Movies

Friday A/V Club: Eugenicsploitation

When reformers accept the premises of the system.

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Look! There it is! Tomorrow!

Alice Mason is a hard-working young woman ready to get married and start making babies. But the authorities think her family has bad blood—her parents are drunks, and her brothers are all either disabled or criminal—so the government orders Alice to submit to sterilization. She is saved only at the last minute, just before the surgeon's knife enters her body, when it is learned that she was a foster child and thus does not share her family's genes.

That's the plot of Tomorrow's Children, a 1934 exploitation flick whose YouTube page describes it as a "science fiction horror movie." Whoever posted it evidently doesn't know that eugenics laws existed in much of the country in the first half of the 20th century—indeed, some states didn't repeal them until the 1970s. This isn't a science-fiction film. It was set in the dystopian present, not a dystopian future.

The movie is clearly opposed to the status quo. At 31:45, a sympathetic character—the one doctor who dissents from the system—argues against sterilizing dangerous madmen. (Just lock 'em up instead, he says.) At 38:42, a criminal who has agreed to go under the knife in exchange for an early release mutters that the operation won't stop him from stealing (or from "packing a rod if I get caught in a jam"). And at 41:44, the aforementioned doctor argues to his boss that Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Poe might have been classified as "unfit" in their day.

But as is often the case when a story argues for reform, the movie accepts a lot of the premises of the system it's supposed to be challenging. Consider Alice's household, where the "family taint"—that's what the authorities call it—manifests itself in a dizzying range of ways: alcoholism, retardation, lame limbs, criminality. You get the impression that they've got the "something's going to go wrong" gene. (Maybe the movie is science fiction after all.) The fact that Alice isn't a blood relation provides a happy resolution for the plot, but it also leaves open the possibility that her sterilization really would have been in the public interest if she had been born to those parents.

I vant to drink your bloo— wait, sorry, wrong movie.

And then there's the sequence at 23:09, when a dangerous young man avoids sterilization because he comes from a wealthy, well-connected family. (We know he's dangerous because he decides to rip open a nurse's uniform right before he enters the courtroom. Also, his makeup makes him look like he wandered in from a vampire movie.) Maybe the aim is just to show how the system is stacked against the poor, but the effect is to suggest the real problem here is that the wrong people are being sterilized. Indeed, when the judge decides to let the rich boy breed, the same doctor who at other points argues against eugenics proclaims the decision the "lowest thing I've ever seen."

On a lighter note, be sure to check out the scene at 34:50 where we're told about the revivifying effects of a vasectomy. "It's said that if this operation is performed on an elderly man, it will rejuvenate his glands so that he may be able to enjoy life to a ripe old age!"

In one way, the movie reminds me of Anatole Litvak's 1948 picture The Snake Pit. Not in quality—Tomorrow's Children is cheaply made and clumsily acted, while The Snake Pit is a well-crafted feature with an A-list cast. But just as Tomorrow's Children is a critique of eugenics that ends up endorsing a lot of the eugenic worldview, The Snake Pit positions itself as an exposé of psychiatric abuses but winds up justifying electroshock and other invasive procedures as long as the doctor making the decisions is benevolent and liberal. Apparently, the filmmakers favored a kinder, gentler cukoo's nest.

Bonus link: This old article of mine discusses the origins of America's eugenics laws.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)