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80 Million Women Want (1913) Review

Directed by Will Lewis

Staring: Ronald Everett; Ethel Jewett; George Henry; Emmeline Pankhurst; Harriot Stanton Blatch

80 Million Women Want  (AKA What 80 Million Women Want) (1913)

    Starting out almost incomprehensible, 80 Million Women Want turns out to be a straight forward detective story, catching would-be assassins, as well as exposing  corrupt politicians.  The fact that the sleuth in the film is a suffragist who is a proud member of the New York Women’s Political Union, led by president Harriot Stanton Blatch, adds to the intrigue, and, while not really a propaganda film, the message is quite clear: allow women the right to vote and clean up politics.

Travers (Ronald Everett) is a struggling young lawyer with a strong-willed fiancé, Mabel (Ethel Jewett), who is involved with the Suffragist Cause.  Trying to make it on his own, Travers refuses the proposal from district leader Boss Kelly (George Henry), to be on his payroll, but soon finds out just how powerful Boss Kelly really is.  Travers’ first real case involves Ruth and her boyfriend, Arthur, who was hit and injured by Boss Kelly’s car.   A winning case, both attorney Travers and victim Arthur are crushed when the verdict goes to Boss Kelly, who, it turns out, had gotten the judge his position.  Knowing he’ll never succeed otherwise, Travers agrees to work for Boss Kelly, but doesn’t let his fiancé know.  Meanwhile, back at the Suffragists headquarters, the empowered women, fueled by Boss Kelly’s denouncement of their cause in the press, decide to infiltrate his office, planting a spy as Boss Kelly’s secretary.  It is through the secretary that Mabel learns her fiancé is on Kelly’s payroll, and boy does she let Travers have it, but good.  Nothing else to do, Travers goes to Boss Kelly’s office, resigns his position, and gives him a piece of his mind to boot, all of which has been spied through a keyhole by a janitor.  With his henchmen watching the parade of Women Suffragists through the window, Boss Kelly is working at his desk when he is shot in the arm by the still-loopy-from-being-run-over-by-the-Boss’s-car, Arthur, who then flees.  The janitor implicates Travers, who is summarily tossed in the hoosegow, and it is now up to Mabel to prove that her fiancé is innocent.   Camera in-tow, Mabel photographs Boss Kelly’s office door-knob and then compares the photographed fingerprints with some prints she’d obtained from various suspects, seeing that it was Arthur who–well, opened Boss Kelly’s door–and not Travers.  The only uncorrupted politician is the District Attorney, and with Mabel’s evidence he frees Travers and jails Arthur.  On election day, Travers helps to thwart Boss Kelly’s “repeaters”, and soon Boss is  confronted by the District Attorney, who now has proof of the Boss’s misdeeds.  Meanwhile, back at the Suffragists’ headquarters, the votes are coming in, thousands and thousands voting in favor of the amendment.   (A mere seven years later the 19th Amendment was ratified and  women finally got the right to vote and politics were corrupt no more.)

There are many things baffling about 80 Million Women Want, most notably, what does the plot have to do with Suffragists?  Except that the elected officials are corrupt and the Suffragists send a spy into the chief bad guy’s office to collect incriminating evidence against him, the Women’s Movement itself has very little to do with the story.   Sure the plucky heroine is resourceful and yes, much to the initial chagrin of her boyfriend, she joins the Suffragists (allowing her to sport the nifty sash throughout much of the rest of the film).  But Mabel is nonetheless motivated to do her sleuthing to save her fiancé, and has nothing to do with the Women’s Movement.  In the process of doing so, she incriminates Arthur, who, despite the fact he is actually guilty of the crime, is also the only person who was physically hurt by Boss Kelly, and the one who illicits most of the audiences sympathy.  After Arthur’s incarceration, Arthur’s girlfriend, Ruth, perhaps because she blames fellow Suffragist Mabel, disavows the Women’s Movement, removing her sash in disgust.   Mabel stops Ruth, proclaiming, “We must fight for right” (proving once and for all rhyming political slogans were the norm even then), and a reluctant Ruth restores her sash to its proper place.  But again, what relevance is the Suffragists to the whole scene?  One not only questions why Ruth would quit the Movement simply because her boyfriend is in jail for attempted murder, but also, one must wonder what Mabel’s retort, “We must fight for right” actually means in this context.  Isn’t it “right” that the guilty party (whatever his motivation), is behind bars?  The statement leads one to believe that the Suffragists have something up their sleeve that will assist Arthur, but that isn’t the case at all.  They do “get” Boss Kelly, but Arthur himself stays in jail, too (as he should).   Since the plot of 80 Million Women Want is essentially about political corruption, but ends with the Suffragists joyous as the votes come in overwhelmingly in favor of the amendment, the film’s underlying message is obviously, once women have the right to vote, politics will be free of corruption.   It’s just that the preceding story doesn’t necessarily support this conclusion  

Which isn’t to imply that 80 Million Women Want isn’t a good movie; it most certainly is.  It takes awhile to figure out what is going on and who the main participants are, but once the film is underway, the story begins to make sense and there are a number of unexpected, but for the most part, plausible, plot turns, that make the film interesting throughout.  For a film made in 1913, most of the acting is understated and believable, with only one or two scenes that involve some over-emoting (the scene when Boss Kelly gets shot comes to mind).  The sets are fairly plain, but workable, and director Will Lewis held to the norm of the period by shooting most of the film in medium long shots with no camera movement.  There is one interesting “looking through the keyhole shot”, which is almost jarring, because it is the only shot in the film that varies form the standard.  

Intriguingly, the film opens with the “Leader of the English Militants”, Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, parting some curtains and coming out to address, us, the audience.  She “speaks” at length (for a silent film), but there is nary a title card to tell us what she is saying.   Obviously they had been removed for some reason, and the question becomes both, why?, and when?  There may be more inter-titles missing in the film, as well, for there are many scenes that are rather unclear.  This may be, however, because the film makers were still new to the game.  Missing, too are some bridging scenes or titles that help to indicate a characer’s movement.  In one scene at the New York Women’s Political Union, Mabel sets out to find the bad guys and walks off camera only to have the scene instantly cut to Boss Kelly’s office, and Mabel now walking into camera.  No title or other shot is offered and it appears, at the very least, as if the Suffragist’s shared offices across the hall from Boss Kelly.   (Also missing in the DVD copy is the very opening title, which would reveal the film’s name.  The inter-titles all say, “80 Million Women Want-?” and not, what the DVD jacket calls the film, What 80 Million Women Want).

Regardless of the missing titles and the basic fact that 80 Million Women Want is a not quite the feminist film one might hope for, the very fact that the British suffragist leader, Pankhurst is seen with one of the State’s Suffragist leaders, Harriet Stanton Black (daughter of America’s founding Suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton),  is remarkable in its own right.  The fact that there is a nifty story on early 20th Century political corruption is just icing on the cake.

80 Million Women Want  (What 80 Million Women Want) is available on DVD from Film Classics, Inc.  The black and white print is in pretty good shape, over all, with plenty of noticeable wear, but rarely to the point of distraction.  What is very distracting, however, is that the film never stays in frame, particularly when going into and out from an intertitle.  Somebody manually adjusts the frame up and down each time and it is really annoying.  The (uncredited) piano music accompaniment doesn’t necessarily fit with what appears on screen, but fortunately it rarely detracts from the image, either.

Kevin M. Wentink


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