Early & Silent Film

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The Woman Under Oath, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 19, 2019

This is one of the earliest surviving films directed by John Stahl. It was screened in the Stahl retrospectives, both at Il Cinema Ritrovato and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. At Il Ritrovato it was the only silent in 2018. At Le Giornate it was omitted in 2018 and then screened, along with a surviving fragment, in 2019. I never quite figured out this different treatment from other titles made by Stahl but it meant that we were able to watch the film twice. This helped, as though the surviving print is only missing 440 feet, there were certain problems with this version and I was unsure how much this was due to missing footage. I now think that the film is very well produced  in most aspects but that some of the editing does not work well.

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 Ritrovato Festival Catalogue).

The Ritrovato Festival programme of Stahl titles  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 (Florence 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, and its attendant publicity,  made play with the idea  that the trial involves the first woman  member of a New York Jury . The film’s premise raises issues around the social status of women in contemporary US society; it contrasts representations of men and women; and it 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 there is a romantic aspect  to their friendship. Part of the drama in the film is generated by the gender division in the jury room. It is here that the films dwells most intensely on the then unusual situation of a single woman juror with eleven male jurors. Early on the men all ask Grace’s permission before they start smoking.

In the trial sequences we see Jim facing prosecution for the murder of Edward Knox. Prior to this we see the murder scene,  the police investigation and charges, and, at its end, the summing for the jury. The film certainly has a number of well-edited and dramatic sequences. It opens with a close-up of a hand and a gun in a shot window. Young Jim is buying a gun. The following scene  shows him in a bar where a drink stiffens his nerves. He then proceeds to the apartment of Edward Knox and we see him confront Knox with gun in hand. The actual shooting is not seen but instead we see shots of a policeman and hotel staff reacting to the sound of the gunshot. Not coincidentally [we learn later] we then see Grace Norton near the hotel and hailing a taxi.

Jim, found standing over the body with gun in hand, is taken into custody. Another bravura sequence shows his interrogation by the police. ‘A good cop’, ‘bad cop’ routine in a noir-like room with a strong central light and shadowy perimeters accentuates the drama. Then Jim is confronted by a Knox look a-like and collapses and confesses.

The plot develops through a 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 girlfriend. 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 the flashbacks fill in Grace’s family context, including her ailing sister  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 in 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 [but not John Schuyler] all look at Grace,

”I wonder who it is?”

This is followed by a cut to the O’Neil’s 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 trial struck me as the weakest section of the film. There are a series of questioning of witnesses. As this proceeds there are frequent cuts to the jurors, Grace and a fellow jury member John Schuyler (Hugh Thomson). I found these too frequent and too fast, undercutting the court room drama.

However, the trial livens up when a young woman, Jim’s sweetheart, Helen (Mildred Cheshire) intervenes and takes the stand. In her evidence she testifies that she and Jim were sweethearts but that she suffered sexual molestation by Knox.

This is presented in a flashback which is slightly odd. We see Jim fired by Knox when he is found in the stock room with Helen. Helen is then taken to Knox office where he molests her, at one point pulling down the window blind. At this point the camera cuts to an exterior and in low-angle shot we see what appears to be Jim’s perspective; Knox grabbing Helen and then pulling down the blind is repeated from this exterior. Repeating a shot and action is found in early cinema but is uncommon by this date. What is odder that this turns out not be to be a subjective shot. Later Helen returns home with a torn dress and implications of rape. Jim is shocked and then and there vows revenge on Knox. Presumably he did not see what occurred before the blind came down?

The jury room  sequence, which is the dramatic climax of the film, is well done. The playing emphasises the unusual effects of a woman presence. As noted above, almost immediately the male jurors start to light their cigarettes and cigars, then, suddenly, remembering Grace’s presence, seek her approval. When a straw poll is taken  on the issue of guilt or innocence, Grace is the odd woman out. However, she is not entirely alone. John Schuyler is already known to Grace and it is in a flashback  that it is suggested that  he has a romantic interest. He acts as a sort of shield for Grace.

The jury deliberations mean that the twelve have to be locked in overnight; one of the  issues that made people hesitant about women jury members. There is large window and through it we see the snow is falling; it is the eve of Christmas.  Then a porter is allowed to pass a note to Grace. It tells her that her sister Edith (May McAvoy) has died. We have already seen her and the mother in previous scenes. Grace is shown as extremely solicitous of her sister who is ill.

The news of Edith death enables Grace to now tell the jury her reasons for voting for a not guilty verdict. The flashback she recount is presented on the blind of the rooms window; an excellent and dramatic touch.  Grace explains  that Edith was also a victim of Knox’s molestation. Pretending to her that he intended marriage so she suffered a ‘fate worse than death’: though death follows consequent on her pregnancy. Grace revenges her sister by shooting Knox,  moments before Jim enters the room with similar intent. This is the reason that she is seen hailing a taxi outside the hotel immediately after the murder.

Grace’s  story convinces  her fellow jurors. And in addition the foreman decides that since deliberations inside a jury room are confidential  they do not need to report Grace’s crime. Jim and his family celebrate a not guilty verdict. And the films ends with a romantic shot of Grace and John.

The flashback structure of the film is intriguing and effective. 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.

I find the film full of inventive touches and overall it dramatises the story well. I think the court room scene is the weakest. In terms of plot the film rather ‘has its cake and eats it too’.  In ‘The Call of the Heart John M. Stahl and the Hollywood Melodrama’ Pamela Hutchinson comments on Grace’s role in the film and the jury,

‘It also creates a realm of women’s knowledge unperceived by men – facts and events that only one gender is aware of, an d that may be vital in court.”

This seems to me to misread what we actually see. A jury member who is  a murderer could be of either gender and still reveal a different course of events from that heard in court. In fact bringing secrets into the jury room is a staple of such dramas, affecting one juror in ‘Twelve Angry Men.’ What seems more to the point is the question that if a male jury member had  made such a confession would his companions have shielded him from exposure.  This plot device also ‘stretches the long arm of coincidence to breaking point’; though that is a common device in melodrama.

Pamela Hutchinson seems to me on stronger ground  when she places this film in the overall oeuvre of Stahl and the central role that women characters, often like Grace strong and relatively in independent, play in his films. In this story Grace is a powerful character. She is able to wreak revenge on Knox whilst Jim turns up to late having had to stiffen his nerves with a drink. I did wonder how much the fact that the killer is a woman worked to allow an ending where a criminal escapes justice?

Presumably women in the audiences of the time would have found Grace an interesting and useful model; though it should be noted that she is also affluent and privileged. And men in the audiences would have found a dram that highlighted the gradual progress of women to independent and, often, equal roles in society.

The screening used a 35mm print from the BFI National Archive which was in good condition. The film runs for 73 minutes at 20 fps. I think the screening at the Ritrovato was had a slightly faster frame rate than at Pordenone; this would have exacerbated the editing flaws.  The accompaniment was provided by Donald Sosin at both screenings. e+He  He ably combined the emotions of mystery, romance and tension.

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