Changeling is a hard movie to watch—not simply because a mother loses her son to kidnapping, but because of the times. This movie is a study in relations between the sexes, stereotypical views of women in the 1920s and 1930s, and sexual discrimination.
The backdrop is LA in the late 1920s, a place full of police corruption, crime, and intimidation. Reverend Gustav Briegleb, an activist Presbyterian minister, lashes out against rampant police brutality. Into this milieu appears Christine Collins.
Christine is leading a calm life as a single mother to a nine-year-old boy. She works as a supervisor at a telephone company, on the forefront of women’s rights in the workplace. (Her boss mentions that he had to fight to get women promoted as supervisors—and they have worked out splendidly.)
One day, filling in for someone at work, she leaves her son at home. She comes home late to an empty house. She combs the neighborhood and then calls the police. The police will do nothing for 24 hours. She waits.
Finally, to assuage their negative image in the press, the police present her with a child, claiming it is her rescued son. Only it isn’t.
At the train station in front of those present, the police poo-poo her claims and then guilt-trip her. First tactic: It’s been three months; the boy has changed so you just don’t recognize him. Second tactic: The boy has nowhere to go; be a good mother (figure) and care for him.
During numerous subsequent encounters with the police, she is verbally and mentally browbeaten with contradictory tactics. She is not a good mother. She wants this not to be her son because she got used to being a free woman; she wants to shrink her responsibilities now. She wouldn’t be a good judge to know if this child was her son or not.
Christine goes on a crusade to prove that the child is not her son. She routinely measured her son’s growth, marking the doorjam to the kitchen with pencil marks. This prodigal son is three inches shorter than the last pencil mark. He is circumscribed; her son was not. The dentist is confident this is not Walter; the teeth and palate do not match. The teacher is confident this is not Walter; he can’t even locate his desk when told to sit down at it.
In the meantime, on a seemingly unrelated case, a somewhat honest cop stumbles across a horrible secret revealed by a young boy that he recently picked up and was set to deport back to Canada. The revelation was later called the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. A farm in rural California was the site of mass murders of young boys. Walter Collins was one of those kidnapped and possibly murdered by the murderer.
The movie shows a remarkable side of relations between the sexes and the treatment of women. The treatment that Christine endured as a woman from the police and other men is astounding. In the end, I found myself very thankful to not live in a society that speaks to me and treats me that way….and has the right to lock me away because I am not the woman they deem I should be, that I am somehow less than human and with less rights than men. (The police commit Christine to an insane asylum, where she encounters other women that ran afoul of the police.)
Changeling is a gripping story. The movie provides a view into LA police illegalities, the view and treatment of women, and the treatment of those in asylums. It is heart-breaking in so many ways, but a good look into a slice of our American past.