Saturday, May 7, 2016

#2,091. Children of Eve (1915)

Directed By: John H. Collins

Starring: Viola Dana, Robert Conness, Tom Blake

A.K.A.: Was also released as Fifty-Fifty Mamie

Trivia: This movie was inspired by the 1911 Triangle Shirtwater Factory Fire, which killed 146 workers

On March 25, 1911, fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, New York, and because the doors had been locked by the owners (a common practice at the time, done to prevent theft and keep employees from taking unauthorized breaks), the majority of the workers were trapped inside the facility, which was situated on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Arch Building. 

Those who watched from the street recalled in horror how some of the workers, most of whom were immigrant women between the ages of 16 and 23, jumped to the pavement below to avoid the excessive heat, dying on Impact (those who hesitated leapt from windows with their hair and clothes engulfed in flames). In all, 146 were killed, the youngest being a pair of 14-year-old girls. It was the worst industrial disaster in New York City’s history, and led to a change in the way workers, especially kids, were treated on the job.

Produced by the Edison Company, 1915’s Children of Eve was inspired, in part, by this tragedy, and features a finale that’s as well-staged as it is dramatically potent.

Written and directed by John H. Collins, Children of Eve begins with an unlikely romance that develops between businessman Henry Clay Madison (Robert Conness) and his neighbor, showgirl Flossy Wilson (Nellie Grant). The two fall desperately in love with one another, and in time Flossy learns that she’s going to have Henry’s child. But, unable to forget her scandalous past, Flossy decides she’s not worthy of a man like Henry, and leaves town before he can propose to her. Though devastated, Henry gets on with his life, starting up a new business and adopting his nephew, Bert, when the young man’s father (Henry’s brother) dies prematurely. As for Flossy, she gives birth to a baby girl and passes away soon after, leaving the child to be raised by strangers.

Seventeen years later, Henry’s Cannery business is flourishing, though he himself is being attacked by the child welfare office for the horrible conditions in his factory (most of his employees are young boys and girls). His nephew, Bert (played by Robert Walker), is himself an advocate for human rights, and does what he can to show his uncle the error of his ways. In another part of town, Flossy’s daughter, now known as Fifty-Fifty Mamie (Viola Dana), is a regular at the dance hall, and is dating a shady character named Bennie the Typ (Tom Blake).

By chance, Mamie meets Bert, and sparks fly between them. Suffering from the same insecurities as her mother, Mamie believes Bert is too good for her, but has a change of heart when she and Bert team up to help a sick mother through a difficult time. To assist Bert in his efforts to clean up his Uncle's factory, Mamie poses as a teenager and lands a job there. Working undercover, she constantgly takes notes, jotting down all of the hazards the employees are subjected to on a daily basis. Alas, Mamie is also there when the Cannery catches fire, leading to a devastating turn of events that will shake both Bert and Henry to their very core.

Much like 1913’s The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, Children of Eve tackles social issues of its day, namely the shabby way many business owners treated their work force. The difference is Children of Eve is actually a decent film, with an interesting story and some fine performances (White Slave Traffic is a snooze fest). Especially good are the two female leads; when we first meet Nellie Grant’s Flossy, she’s intoxicated, stumbling around her apartment and feeling sorry for herself. A few scenes later, she’s a changed woman thanks to Henry, though self-doubt causes her to throw her future away. Even better is Viola Dana as young Mamie, who, despite being like her mother, eventually overcomes her uncertainties, and, with Bert’s help, tries her best to make a difference. As pretty as she is talented, Miss Dana is perfectly convincing as both an outgoing party girl and an upstanding young woman.

A bit melodramatic at times, the movie nonetheless manages to get its point across, thanks in large part to the scene where the factory catches fire (a sequence that’s still pretty powerful). For a movie over a century old now, Children of Eve remains compelling enough to keep your interest, and polished enough to make you happy you saw it.

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