F.: John K. Holbrook. Int.: Florence Reed (Grace Norton), Hugh Thompson (John Schuyler), Gareth Hughes (Jim O’Neil), David Powell (Edward Knox), Florida Kingsley (signora O’Neil), Mildred Cheshire (Helen), May McAvoy (Edith Norton), Harold Entwistle (il giudice). Prod.: Tribune Productions Inc. 35mm. L.: 1693 m. D.: 61’. Bn.
“Is a woman temperamentally fitted for service on a jury in a criminal case?” With this intertitle, The Woman Under Oath announces itself as both topical and provocative. In Stahl’s lurid courtroom melodrama, Gareth Hughes plays Jim, a young man accused of shooting his repulsive former employer Edward Knox, played by David Powell. Florence Reed plays Grace Norton, a novelist sensationally elected to the jury at Jim’s trial. In the film she is the first woman in New York to do so, although it wasn’t made legal in the state until 1937.
Via flashbacks and meaningful glances across the courtroom, Stahl deflects and then reveals the story of Knox’s death. Notable sequences include Jim’s harrowing interrogation by the police, including a decidedly unethical trick designed to terrify a confession out of him, and Grace’s tormented visions in the jury-room, where she holds out against her peers’ assumption of Jim’s guilt.
“Exhibitors’ Herald” dismissed The Woman Under Oath out of hand as “comically serious, amateurish and altogether disappointing”, adding that Reed’s close-up-heavy performance in the lead role “does not redeem the picture”. The review in “Wid’s Daily” was more positive: while baffled by the flashbacks, it praised Hughes’s “forcefully excellent portrayal of accused youth” and the film’s restrained use of intertitles, calling it “a quite good picture of its kind” despite being “none too wholesome in certain respects”. Ultimately the topical question posed at the outset was the hook, with “Wid’s Daily” commending the film to female audiences, more specifically progressive households where “woman suffrage is a popular topic with the women”.
Contrary to those contemporary views, The Woman Under Oath emerges an accomplished and compelling film, by a director with a sterling career ahead of him. Stahl would continue to make more female-led melodramas, and returned to a version of this plot when he produced 1929’s early-talkie Painted Faces.