Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Directed and written by Eliza Hittman ◆ Produced by BBC Films ◆ Distributed by Focus Features

These Wilder Years (1956)

Directed by Roy Rowland ◆ Written by Frank Fenton ◆ Produced and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In the guise of a documentary treatment of abortion, Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells us quite clearly that terminating a pregnancy should always be permissible whatever the circumstances. Furthermore, those who disagree are to be regarded as benightedly retrograde. The film presents itself as a seemingly sober, disinterested consideration of abortion.

Unfortunately I must emphasize the word “seemingly” in the previous sentence. The film is not genuinely disinterested at all. It’s rather an argument in favor of the freedom to access the procedure by which a woman can rid herself of an inconvenient pregnancy. Still, critics such as Manohla Dargis of The New York Times lauded Never Rarely, and their fulsome reviews work on behalf of our feminist legions.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a 17-year-old Pennsylvania girl, Autumn, who wants to terminate an inconvenient pregnancy without informing her parents. She discovers there are quite a number of adult counselors who stand ready to help her achieve her goal. The film’s title derives from the standard question hospitals and Planned Parenthood counselors ask women seeking abortions. They want to know if and how often the man involved has coerced or intimidated the woman. In the film, it turns out the answer is yes, frequently. Autumn, you see, is rather promiscuous.

Eliza Hittman, the film’s writer and director, clearly wanted to dramatize how power enters the calculus of sexual relationships with the preponderant amount of said power being on the male side. It’s a good study in some ways, almost documentary in its presentation, but it never once takes into account the life of the infant Autumn is carrying. This seems to me a politically tendentious decision and thus compromises whatever claim the film might make to being neutral on the issue. In fact, Hittman makes it clear that she is on the side of the women and finds the men involved generally callous and manipulative. Hittman may portray her characters as she sees fit, of course, but she seems unduly shortsighted.

Neither the young man involved in Autumn’s pregnancy nor any of the adults in her life come to her assistance, either because they’re unaware of her situation or because she doesn’t seek their help. Her mother is preoccupied with another infant she’s had with her new husband. The husband, of course, is too preoccupied with the sports pages in his local newspaper, which he invariably reads with a can of beer in his hand. He seems entirely oblivious to Autumn’s problems. Autumn feels she can’t go to her parents, who are trying to weather their own sexual issues. In fact, she can’t find—or at least thinks she can’t find—any adults to help her.

This all seems politically tendentious. Hittman’s script is determined to lay blame at the door of inattentive and befuddled adults who are either unable or lack the means to help Autumn and other girls like her. The only person to whom Autumn can turn is her 17-year-old cousin, Skylar, who is entirely unequipped to offer anything more than her heartfelt sympathy. When it comes to practical guidance, Skylar has little to offer.

Consulting with some social workers in her town, she finds them well-meaning but quite inadequate. She confides with one who lamely provides her with pamphlets about surrendering one’s child to an adoption agency after birth. What a horror!

What Autumn has in mind instead is the swift demise of her child carried out by a friendly, caring abortionist, the kind Planned Parenthood is in business to provide. Autumn has been told in the past that this is the preferred solution to her problem. Apparently, she’s never considered another possibility, nor have the adults who presume to assist her. She doesn’t consider her unborn child as anything more than an awful inconvenience, which is a judgment she’s been conditioned to accept by the culture in which she lives.

Finding no recourse in her hometown, Autumn steals money from the till at the supermarket she works at and escapes to Manhattan. The big city that offers girls such as her opportunities to solve their predicaments. With the aid of the stolen money, the girls tell their parents they’re going to attend a concert and take the train to Grand Central. Autumn meets with advisors at Planned Parenthood and other medical facilities.

There’s an interlude in which the girls find themselves lost in Manhattan and without any means to return home. They meet a young fellow who is noble enough to loan them enough money to find shelter for the night, after which they plan to return home. Autumn finally manages to get her abortion overseen by a kindly state counselor who holds her hand during the procedure. Needless to say, everyone is mum about what is really going on.

The next day, with the money provided by the loan they take the train back to Pennsylvania and return to their town. Not once in the film does anyone address the human life that is going to be sacrificed for Autumn’s convenience.

Not only is the film silent about the baby concerned; it serves as a training film for what to do in case of an unwanted pregnancy. It doesn’t attempt to offer other possible solutions or to counsel regarding the likely aftereffects Autumn may suffer. At its conclusion, the only sign that anything is amiss is Autumn’s glum face leaning against a bus window as she travels forlornly home. But the image is presented as a small price to pay for murdering an inconvenient infant.

Never Rarely couldn’t be any bleaker, which may be the best thing to say about it. Interestingly, mainstream film critics think the film is wholly laudable. They universally neglect to say anything at all about Autumn’s baby. Their silence, as the saying goes, is deafening. When I brought this up with a feminist friend, she looked at me as if I were a troglodyte. She couldn’t believe my impertinence. Well, ideologues can’t help themselves, even as they expect you to help their cause. Something unfair with that, no?

Meanwhile, President Joseph Biden continues to claim he’s a fervent Catholic, a religion that forbids abortion, despite loudly touting his pro-choice policies. “Fervent” is the adjective The New York Times applied to the supposed Catholicism of our dishonest commander in chief, but the only fervency Biden has ever exhibited is his determination to advance his political career. This has included his opportunistic embrace of his party’s pro-choice position, which was first officially promulgated by that exemplar of decency, Bill Clinton.

Since our new president stands as a stalwart defender of women’s right to kill their inconvenient babies, this may be an opportune moment to consider what popular culture has told us in the past about this murderous procedure, and how it affects the women who choose to submit to its consequences.


above: Barbara Stanwyck, Betty Lou Keim, and James Cagney in These Wilder Years (1956, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) 

I was curious how abortion was handled in past films and found one from 1956 that answered my question, one that, despite its sentimentality, I much prefer to Hittman’s Never Rarely. It bears an interesting title, These Wilder Years, in which Jimmy Cagney plays a 50-something hard-charging businessman who decides he wants to find the son he abandoned 20 years earlier. He visits a home for unwed mothers run by Barbara Stanwyck, whose files he surmises might be able to help him. The boy was the result of a thoughtless one-night stand with a woman he never saw again. Stanwyck doesn’t press the issue of Cagney’s youthful irresponsibility but she nevertheless makes it clear that he wouldn’t be in his current situation had he made different choices.

At Stanwyck’s institution, Cagney meets a pregnant 17-year-old waiting to give birth to her child. He finds her charming and wants to help her if he can. She had been abandoned by the child’s father, who she had thought would care for her. While he’s happy to learn that the girl is under Stanwyck’s care, he’d like to help in his own way. This being 1956, the word abortion is never uttered.

The ending which I’m about to reveal is ambiguous. Stanwyck locates Cagney’s son and arranges for them to meet, if only briefly. The son, having been fortunately raised by adoptive parents, agrees to the meeting only because he wants to confront the man who abandoned his mother, now conveniently dead. What follows is a sudsy encounter during which the son makes clear his disgust with his biological father. The meeting is brief and then they part, never to see one another again.

Then there’s a coda. The girl Cagney met at Stanwyck’s institution does not surrender her baby to the foster parents as she imagined she would. Instead, Cagney adopts the young woman and her baby in a kind of atonement for his past faults. In the last scene, we watch them as they drive off together in his deluxe chauffeur-driven car. Will this new and highly improbable family arrangement succeed? It’s left to the viewers’ imagination.

Yes, the production is melodramatic to a fault. Call me sentimental if you will, but I much preferred it to Planned Parenthood’s ugly alternative.