The Woman Under Oath (1919)

Silent Stahl: The Woman Under Oath

I am very excited to share this screening with you – The Woman Under Oath (John M Stahl, 1919) is a really special film that I was lucky enough to research last year, and it is showing on 35mm with live music in NFT1.

Most of you will be familiar with the work of John M Stahl – even though he is best known for a few films that were remade by more famous directors. Douglas Sirk remade both his The Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, while Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman is based on the novella by Stefan Zwieg that seems also to have inspired Stahl’s 1933 Only Yesterday. Perhaps Stahl’s most famous film is 1944’s Leave Her to Heaven. If you have seen any of those titles, it won’t surprise you to learn that Stahl is celebrated as master of melodrama who directed films with strong, passionate heroines. If you’ve seen the last one, you’ll be excited to learn that The Woman Under Oath pivots on a trial.

Until last year, I had never seen any of Stahl’s silent films, which is partly because so few of them have survived (just nine features and various fragments) and even more so because they are very rarely screened. Stahl was born Jacob Morris Strelitsky in Baku, Azerbaijan, but moved to New York as a youngster. Taking the name John Malcolm Stahl, he made a series of movies in the teens and early twenties in New York, before signing with Louis B Mayer Pictures (which later became MGM) in Hollywood in 1924. He was a founding member of the Academy and briefly an executive at the Tiffany studio. He went on to make 20 sound films, however (all of which survive), including the ones mentioned above. His final picture, made in 1949, was the musical Oh, You Beautiful Doll.

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I watched a selection of Stahl silents from European archives last year, as I have played a tiny part in a project masterminded by Charles Barr and Bruce Babington, which you will hear plenty more about in 2018. There will be festival screenings, a book, and I hope, a revival of interest in all things Stahl.

Stahl’s silents were generally melodramas, often involving misunderstandings between husbands and wives, and suspicions of infidelity. I liked the ones I saw a great deal, but The Woman Under Oath really made me sit up and take notice. This is a kind of courtroom melodrama if you will. A young working-class man called Jim (Gareth Hughes) is accused of murder, and given the third degree by the cops. When his case comes to trial, a female novelist called Grace (Florence Reed) is selected for jury duty – in the world of the film, she’s the first woman in the state to sit on a criminal jury, although in fact New York wouldn’t allow such a thing for years. There are two stories going on here – Grace’s and Jim’s – and although the film keeps us guessing, the connection between them is not made clear until the very end.

Florence Reed
Florence Reed

It’s a fantastic film, with many notable sequences (including the brutal interrogation scene), and shades of 12 Angry Men (the story of which, of course, originated much later, on TV in the 1950s). Reed and Hughes both give excellent leading performances, although the latter gives a particularly haunting portrayal of a wronged man. Reed’s career began on the stage but she appeared in movies from 1915 until the late 1930s before moving to TV. She is best remembered for playing Miss Havisham in Universal’s 1934 Great Expectations, which fails to prepare you for her striking beauty as a young woman.

Gareth Hughes
Gareth Hughes

Hughes is an especially fascinating character – a Welshman who specialized in sensitive young heroes such as Jim, both on Broadway and in silent movies. His breakthrough role came a couple of years after The Woman Under Oath, when he starred in the film adaptation of JM Barrie’s Sentimental Tommy. Slightly at odds with his sweet and innocent image, Hughes, who was gay, was said to have had a rather wild time in the 1920s, and was part of Alla Nazimova’s glamorous circle. He returned to the stage after losing money in the Wall Street Crash and in the 1940s he discovered a Christian calling and became a missionary in Nevada.

May McAvoy
May McAvoy

May McAvoy also stars as Grace’s sister Edith – I won’t say much about her character but I beg you not to read the spoiler-heavy plot synopsis on the film’s Wikipedia page. Look out too for Mildred Cheshire who plays Jim’s unfortunate girlfriend Helen (her storyline is pure #metoo) and Scottish stage veteran David Powell as the late, unlamented Edward.

The Woman Under Oath contains elements of melodrama and the courtroom thriller, as I have said, but one of the reasons I most admire it is its feminist “ripped-from-the-headlines” plot. Consider this, the film was made when American women still didn’t have the vote and yet it chooses to tackle a rather racy proposition. In the words of an early intertitle: “Is a woman temperamentally fitted for service on a jury in a criminal case?” The subject matter was considered so hot at the time, that titbits such as this were dropped into Motion Picture News while the film was in post-production:

“Because, it is said, of the nature of its title, early publication of which might lead to imitation owing to the timeliness and importance of its subject, no main title has yet been announced, but it is promised that the piece deals with a topic of new and vital public interest hitherto unutilized either on stage or screen.”[i]

In the end, Stahl’s The Woman Under Oath puts the case for women having their specific knowledge, as well as sympathy, to bring to bear on a trial. The murder case cannot be solved entirely by men, their assumptions or their brute force. Not only that, but the film shows Grace debating the case late at night, in a locked room with her 11 fellow male jurors. That’s exactly the kind of compromising position that people feared women would be placed in if they were allowed to serve on criminal juries. Grace keeps a cool head, though, even when her peers attempt to browbeat her into agreement. It seems very appropriate that the film is being shown at BFI Southbank so close to International Women’s Day.

The Woman Under Oath is a bold and brilliant film, which hinges on perceptions and misperceptions in the way that many of the very best silent films do. It has a satisfyingly knotty plot, with an exciting twist in the tail and it is so clearly the work of a film director with a first-class future ahead of him. If you’ve never seen a silent Stahl before, this is an excellent way to begin.

[i] ‘United Secures Frank Crane to Direct Reed’ , Motion Picture News , 26 April 1919, 2646

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