An image from the teaser for “Mothers of Men,” courtesy of mothersfilm.com.
At the turn of the twentieth century, women had few rights anywhere in the world. They were basically considered the property of their husbands and fathers, with little to no rights to owning property, voting, serving politically, or keeping the money they earned. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony began rallying American women for the right to vote. Over the next several decades, women organized rallies, marches, letter writing campaigns, all with the purpose of gaining women suffrage. With this right, laws could be changed in favor of women.
Moving picture newsreels documented marches and rallies, while shorts covered the subject, mostly as comedy relief. In 1914, Jane Addams, Anna Howard Shaw, and Mrs. Merrill McCormick decided the best way to reach millions demonstrating their cause would be through motion pictures. With the help of William N. Selig and Lewis J. Selznick’s World Film, they released “Your Girl and Mine,” focusing on an every woman who suffers myriad problems in states without woman’s suffrage. This powerful film did begin to change hearts and minds, receiving universally praised reviews and comments.
“Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays” by Karie Bible and Mary Mallory is available at Amazon and at local bookstores.
An ad for “Mothers of Men” also known as “Every Woman’s Problem” in the Kingston (N.Y.) Daily Freeman, Nov. 17, 1921.
In 1917, women still were refused the right to vote. Filmmakers Willis Robards and James Halleck “Hal” Reid realized the importance of this issue to women, deciding to create their own independent film called “Mothers of Men” focusing on a strong and intelligent woman. She would be elected to great office, shown making an important though rational decision, validating her election as leader.
The two journeymen possessed long careers as actors and writers, dating back to the late 1800s. “The Three Musketeers” press book in 1921 claimed Robards was born in Austin, Texas in 1875, a graduate of St. Edwards University and a law student at the University of Texas where he was a member of the Frederick Warde Dramatic Club. After graduation he began acting.
Other reports claim he was a writer, director, and member of the Benton Juvenile Opera Company where he was the baritone principal. He supposedly played O. K. Hopper in “The Lightning Rod Agent” for three years before forming his own company. He entered films as a director with Nestor after leaving the Hudson Stock Company. Along the way he created the Mutt and Jeff comedy series, and directed for Melies, Lubin, Universal and the St. Louis Motion Picture Company before establishing Rainbow in Santa Paula in 1915, founding his own studio, Frontier in 1916.
Reid, the father of silent film star Wallace Reid, was one of the top melodramatic playwrights of the period, creating entertainment for middle-brow audiences. He focused on important and popular issues of the day, keeping his name in the press. Reid jumped from stage to screen, working much the same way in the filmmaking field, employing the media to obtain the American public’s sympathy for a cause or celebrity through the creation of propaganda.
In 1913, Reid produced a film showing Henry Thaw, who killed architect Stanford White for engaging in an affair with his wife, actress Evelyn Nesbit, in jails, prisons, and courtrooms meeting with lawyers, judges, and the like, as a fine upstanding citizen. The playwright interviewed him, cutting in captions such as “All I Ask is Fair Play.”
Reid publicized and humanized beleaguered Jewish businessman Leo Frank on July 31,1915, after Georgia Governor Staton had commuted his sentence from death to life imprisonment for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, for which he was innocent. The footage displayed Reid in conversation with the Governor and his wife, and Frank and his mother. Frank was lynched just two weeks later.
An ad for “Mothers of Men,” also known as “Every Woman’s Problem” in the Oil City (Pa.) Derrick, Sept. 15, 1921.
In 1916, the Republican National Committee hired Reid to produce propaganda films supporting their cause and denigrating the actions of President Woodrow Wilson, especially in regards to his actions regarding Pancho Villa and Mexico. His film about Villa showed Wilson asleep at his desk twelve times, upsetting so many people in the Republican party that it was scrapped and he was fired. Variety reported on September 29, 1916 that Chester Beeroft was signed to complete the project “that will conform with the views of the Republican party and still not be repugnant to the administration and personality of President Wilson.
By February 1917, Reid and Robards joined forces. They announced the creation of Reid-Robards Picture Company on February 24, 1917 to produce films in Santa Cruz that would be distributed on a states’ rights basis. Moving Picture World reported the company was financed by Santa Cruz and San Francisco “capitalists” and negotiating to construct a studio in San Mateo. Their first production would be “Clara Steinlow – Governor,” the first film featuring a woman leading her state and “doing her duty like a man.”
The newly formed Santa Cruz production company hired actress Dorothy Davenport as their star, filling in major supporting roles with director Robards, Reid, and his wife and employing local citizens and locations to fill out the story. By June 9, Robards began editing the work in Los Angeles. On September 29, Robards headed East per Motography to hopefully sell outright their 6300 foot feature film, “Mothers of Men,” which the trade paper called “suffrage propaganda,” rather than attempt a states-rights campaign.
The New York Clipper revealed on September 26 that the filmmaker would hold a screening on the roof of Loew’s New York for leaders of the National Woman’s Party, Woman Suffrage Party, and others who all praised it after the October 13 screening. Their suggestions led Robards to re-edit and re-title the film by October 20, reducing the film from eight to five reels. Robards screened the film for important states’ rights exhibitors by October 27.
Unfortunately, the film’s title aped that already in use by others in the marketplace. Doves had employed the phrase “mothers of men” since 1914 urging women to help nations throw down their weapons or war, or not send their sons off to the draft or enlistment. Filmmaker Sidney Olcott had also released a production under the title “Mothers of Men.” The American Red Cross created and distributed a two-reel short under the same title promoting hygiene and sanitary conditions.
An image from “Mothers of Men,” courtesy of mothersfilm.com.
Publicist H. J. Shepard revealed to Exhibitor’s Herald that states’ rights pictured needed three things: propaganda, sensation, and story, and he played up those aspects in the press. He devised a campaign he called novel by hiring music publisher J. W. Stern and Company to release a song with the film’s title aping the picture’s theme, composed by popular composer Gus Edwards and lyrics by Will. D. Cobb. This copied successful campaigns that many companies had created around serials, especially Edison’s 1912 sheet music release with “What Happened to Mary” and Selig’s massive campaign with the Chicago Daily Tribune for “The Adventures of Kathlyn.” Most novel, however, was the idea of copying the sheet music cover art for the film’s 24-sheet or billboard size poster.
The film received mixed reviews, with Exhibitors Herald praising it, calling it “well told…dignified…thrilling,” while Motion Picture News described it as “timely” but which the director failed to totally get across, overacting himself and filling with too many stereotypes and propaganda. Moving Picture World found it melodramatic like Reid’s plays, acting adequate but Davenport quite good.
Clara Madison is a leader of the suffragist party and lawyer who falls in love and marries Worthington Williams, a man fighting the yellow tactics of the local newspaper. Madison shuts down saloons on Sunday after her election as judge as well as deciding a case against her husband in court. The editor, who is against female judges slanders in an “abusive and defaming editorial” per the Paterson Morning Call, causing her husband to threaten him during a fight. Saloon keepers angry with her for losses in their business set up her husband and fire bomb the newspaper, killing the editor. All the men are tried and convicted. After Mrs. Williams is elected Governor, she is faced with pardoning her husband or standing tall and performing her duty. Will love or strength rule the day?
While publicist Shepard states that Robards was receiving large numbers of inquiries from buyers regarding the film, it appears to have received little to no takers, as no ads appear in local newspapers. Trades reported that Ernest Gagnon was selling the film in the Southern territory on July 18, 1918. Robards again re-edited the film per the July 27, 1918 Motion Picture News, negotiating to sell all states’ rights for the film to Ernest Shipman.
After Reid passed away, Robards decided to re-release the film in 1921, after re-shooting to get around Prohibition. Instead of saloon keepers plotting against Mrs. Williams, this time bootleggers would conspire against her in a film now titled “Every Woman’s Problem.”
An image from “Mothers of Men,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The film again receive mixed reviews in the press, with Wid’s Daily on March 27 calling it a “Good argument for suffrage” and “good human interest.” Moving Picture World called it a timely subject with a strong dramatic theme. The Kingston Daily Freeman called it “a dramatic thunderbolt…a picture that vibrates with the thrill of a woman’s heroic sacrifice – that pulsates with throbbing emotion of a woman torn between love and duty.” Exhibitors’ Herald panned it, claiming it possessed “little of merit.” Marion Russell in Billboard stated, “Words are futile to express the absurdities of this screen drama, whose title is entirely misleading…Evidently the material has been slumbering in the archives of antiquity and brought up to date to fit the suffrage movement.” Many reviews pointed out the dated clothes and automobiles found in the production.
Negotiations began again for states’ rights, this time after running a test case in Paterson, New Jersey, working on publicity campaigns and with women’s groups like the League of Women’s Votes, Suffrage party, Business and Professional Women’s Association, and Women’s Clubs to build word-of mouth. Filmmakers released a broadside featuring quotes from reviews and invitations to screenings in the shape of court summons. A most novel exploitation element involved selecting names randomly from the telephone book and sprinkling them in classified ads for the film, stating that tickets were waiting at the box office under that name.
The manager of the U.S. A. Theatre in Paterson, New Jersey ran a successful ballyhoo contest asking people to solve Mrs. Williams’ problem in the film and receive prizes. Over 200 people entered to win cash prizes ranging from $10 to $25. Besides receiving cash, the winners would see their names onscreen in a short film created by theatre manager Adams as well as seeing their entries and photos included in the local newspaper.
States’ rights were sold all over the country and in South America by Nat Levine’s Plymouth Pictures, suggesting the film’s theme made it a more attractive item to sell. Most distributors lacked money to create large advertising campaigns for it, focusing on the stunts created in Paterson or purchasing small ads in local newspapers. Small town theaters reported in did well in trades like Exhibitors’ Herald, calling it clean and decent. Some saw terrible business, with a theatre in Atlanta cancelling the film after one night, though it was scheduled to run a week.
Though not the first to promote woman’s suffrage on film, “Mothers of Men” or “Every Woman’s Problem” helped advance the cause of women gaining the right to vote as well as the right to serve others in elected positions. It helped promote the idea of strong, independent women successful both in careers and as homemakers, as well as serving as respected and competent officials.
Thanks to the efforts of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the film has been restored, re-premiering in a screening at the Castro Theatre on Friday, June 3, 2016.
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