Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Naked Truth

Hypocrites 1915 U.S. Hobart Bosworth Productions (50 minutes); written, directed and produced by Lois Weber; cinematography by Dal Clawson and George W. Hill; distributed by Paramount Pictures (Kino International). 
A politician gives a stump speech over a sign that announces ‘My Platform Is Honesty.’ The Naked Truth—an unselfconsciously nude woman—appears on his platform holding a mirror, unseen to all but the film audience. The image in Truth’s oval mirror fills the screen: the same politician appears at a table taking payoffs from a uniformed policeman and a series of shady-looking people. The crowd jumps up shaking its fists and pointing at the politician.

This vignette is one among many nice touches in this absorbing century-old silent film, a social commentary written, directed and produced by Lois Weber in 1914 at almost the same time that her peer D.W. Griffiths was making The Birth of a Nation.

Weber’s visually inventive and entertaining allegory compares modern and medieval times, using the same cast to play modern roles that correspond to their medieval personas; Truth (Margaret Edwards) scampers disinterestedly across time unseen by all, usually in a double-exposed image.
The director signals her intent by following the film’s title with a formal portrait of herself inscribed ‘Sincerely yours, Lois Weber,’ and then a line from Robert Browning’s narrative poem The Ring and the Book: ‘What does the world, told a truth, but lie the more.’ (Later she gets to John Milton.)

A small number of the principle actors are introduced serially, shown in medieval and then modern costume while seated on an elevated throne. But they are identified only by their medieval titles: Gabriel the Ascetic (Courtenay Foote), The Woman in White (Myrtle Stedman), The Abbot (Herbert Standing) and The Queen (Adele Farrington).

The action begins with a large pair of ornamental harp-shaped gates—The Gates of Truth—opening into a grove. Truth gambols from the outside in, and the gates sweep shut behind her.
A minister in church gives a passionate sermon on ‘Hypocrisy.’ The minister—Gabriel the Ascetic—is a gaunt young man of woeful countenance. Weber’s montage of faces, gestures and stylish women’s hats is beautifully composed. Many of the prosperous-looking middle-aged congregation are yawning and rolling their eyes, winking, checking their watches. Three senior vestrymen grumble together, and boys in the choir are looking at a newspaper. The minister also has admirers: the Woman in White and another heartsick woman (Vera Lewis); others appear to pay attention.
After the sermon, the Abbot (a senior vestryman) and his wife approach the minister, and the title reads: ‘Great sermon this morning.’ Afterward, directly outside the church in top hats, the senior vestryman catches up with three grumbling middle-aged congregants and the title says: ‘Ask for his resignation but keep my name out of it.’

Inside the church, the minister remonstrates with the newspaper-reading choir boy. The broadsheet headline reads: ‘Why the Truth Has Startled Wicked Paris,’ with a half-page reproduction of a painting showing a naked woman holding aloft a shining mirror before a fleeing modern crowd—the French painter Adophe Faugeron’s 1914 La Verité. 
Settling in a chair near the altar with the newspaper and a soulful look, the minister sinks into a reverie. And then he rises from the chair, transformed into Gabriel the Ascetic, a figure in monkish robes, to lead his congregation up a steep hill to Truth. The admiring women and several congregants try to follow but all ultimately fail.

A title reads: ‘Truth is ever elusive.’ And she steals from a hollow tree, frolicking through the wood just ahead of Gabriel. When he catches up to her, he says: ‘Since my people will not come to you, come to my people.’ They leave the grove together through The Gates of Truth she was shown entering when the story opened.

The medieval heart of the drama brings to mind the roughly contemporaneous illustrations of Howard and Katherine Pyle. The gaunt Gabriel is a monk working in secret on a sculpture. His Abbot, formerly the senior vestryman, is shown regaling the other monks eating and drinking at the monastic board. When Gabriel finishes his sculpture, the Abbot allows him to present it ‘to the people.’
The screen title on the big day says: ‘The people gathered as on a fête day.’ This gathering is another gem of early cinematic montage. The Abbot himself unveils Gabriel’s sculpture. A lethal pandemonium breaks out because ‘People are shocked by the nakedness of truth.’
No one can see the ‘nude truth,’ the thing simply unadorned; it is only when that figure, veiled, is stripped bare as The Naked Truth that people get incensed (and still do not actually see her). 
The half-dozen vignettes which follow are set in the turn-of-the-century US. Truth, led by Gabriel, holds up her mirror to politics and other human activities and institutions. In ‘Society,’ a well-heeled crowd is making merry in a sumptuous drawing room. The women are bare-armed and show lots of shoulder. Gabriel enters and invites an attractive sophisticate on a couch to see Truth with her mirror.
‘Truth is welcome if clothed in our ideas’ the sophisticate replies, handing Gabriel a diaphanous shawl. Gabriel tries to cover the woman with the shawl of her own ‘ideas,’ and then he leaves with Truth. The woman departs with a male friend, trailing the shawl. (We mention this detail because the sophisticate is Jane Darwell, who later played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.)
In the end, ‘ever elusive’ Truth scampers back to her grove—and Gabriel’s vision has a surprise ending.

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