Writer: Robert D Andrews, from a story by Robert Chapin and Joseph Carole
Stars: Rochelle Hudson, Glenn Ford and Miles Mander
And, as we can’t fail to notice as it begins, it’s a message movie with a message so overt that we’re surprised that it’s a studio picture rather than a cautionary film financed by a church group with good intentions but produced by exploitation filmmakers who skirted the censorship of the time by phrasing it as an educational piece. But no, it was made by Columbia, who made their position crystal clear in the opening text. 95% of charitable organisations dealing with adopted children are ‘honest and worthy of all support’, they explain, before adding that, ‘This picture is presented as a warning to all parents, and to all who plan to adopt children, that some unsupervised private institutions do exist where babies are sold for cash, where helpless mothers are victimized, and where foster parents may find lifelong tragedy instead of happiness.’ And yes, ‘this is the story of one such institution – and its victims.’ Fans of cautionary films everywhere know what’s coming next and, sure enough, here it is: ‘What happens in this story could happen to you.’
And he does, in a long spiel that feels intensely scripted but delivered by Joe de Stefani with appropriate passion anyway. Of course, it’s the message of the movie, thrown out there at the very beginning to be further underlined by the action which will unfold for a few characters. There were two million babies born in the United States the previous year. Many were put up for adoption but many thousands were sold over the counter for cash. ‘Who sold them?’ interjects Burton. ‘A few unscrupulous men and women who pose as public benefactors, operating just inside the law, making capital of the great reputation honestly earned by hundreds of men and women who really are doing something worthwhile.’ Does that sound preachy to you? Oh yeah, it sounds preachy because it is. This is a thinly disguised crusade by Dr Gaines, complete with effective soundbites (‘Human tragedy is their bread and butter’, ‘They take their profit on human heartbreak’), which promptly becomes a thinly disguised crusade by Burton on the Star Dispatch’s front page.
The young lady is Ruth Williams, played by a capable Rochelle Hudson, a major name in the thirties whose career was tailing off at this point. After no less than 85 pictures during the thirties, she made ten more by 1942 but then only four more during the rest of the forties. She was the lead here, credited above Ford, with whom she’d made two prior movies at Columbia in 1940: the similarly crusading Convicted Woman and Men without Souls. At least she had things to do while her screen career declined. In 1941, she took holidays in Mexico with her husband, Harold Thompson, the head of Disney’s storyline department, that were actually fronts for their espionage work seeking out German activity. She returned to the screen only once in the fifties, but at least that was for a title as prominent as Rebel without a Cause, where she played Natalie Wood’s mother. She wrapped up her career with three horror films in the sixties: Strait-Jacket and The Night Walker for William Castle and an anthology called Gallery of Horror.
If that wasn’t enough, and we see Gerda Honaker’s anguish at losing her baby to adoption, even though she’s been paying her $5 a week and working twelve hour days for months at Mercy, we’re given the Andersons to stir up our outrage. This scene plays oddly today, as it has to do with their adoption from Dr Rankin of what they assumed was a ‘perfectly healthy baby’ eight months earlier for $1,000. ‘And now it’s like that,’ says Howard Anderson, because we can’t talk in 1940 about whatever the baby has. As he doesn’t cry or talk, he could be a deaf mute or it could be something on the autistic spectrum. They want a refund, but Rankin tells them to get lost and Mrs Anderson promptly leaps in front of a train with the baby in her arms. This is a particularly brutal underline to the wickedness of Dr Rankin, but it serves well to put Burton on his trail and he shows up under the assumed name of Oscar Hanson so he can get a tour from the matron, Iris Talbot, who’s clearly in on everything that Rankin does.
In fact, the cast here is very capable for a B movie and it gets better in later scenes with Selmer Jackson and Mary Currier as a well-to-do couple, the Kingsleys, who adopt a baby from Mercy, only to get caught up in a much bigger story. They’re hardly prominent actors, when cast alongside Hudson, Ford and Mander, but they’re both solid, better vocally than physically but still able to hold their own in this company and even dominate towards the end. Jackson was a character actor who racked up almost four hundred films as a variety of authority figures. Currier had a much shorter career, lasting only a decade and a half before she retired from the screen, but she crammed 88 films into that time. I’ve seen both of them many times before without them registering, but they really did that here. To be fair, they had opportunity, this being an ensemble piece. Edith gets as much time as Ruth, who’s the lead, Talbot as much as Rankin and the Kingsleys are prominent at the end. Ford is absent for whole swathes of the film as Hudson’s co-star.
I knew little about the industry of adoption in the 1930s but perhaps assumed that society had moved on from the baby farms of the Victorian era. However, a little googling made me aware of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and Georgia Tann, the head of its Memphis branch. For decades, this was a well respected society which received community support, but in 1941, a year after Babies for Sale highlighted dubious adoptions to filmgoers, it fell under official scrutiny. Concern built throughout the decade until a 1950 state investigation revealed the sort of shenanigans that Dr Rankin got up to here. The Society was a respectable front for a babies for sale racket. Like Rankin, Tann sold off babies that were born to single mothers, who were told that their children had died, and she also sold off children placed into her care and babies sourced from state mental hospitals Her victims included Gene Tapia and Ric Flair, while Joan Crawford, Dick Powell and June Allyson adopted through her. Thank you, Babies for Sale, for making me aware.