Early & Silent Film

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The Woman Under Oath, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on September 2, 2018

This was the solitary silent film screened in ‘Immortal Imitations: the Cinema of John M. Stahl’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2018. John Stahl was a film-maker and producer in Hollywood from 1914 until 1950. He directed twenty silents, many of which do not survive. He was co-chairman and producer at Tiffany-Stahl in the late 1920s. In the 1930s he directed melodramas for Universal and later worked for Metro, Columbia and finally C20th Fox. Most of Stahl’s films are dramatic features and they usually fall into what has been characterised as ‘the woman’s picture.’

“The turbulent and tender world he depicts has at its centre women, often working together and living alone. Active participant in a society undergoing change, they are portrayed by some of the most glamorous screen icons – with a rare sense of ease.” (Ehsan Koshbakht in the Festival Catalogue).

The Festival programme included films starring Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and Gene Tierney among others. This film starred Florence Reed, a ‘grand dame’ of Broadway Theatre who also appeared in several silent films in the late teens.

The premise of the drama concerns a modern woman, novelist Grace Norton (Reed). In a trope that precedes reality by a decade Grace Norton becomes the first woman in a New York trial to be selected for Jury Service. In fact, it was only in 1937 that the state laws allowed women to serve on juries. The film’s premise raises issues around the social status of women in contemporary US society; contrasts representations of men and women; and develops an intriguing but complex plot mystery.

The court case involves a young man on trial for murder. Jim O’Neil (Gareth Hughes) has been caught standing over a corpse with gun in hand: a trope that is repeated across film after film. The dead man is his ex-employer, Edward Knox (David Powell). Grace is the sole woman among eleven other male jury members on the trial. However, one of these, John Schuyler (Hugh Thompson), is already a friend of Grace and their is a romantic aspect to their friendship. Part of the drama in the film is generated by the gender division in the jury room. Early on the men all ask Grace’s permission before they start smoking.

The plot develops through ma series of flashbacks. One set show us the background s to Jim’s animosity to Knox: the latter is a womaniser who has exploited Jim’s sister. There is also a powerful sequence, with a noir effect in its lighting, when Jim is interrogated by the police with a ‘good cop’, ‘bad cop’ routine. Thus, as the plot unfurls the audience learn about Knox’s nefarious behaviour and the events that led Jim to the apartment at his moment of death.

Another of flashbacks fill in Grace’s family context, including her ailing sister Thus the Norton and O’Neil families share the same situation, an absent father, an [apparently] widowed mother and a dependent sister. These are factors that are revealed as affecting the deliberation sin the jury room.

After the final submissions and the summing-up by the judge the jury retire. There is a straw poll, with only one vote for acquittal. Ten angry men all look at Grace,

”I wonder who it is?”

This is followed by a cut to the O’Neil mother and sister sitting outside the court, waiting apprehensively. Such parallel cutting is utilised right through the film, drawing connections between characters but also ratcheting up the tension in the drama. This particular section extends when the jury, split over a verdict, are locked in for the night. This, of course exacerbates the gender situation. The film passes over the question of food or toileting in this situation. The news of an unexpected event, a ‘deus ex machina’, resolves the deadlock in the jury and enables an upbeat ending to the drama.

The flashback structure of the film is intriguing and effective. At one point we see an incident from two points of view: by Knox and then by O’Neil. The drama rises continually through the film though parts of the plotting stretch co-incidence to breaking point. Stylistically the film is extremely conventional. The cinematography and performances are good but the editing does not make full use of this. In the court room scenes we tend to see a series of cuts from either mid-shot or close-up of the main characters; lawyers, judge, witnesses and jury. This becomes repetitious and I thought that the drama could have been more effective if greater use was made of the larger settings.

The film is notable for the way that Stahl and his writers present a key female character in a positive and central position in the drama. Whilst Jim’s situation is likely to generate sympathy in an audience it is Grace who is the constant centre. In fact this probably accounts for the editing style in the court room sequences, where we are constantly taken back to see Grace’s responses.

The screening used a 35mm print from the BFI National Archive which was in good condition. The film ran for 61 minutes, so the plot was presented with well judged timing. The accompaniment was provided by Donald Sosin who ably combined the emotions of mystery, romance and tension.

Rather oddly the film is not in the planned programme of John Stahl silents at this year’s Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

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