Sunday 1 May 2016

Babies for Sale (1940)

Director: Charles Barton
Writer: Robert D Andrews, from a story by Robert Chapin and Joseph Carole
Stars: Rochelle Hudson, Glenn Ford and Miles Mander
It’s a hundred years since the birth of Glenn Ford and he left behind a whole string of worthy pictures to review. He won awards for Don’t Go Near the Water and Pocketful of Miracles, but most will remember him from The Big Heat, Blackboard Jungle or the original 3:10 to Yuma. He concentrated on westerns in his heyday but also found time to play Clark Kent’s father in the 1978 version of Superman and followed that up with what may be the strangest film of his career, the all-star Italian horror/sci-fi hodgepodge originally known as Stridulum but re-titled The Visitor for the American market. I picked out Babies for Sale because I’m trying to avoid the obvious and it looked particularly fascinating. It remained fascinating after I watched it too, because it seems out of place. In particular, it clearly wants to be a precode, one of those astonishingly free movies released after the advent of sound in the late twenties but before the imposition of the Production Code in 1934, but it can’t be because this was 1940 and the code was very much enforced.

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.’
The film proper begins in the same vein, with Steve Burton, crusading newspaper reporter, visiting Dr John Gaines, a physician and surgeon who’s so upstanding that he doesn’t even charge some of his clients because he knows they can’t afford his services. Maybe that’s why his office is upstairs from Joe Tonelli’s grocery store, but it’s also why Burton comes to see him because he’s heard a lot of good things about the man. And, now that he’s writing a series of exposes for his paper, he wants to know about the ‘babies for sale’ that the good doctor has given speeches about. Burton is Glenn Ford, of course, who comes over as a capable newspaperman, a great deal slower and more cautious than the mile-a-minute reporters played in the thirties by Lee Tracy, Pat O’Brien or even Clark Gable, but no less sharp for that. It just means that instead of bedazzling Dr Gaines with questions, he just leans gently forward to light the man’s pipe and suggest, ‘Care to tell me about it?’

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.
We aren’t even five minutes in but we’ve already been bludgeoned over the bonce by Gaines’s ‘heartbreak merchants’ and now it’s time for them to bludgeon back. An ‘unofficial committee’ of folk from leagues, homes and associations harangue Burton’s editor to publish a retraction, but when he agrees, Burton promptly quits and goes searching for the real facts behind the story. Enter one of the proud, ashamed women that Gaines told him about, walking out of the darkness into the light of the Mercy Shelter with a baby bump to see Dr Wallace Rankin, who had been one member of that ‘unofficial committee’. We know that this is a bad idea, because Rankin is played by Miles Mander, who is well known today for playing slimy villains with crisp British accents. He was a versatile actor just as able to play upstanding characters, but he was so dashed good at being a cad that we tend to automatically assume he will be one in everything. Here, he plays the epitome of that, a despicable creature masquerading in the clothes of respectability.

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.
She’s good here too, though she’s quickly outshone by an acerbic Isabel Jewell in the sort of role that Una Merkel tended to play in the thirties. They’re in similar circumstances, Edith merely a little further along the road than Ruth, their pregnancies conveniently acceptable: Ruth’s husband died in a car accident and Edith’s left her. Because this isn’t a precode, none of the many single mothers to be would dream of something as socially unacceptable as sex outside of marriage, but they all end up in the same situation. Some, like Ruth, want to keep their babies but can’t afford the process. Others, like Edith, want the babies gone quickly because they know they can’t bring them up and they don’t want to bond first. Dr Rankin can meet all needs, or so he says. What he really does is make money. The girls pay him to handle the medical side of things and they staff the Mercy Shelter too. Then they have to pay again to keep their children. But don’t pay quickly enough and they’ll be sold on to adopting couples.

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.
There’s a lot in here for a B movie that runs a mere 65 minutes. It might seem that I’ve just outlined all that, but the quintessentially shaky voice of John Qualen as Mr Anderson leaves the film after only fifteen minutes and Burton’s tour of Mercy Shelter follows on immediately. This film begins with its definition as a crusade by Gaines and Burton, then introduces us to Ruth and her fellow ladies in trouble to demonstrate why we should care but it has more places to go yet before our heroes can orchestrate the inevitable fall from grace of the oily Dr Rankin. Even with Glenn Ford showing potential early in his career, this works best as a tragic drama. Ford was only on his sixth film, his fifth to reach the screen in only eight months after his debut in 1937, under his real name of Gwyllyn Ford, as the MC of a musical short, Night in Manhattan. Given that, he does especially well, but he has to fight for prominence with a professional cad like Miles Mander to face off against and a powerful Isabel Jewell to steal scenes left, right and centre.

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.
The consistent quality of the production is notable. This is clearly an overblown and somewhat inevitable B movie written at speed. It stars a mix of actors on the way in and on the way out, backed up by a host of character actors who are mostly forgotten today. It was released seven or eight years after its time, because it would have fit so much better as a precode, able to illustrate rather than merely hint at. It’s no great film and would have been seen as run of the mill at the time, except perhaps for Mrs Anderson’s suicide and baby murder, which is startling whatever the year, but it’s consistently decent because the studios knew what they were doing. This was 1940, right after Hollywood’s golden year of 1939, and they could seemingly do no wrong. It’s interesting to travel back to the golden age because it’s hard to find truly bad movies. They do exist (hello Life Returns), but they’re thin on the ground and even bad films are often watchable and enjoyable today. OK movies like this one are also usually interesting for who and what and why.

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.

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