Hypocrites / Eleanor's Catch
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The most important and prolific of all American women directors of the silent era, Lois Weber entered films in 1907 at Gaumont, working alongside Alice Guy-Blaché. In the ensuing years, she and her husband Phillips Smalley acted in, directed, wrote and edited films for Gaumont, Rex and Universal. By 1914, Weber was a well-known director when she went to work for the Bosworth Company to make HYPOCRITES. HYPOCRITES is an amazingly complex film in both narrative and technique, following the parallel stories of an early Christian ascetic and a modern minister, with most actors in dual roles. Gabriel (Courteney Foote) is a medieval monk who devotes himself to completing a statue of Truth, only to be murdered by a mob when his work turns out to be an image of a naked woman. The contemporary Gabriel is the pastor of a large urban congregation for whom religion is a matter of appearances, not beliefs. The hypocrisy of the congregation is exposed by a series of vignettes in which the Naked Truth, literally portrayed by a nude woman, reveals their appetites for money, sex and power. HYPOCRITES was a shocking and controversial film whose release was held up for many months by the difficulty of distributing a film with full nudity. Weber s sincerity and reputation allowed her to use something that in the hands of a male director would have been considered scandalous and immoral. Widely admired at the time for extraordinary use of multiple exposures and intricate editing, HYPOCRITES propelled Weber to the front ranks of silent directors. ELEANOR'S CATCH is a delightful short, directed by and starring Cleo Madison. A successful actress, Madison was one of many women who directed films at Universal, particularly in the mid 1910s. In this two-reeler, she stars as a young city girl dragged into a life of crime by a ne er-do-well suitor. A terrific surprise ending gives Eleanor and Cleo an early claim to promoting women s equality in the workforce.
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HYPOCRITES dates from 1915 and tackles not only moral hypocrisy but religious materialism as well. The film is allegorical in nature as it contrasts the story of a present day (1915) minister and his wealthy congregation with a medieval monk who causes a furor when he creates a statue of Truth depicted as a naked woman. Parts in both stories are played by the same actors. The monk is killed by an outraged mob while the minister expires after his sermon on hypocrisy. In between are a series of vignettes showing the hypocrisy of the congregation when confronted with the "naked truth". Not exactly conventional filmmaking nor particularly subtle by today's standards but HYPOCRITES remains a remarkable effort not only for when it was made but for how it was made. Weber's use of multiple exposures and sophisticated editing helped to make her one of the major figures of the silent era. Within a year she would be the highest paid director in the world pulling down $5000 a week. Within 10 years she would be all but forgotten and most of her films would disappear forever.
Although these DVDs won't be released until April it appears that are they exactly the same as the VHS versions which means that these films will not have undergone any significant restoration. HYPOCRITES suffers from some serious nitrate decomposition in places but is more than watchable as long as you are aware of that fact. This print was preserved in the Library Of Congress and for the time being it's all we have. Rounding out this release is Cleo Madison's 1916 short film ELEANOR'S CATCH. The FIRST LADIES series is historically important and deserves to be on DVD. Silent film aficionados will find much to admire here and should have all 3 titles in their collections but these films are not for the public at large unless you're interested in the careers of early women filmmakers.
P.S. - The DVDs have just been released (4/22) and the good news is that while restorations were not done on these films (it's doubtful that much could be done), the images are much sharper and detailed than on the old VHS tapes. Thank you Kino.
It may come across as an overbearing lecture - just as the opening scenes which show a sincere minister giving a sermon on hypocrisy, only to find his congregation squirming, angry and uneasy, and even seeking to get rid of him afterwards. But as a rare glimpse into the mind and work of Lois Weber, as well as an historic statement about mentality and early cinema, "Hypocrites" is a valuable film. Unfortunately, some scenes especially at the beginning show some deterioration which can't be restored, but for the most part the picture is good and clear, and it is accompanied by a nice, suitable piano score. After 50 minutes of seeing how false and hypocritical the world is, the second 15-minute film on this DVD, "Eleanor's Catch" feels like a breeze, with a simple, short story and an unexpected twist at the end. A popular actress in the 1910s, Cleo Madison also directed many films, and in this 1916 short film, she made a statement for women's equality in the workforce, making this also a landmark film fit for the "First Ladies" series.