Although the nudity was tastefully done (it was passed by The National Board of Censors), it was still banned in Ohio and caused riots in New York. The mayor of Boston demanded that every frame displaying the naked figure of Truth be hand-painted to clothe the unidentified actress who portrayed her (one historian suggested that Lois Weber herself played the part). See more »
Undoubtedly one of the greatest silent films - watch it if you can.
Any attempt to rate outstanding films involves first establishing the criteria by which they are to be assessed, and most people today would mark them down for any blatant attempt to pass on a message rather than just to entertain. Despite this a case can be made for regarding 'Hypocrites' as being among the three or four most outstanding films from the silent era. Whilst its moralising may deter many modern viewers, we need to remember today that during this era films were widely expected to convey a moral message and were not infrequently constructed so as to 'preach' to the viewer. This is the complete converse of what is P.C. today; but it is characteristic of the work of most great screenwriters and directors of the period such as Fred Niblo, Cecil Demille, or D.W. Griffith, as well as Lois Weber. Today only a small number of the pre-1920 films which were created are still extant, and Demille is primarily remembered for his later sound films. Griffith is probably now the most widely known known director of silent films, largely thanks to the superb craftsmanship which went into the interweaving of the four stories that comprise 'Intolerance', and the fact that both this and 'The Birth of A Nation' are not infrequently screened on television. However the somewhat jingoistic message about the superiority of the 'American way of life', which is Griffith's trademark in so many of his films, is very superficial compared with the way 'Hypocrites' brings out the blinkered self satisfaction that has been characteristic of the life of those in authority throughout history, and is a direct and almost inevitable consequence of our almost universal urge for self-justification. The film is basically an allegorical story of a priest who becomes increasingly aware of the harm caused by the self righteousness of major figures from the past, as well as the members of his own congregation; but who nevertheless remains completely unable to appreciate how in his own life he displays exactly the same failing. In showing this, Weber also provides a not too subtle hint to the film's audience that they share this same characteristic.
At the time this film was released Lois Weber was widely regarded as one of the finest directors working in Hollywood and she received at least one 'Best Director' accolade in 1916, beating both DeMille and Griffith. An aspect of her work which is not always widely appreciated today is that she was an early feminist. Part of the failing of the priest lies in suppressing his natural emotions until he is unable to respond in any meaningful way to the affection one of his congregation shows for him. The film shows both mainstream catholic and protestant churchmen as having shared this failing over many centuries; as well as cultivating a belief that no more than very slow progressive changes in the attitudes of society can ever be expected. This was of course a widely held attitude during the early twentieth century; and here Weber appears to be calling on women, because they are generally less reserved about showing their emotions, to take a larger role in battling against the decadence she saw in everyday life by demanding much more drastic changes to the structure of society..
The various vignettes which comprise this film are linked by a semi-transparent (double exposure) naked figure, symbolising naked truth, intended to draw attention to the ways in which the characters featured in each vignette have partially suppressed or hidden the truth. There was nothing salacious in these sequences which were accepted by the Board of Censors at the time; but they may have been a mistake on the part of Weber as some city fathers, who presumably felt that the films message was cutting a little too close to the bone, used them as an excuse to impose local bans on it. On the other hand one can speculate that perhaps Weber herself anticipated such developments and decided they would help underline the ongoing significance of her message.
Weber was an extremely prolific screenwriter and director but unfortunately copies of very few of her other silent films seem to have survived. It is known that most of her works could be classified in the socially significant category, however it is hard for us to assess how far 'Hypocrites' is typical of them. Watching a sermon in the form of a film may not appeal to many people today; but in this case its mastery of the use of the camera, and the complexity of its structure for such an early film, make it fascinating viewing for everyone with any interest in the history of the film industry. Recognising that acting for the silent cinema always demanded a style which today would generally be regarded as slight overacting, it would be hard to fault the work of any of the cast; and this film is constructed in such a way that neither speech or subtitles are needed much, the story is largely told through the camera-work and by the expressions and gestures of the cast. This film was brought to home video through a Kino International VHS tape created from a copy of the film in the Library of Congress Archives, and we all owe them a big debt of gratitude for producing this. I hope it will not be long before they can provide us with a DVD version.
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