Children in the House (1916)

Film Review

CHILDREN IN THE HOUSE

Release Date: 30 April, 1916

Studio: Fine Arts Film Company

Directors: Chester M. and Sidney A. Franklin

Starring: Norma Talmadge, Eugene Pallette, William Hinckley, Jewel Carmen, Alice Wilson, W. E. Lawrence, Walter Long

Writer: Roy Somerville

Cinematographer: Frank B. Good

Synopsis

Arthur Vincent (Pallette) enthralled with beautiful dancer Jane Courtenay (Carmen) neglects Cora (Talmadge), his wife. Cora meets her spurned high-school sweetheart, Charles Brown (Hinckley), fairly frequently. He lives with Fred, his brother (Lawrence), and Fred’s family; Fred’s wife, Alice (Wilson), is Cora’s sister. One evening as Cora and her two children have dinner with her sister’s family, Cora and Charles attempt to hide their emotions. He still loves Cora, and she realizes that she made a mistake when she married Arthur.

Charles works in the bank owned by Arthur’s father. Arthur needs money to pay for clothes for his lover, and she and her confederate, Fellowes (Long), convince him to help them rob his father’s bank. Arthur gives Fellowes the key to the bank’s safe, and Fellowes and three confederates loot the vault.

Returning to Jane’s apartment, the robbers’ car breaks down, and they hide in an old shack for the night. Arthur spends the night at Jane’s as they wait for their confederates’ return. With Arthur away, Cora asks Charles to visit her, and they admit their love, but find no chance for happiness. In the morning, the robbery is discovered. Charles, refusing to say where he was during the time of the robbery, is arrested.

Cora and Alice’s children, playing, climb through the floorboards of the old shack. The robbers seize four of the children, but the fifth runs off. The child tells his parents about the men in the shack, and although they do not believe him, his father returns with him and climbs through the boards. The robbers seize Fred too. The little boy runs back to his mother, and she phones the police.

Jane and Arthur arrive at the shack and pick up the robbers. One of the robbers sets it on fire to get rid of the witnesses. The arriving police see the robbers driving off, and chasing them, do not see the fire.

The police and the robbers carry on a gun battle as they drive at high speed up a winding road. Several policemen and robbers, including Arthur, are shot. A couple of the robbers fall out of the open car before it makes a spectacular dive off a cliff, killing everyone left in it.

The surviving robber tells the police about the fire in the shack. They race back just in time to save the children and Fred.

Back in the jail, Cora wants Charles to tell the police that he was with her, but he refuses. She goes to tell them herself. As she starts speaking to the desk sergeant about her meeting with Charles, the sergeant gets a call informing him about the fate of the robbers, including Arthur. Charles is saved without Cora having to shame herself. Happy and relieved, Cora and Charles embrace.

Discussion

The melodramatic plot, centering on a faithless husband and a betrayed, but still loyal, wife, is constructed with multiple converging story lines: the couple have two children, the wife has a former lover who she left in favor of her rich husband; a second family including the former lover, his brother, the brother's wife who is the sister of the main wife, and their children live nearby; the weak husband has a paramour; the paramour is the associate of a gang of robbers; she has persuaded the weakling to help rob his father’s bank; the wife's rejected lover is accused of the robbery; the lover cannot clear himself without exposing the wife to shame.

The resolution involves the couple's children and their cousins who play in a deserted shack; the robbers use the shack, find the kids, and try to kill the children, one child escapes, and notifies the sister about the robbers. The police arrive and pursue the fleeing robbers. The faithless husband, his paramour, and most of the robbers are killed by the police. The surviving robbers tells the police about the burning shack and they rescue the children. The lover is in jail and the wife is about to shame herself for his sake when the news arrives about the capture and/or deaths of the actual robbers, including the husband. All ends with the happy union of the true lovers.

Typical plots of the time were heavy and plodding. The actors overemphasized in gesture and facial expression. The social mores were constricting: a wife reluctant to divorce a faithless husband, shame associated with spending an evening alone with another man. The youthful leading actress with children was not uncommon at the time, but would have been highly unusual in the twenties.

Car chases between police and criminals had originated very early in cinema, and 1916 audiences were familiar with chase scenes by the Keystone Kops, and D.W. Griffith, who highlighted chases in many of his shorts. The motif of cops chasing robbers was destined for a long history in films.

In Children in the House, the children provide the means of identifying the robbers. These children, known as the "Fine Arts kiddies", were popular with audiences. They had been featured in short films produced by Griffith and the Mutual Film Company (with which Griffith was associated in the early teens) and directed by sibling filmmakers Chester and Sidney Franklin. The children and the Franklins moved to Fine Arts with Griffith. The "Fine Arts kiddies" had appeared earlier in 1916, directed by the Franklins, in a popular film, Let Katy Do It. The core group consisted of the five children (Violette Radcliffe, George Stone, Carmen De Rue, Francis Carpenter, Ninon Fovieri) who appear in Children in the House. The film's title references them. The careers of these children ended when they reached their early teens.

Feature films had only superseded shorts for about a year when this film was made. Despite the multiple story lines and slow pace, the film barely manages to fill five reels. Filling the running time was a major concern for writers and directors. The superficial narrative and characterizations do not fill up much film. Not many screen writers or directors had developed depth of narrative or visual technique. Contemporary reviewers (Variety, Motography, and Motion Picture News, writing in April 1916) describe the film as interesting and well constructed.

The film was produced by Triangle/Fine Arts, a company organized in 1915 by Henry Aitken (1877-1956). Aitken, a wealthy Wisconsin insurance man, was instrumental in forming the Mutual Film Company in 1912, partnered with D. W. Griffith in 1913, invested in The Birth of A Nation (1915), and brought producers Griffith, Mack Sennet and Thomas Ince to the newly formed Triangle Film Corporation in 1915. In September 1915, Triangle subdivided into three producing units, one unit for each of the major producers. Fine Arts Films was the unit supervised by Griffith. The Triangle Company did not prosper, and after little more than a year, the three producers had left the studio. The Fine Arts unit was disbanded in March 1917.

During its brief existence, Fine Arts had an impressive roster of directors and actors, many of whom were destined for successful careers, including Tod Browning, Allan Dwan, John Emerson, Sidney Franklin, Erich von Stroheim, Norma and Constance Talmadge, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, Mae Marsh, Eugene Pallette, and Alma Rubens.

Among the personnel involved in Children in the House, Norma Talmadge, Eugene Palette, and Sydney Franklin had important careers. The film careers of William Hinckley and Jewel Carmen, who had ability and potential, ended by 1918.

Although young, Norma Talmadge looks mature, even matronly. The cameras of the time did not flatter, and the contemporary hair styles, makeup and costumes were dowdy. Talmadge had made her first film at age 16, and was a member of the Vitagraph Film Company from 1909-1915. She appeared frequently with Vitagraph star Maurice Costello, who was 17 years her senior. Talmadge joined Fine Arts in 1916 and made seven films for the company. In 1917, with her husband Nicolas Schenck, she formed the Norma Talmadge Film Company to make her own films. She remained a star through the silent era. However, her popularity declined after the lack of success of her two talkies, and she retired in 1931, age 37.

The fat, pompous comedian he was to become is virtually unrecognizable in the young and slim Eugene Pallette, playing a straight role. Pallette had begun his career in stock at an early age. Entering films as a juvenile, he made over 60 shorts from 1913-1915 before signing with Fine Arts. He has an important role in the "France, 1572" episode of Griffith's Intolerance (1916). After WWI (Aviation Corps), Pallette played character and comedy roles (often small or uncredited) through the twenties. A role in The Canary Murder Case (1929) first revealed the gravelly voice and blustery persona that were much appreciated by movie audiences of the thirties and forties.

Nineteen when she signed with Fine Arts, Jewel Carmen had leading roles in four Douglas Fairbanks films. In 1917, she signed with Fox Films and was soon receiving featured roles. In 1918, she attempted to break her contract with Fox. The subsequent litigation between Carmen and William Fox virtually ended her career. She made only three films after 1918 and disappeared into obscurity by 1936.

William Hinkley entered films in 1915 at age 21 after a brief stage career. He played supporting and leading roles for Fine Arts in 1916, and appeared in several features with Marguerite Clark at Famous Players Film Company in 1917. Hinckley became ill in 1917 and died after an operation in early 1918.

The Franklin brothers, Chester and Sidney, were co-directors on a number of films in the teens. They had been signed by D.W. Griffith in 1915 to direct a series of one-reel "kiddie" comedies. With Fine Arts in 1916 and with Fox Film Company in 1917, they continued making films with the same children. The brothers co-directed until 1919, thereafter separating.

Sidney Franklin had an important career. In the twenties and thirties, he directed star actresses, Norma and Constance Talmadge, Marion Davies, and Norma Shearer. He switched to producing in 1938 and was the producer on several major MGM films of the late thrties/early forties, including most of Greer Garson's hits.

Chester Franklin continued directing through the silents era. In the early thirties he directed several alternate-language versions of MGM films and a few programmers for poverty row studios. He concluded his career with two relatively low budget, somewhat unusual, films for MGM: Sequoia (1933) and Tough Guy (1936).

References

Children In the House, by Fred. Variety Review. April 21, 1916

Children In the House. Reviewed by Thomas C. Kennedy. Motography, Vol XV #18. April 29, 1916

Children In the House. Motion Picture News, Vol 13 #17. April 29, 1916

Just Kids. by Wilson Gardner. Picture-Play Magazine, Vol IV #5. July 1916

Fading Stars of 1931. by Geo. McCall. Variety. December 29, 1931

Eugene Pallette. Variety Obituary. September 8, 1954

The Kindergarten of the Movies: A History of the Fine Arts Company. Anthony Slide. The Scarecrow Press. 1980

An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Richard Koszarski. University of California Press. 1990