Archival Spaces 301
Lois Weber’s Hypocrites Restored
Uploaded 5 August 2022
Several weeks ago, Phil Carli premiered his new Silent Cinema Salon (https://philipcarli.com/), presenting a new restoration of Lois Weber’s Hypocrites (1915, Lois Weber) in his Rochester living room with live piano accompaniment. Carli is, of course, very well-known in the United States and abroad as one of the premier piano accompanists for silent films. The film was streamed directly after Carli gave an introduction and is now still available on his site.
I first saw Hypocrites decades ago, when Kino International put the film out on VHS, and I was always a bit troubled by the somewhat confusing narrative structure. True, Lois Weber’s first directed feature is a pure allegory, mixing as did many films at the time, both a historical and a modern story, so continuity seems rather arbitrary. But in what order do these events occur? This becomes an extremely difficult question for film restorationists when only one original source for a film is known to exist. Without a script or other sources, archival practice prohibits changing the order of individual sequences or shots based on some film exterior logic, because of the danger of perverting film history; the most famous example being The Life of an American Fireman (1901), when a MOMA curator intercut two separate geographical spaces where none had existed, leading film historians to surmise that this was the first case of parallel editing.
Given its convoluted structure, film historians and critics for decades discussed Lois Weber’s film not only as an allegory but as a film that defies the conventions of what was to become known as classical Hollywood narrative. An original print of Hypocrites had been discovered in the 1970s at the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia and was repatriated to the Library of Congress’s American Film Institute Collection. That tinted version, which is available on YouTube was considered definitive. It opens with an allegorical image of a female nude walking through “the gate of truth,” then cuts to the minister Gabriel preaching to his congregation; after reading a newspaper article about a statue in Paris representing “Truth” that had been censored, he imagines himself a Benedictine monk who unsuccessfully leads his parishioners up a steep path of virtue, another allegorical scene. The film then flashes back to medieval times in the third reel where the monk has created a sculpture of a nude female depicting “the truth,” and is killed by an angry mob for blasphemy. The fourth reel has “the naked Truth” holding up a mirror to contemporary politics, society, etc., thus visualizing the congregation’s hypocrisy, before returning to the church where the minister expires.
However, when George Willeman, a preservationist at the Library of Congress restored the film last year, he was troubled by the film’s wonky continuity, until he realized that the first and third reels had been switched at some point, whether in the original Australian release version or later. Once he made the switch, the film made much more sense. Happily, the change was confirmed when Willeman found an original synopsis in The Motion Picture World (23 January 1915). Finally, in order to reconstruct the film’s tinting scheme, Willeman asked the Australians whether they had tinting notes and was told they had made a color negative back in the day.
The film is now presented in chronological order with the medieval tale coming in the first reel, followed by the church sermon, which is rejected by most of the parishioners. Afterward, the minister dreams that in the guise of the monk he is leading his flock, but most reject his more difficult path in favor of the broad road, which results in the monk, accompanied by the “naked truth,” holding up a mirror to society’s hypocrisy before the minister dies in the church.
While the film’s new/original structure makes more sense in terms of classical narrative, Lois Weber’s Hypocrites is still unique for its unabashed moral allegory and Weber’s aesthetic treatment, e.g. truth’s mirror is an oval iris shot that reveals politicians preaching honesty while collecting bribes in the back room. The film caused a scandal at the time of its release, because of the extensive female nudity of ‘truth,” shown in superimpositions, but still revealing specifics of the female form; it was outright banned in Ohio. But also of interest is the film’s cinematography by Dal Clawson and George W. Hill, the latter later the director of The Big House (1930), which utilizes a constantly moving camera to reveal hidden truths. Such overtly allegorical films would soon fall out of fashion, though isolated examples continued to be made, because they self-consciously called attention to their own artifice, rather than creating a seamless reality, the goal of classical Hollywood narrative..