Hypocrites (1915) an Important Film Lesson



Directed by Elliot Reivers and Lois Weber (uncredited)

Paramount, 49 minutes, not-rated






If you have not studied film history, you might think there was never any nudity in American movies until the 1960s. Not so. Until 1934, when an older moral code began to be enforced, lots of films had nude scenes. What changed, beginning with the 1963 offering Promises! Promises! was that Hollywood started to ignore said code. In 1968, it was shelved. Hypocrites, a 1915 silent film that was the brainchild of Lois Weber, was one of numerous pre-code films that sported a clothes-off actress: Margaret Edwards. Weber wrote, produced, and codirected a project that was informally called The Naked Truth because of Edwards.


Hypocrites is a series of vignettes in two acts. In the first, we meet Gabriel the Ascetic (Courtenay Foote), a medieval monk. We see him feverishly working behind the locked door of his monastic cell. His abbot, (Herbert Standing) and fellow monks think he is both obsessed and standoffish and, to a degree, they are correct. They fail to see that Gabriel lives on a spiritual plane far above their own. They humor Gabriel and agree to unveil his secret sculpture before the queen and a gathering of villagers. Unveil is the correct word; when the curtain lifts, a comely female nude in marble so shocks viewers that they murder Gabriel.


Everything in the film is an allegory, so what happens next is open to interpretation. We see a ghostly nude (Edwards) appear before Gabriel to beckon him up at rugged hillside. As he climbs, some villagers–especially women–try to follow him. They fall by the wayside. The Truth leads Gabriel to a gate, which leads to a summit overlooking a spectacular view. Gabriel stands enraptured. Is this a prequel or a post-mortem scene? Do the gates open to spiritual enlightenment, or do they represent the Gates of Paradise? Take your pick; it works either way. What is clear is that most people are more interested in worldly things than in a saintly life.


In the next act, we see Foote in the guise of a modern-day (1915) minister preaching a sermon on hypocrisy. It outrages the congregation, some of whom plot to rid themselves of their sanctimonious minister. They need not have bothered. He sits disconsolately by the pulpit, dies, and only a handful of congregants mourn his passing. This is the setup for vignettes in which we witness the hypocrisy of his detractors. The nude Edwards appears in each, as if to call our attention to their serial violations of the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth, and lust. Truth is naked, pure, and innocent, but only nudity arouses ire.


Ambiguity again comes into play. Is the minister a reincarnation of Gabriel? Is this Weber’s sideways critique of Christians who focus on form rather than substance? Is the Christian hang-up about nudity the ultimate hypocrisy? Are sins committed behind closed doors somehow less serious? Weber’s film was thought to be scandalous and anticlerical in its day, but was that view crafted by titular hypocrites who willfully ignored Weber’s premise?  


At this stage I should remind you that this is both a silent film and one that is more than a century old. Some stock has been tinted, which helps with resolution but many parts of Hypocrites are too badly damaged to allow for full restoration. Remember also that silent films are exactly that. Aside from a few dialogue or expository slides, narrative is communicated by histrionic gestures, exaggerated lighting, and dramatic makeup. Foote’s facial mask is often suggestive of a sickly raccoon.


You need to know, however, that much of what you see was pathbreaking in 1915. Weber used multiple exposures and overlap to create Edwards’ phantasmagorical physical qualities. Choosing Edwards was also inspired; she is the very essence of naked innocence. Nor should we overlook that Weber was a rare female director and producer in a decidedly male film world.


I can't promise you will find Hypocrites to be enthralling viewing–its surfaces and acting are too dated and mannered for most tastes–but it's an important historical document. And, if I might, it made me think of the hypocrisy of many contemporary clerics. You know, the ones that rail against sex as a way of diverting attention from their devotion to violating the seven deadly sins. Sooner or later, though, most of them are caught with their pants down!


Rob Weir

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