Women’s History Month Retrospective: Hypocrites (1915)

Runtime: 54 minutes

Director: Lois Weber

Writer:  Lois Weber

Actors: Courtenay Foote, Myrtle Stedman, Herbert Standing, Adele Farrington

By Joan Amenn

In honor of Women’s History Month, Kino streaming service has made available the perceptive and groundbreaking film “Hypocrites”(1915) by Lois Weber. In just under an hour, Weber manages to skewer the pretensions and prejudices of her early 20th Century society that seem very similar to the willful blindness of today. That she swerves into the pedantic at times does not diminish the fact that she recognized the value of film as a means to raise awareness for social issues when many others saw the medium as just a passing craze. Along with Alice Guy-Blache, she was one of the first to film a full-length narrative film and was one of the most successful directors of the silent era.

“Hypocrites” is an allegory that begins with a quote by Browning, “What does the world, told a truth, but lie more.” This cynical observation introduces the story of one man’s search for truth but Weber decides to depict the virtue as a woman in all her naked glory-literally. The film is the first to depict full frontal nudity which of course, drew some controversy. Weber is very clever in her use of double exposure and other special effects which gives the film a dreamy, almost fairy tale quality. But these bits of razzle dazzle serve the story rather than just show off her obvious talent behind the camera. She is clearly sincere in her desire to teach her audience so that her slightly risqué presentation can be understood as serving that purpose. Courtenay Foote is particularly good as main character Gabriel and Myrtle Stedman as the woman who adores him longingly.

Lois Weber is now mostly forgotten but she was one of the highest paid film pioneers of her day. Sadly, her evangelical style of movie making did not do well in the more loosely moral Jazz Age that saw the beginning of talking pictures. Only a few of her films survive but they are worth seeing for her fearless experiments pushing the boundaries of what film could do technically and narratively.

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