the very month the Titanic sank that can still get your adrenalin pumping, all these years later.
Slow but powerful and earnest piece decrying child labor. As the factory owners live a life of ease and short takes, the workers — including children — suffer a life of hardship and long takes. Loom for future star director James Cruze — director of THE COVERED WAGON — who was a contract player for Thanhouser at this time.
This film could claim to be "ripped from the day's headlines" and the public were more than ready for some sensation. In 1911 the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire had killed more than 146 sweat shop workers, most of them under-age girls. This film seems to be a re-telling of a January 1912 incident in which 25,000 workers went on strike from the American Woollen Company. By February many of the workers including children began to starve and when the union tried to transport children to other towns to be fed, the police were called in and children and their parents were clubbed without mercy. Filmed a month after the strike, the images are startling with a camera placed right inside an actual mill so viewers could see actual child workers toiling on dangerous high speed looms.
The story is about a mill family with James Cruze, later an esteemed director, playing the father. They live in an unheated hovel but the whole family must toil in the mill. The exception is the littlest child, Alice (Marie Eline), their "ray of sunshine" – she is to be kept free from the hardship of the factory. One of Alice's chores is to fetch water from the stream and one day she is seen by the mill owner's wife who falls in love with the sheer joyousness of the child and offers to adopt her. Of course the family are horrified, Alice says no and the next title tells you everything you need to know about the wealthy factory owners – "A new pet replaces Alice in the wife's affections" – she now has a little dog!!
The factory workers strike for a living wage and the headlines say it all "children cry for bread", "starving people forced back to work" – the mother is now so sick, little Alice is forced to take her place at the mill. You even see Alice at work on a complicated piece of mill equipment with a title indicating this is now how her days are spent. This is such a powerful film and shows that Thanhouser was a film company that had much to say about topical subjects. The poetry may have been from Elizabeth Barrett Browning but it was woven into a very stark story. Little Alice now decides she will consent to be adopted to help her starving family, unfortunately she is no longer happy, sunny Alice but a dirty, starved little worker who has suddenly lost their appeal for the elegant wife who has her driven from the house. Grim stuff!!
There is no fairytale ending but even with Alice gone, her spirit gives her family a reason to hope, fight and carry on.
The Cry of the Children
*** (out of 4)
The Thanhouser company produced this thirty minute film about the rich and the poor. The setting is a factory where a husband labors to make sure his family is fed, although they are still very much poor. The factory owner's wife one day sees the poor man's young daughter and convinces the family to allow her to have a "better" life but tragedy soon happens.
THE CRY OF THE CHILDREN was directed by James Cruze who would eventually direct some of the most popular films of the 1920s and he also made a name as an actor including appearing in the same year's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. This film here is certainly slow-moving at the start but the film certainly packs a nice little punch during the final five minutes. At thirty minutes this here is extremely long for the period but the director certainly manages to get the message across. In fact, I'd say the message was a tad bit too strong and over-the-top but there were a lot of union issues going on during this period so obviously people back them had a rooting interest in the film.