Ideal picture entertainment is a well assorted shelf of books come to life – Lois Weber
The legacy of Lois Weber gives us a perfect example of how film history has treated female filmmakers. From the mid-teens until the late 1920s, Weber was one of the most prolific and popular directors in Hollywood, mentioned in the same breath as revered pioneers D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, two of the most well known of the early film directors.
While time has remembered these two men as visionaries who advanced the art of film, Weber, when she is mentioned at all, is dismissed as being preachy and offering no entertainment value to modern audiences. Her work is, apparently, of interest only to serious film scholars. While an argument can defiantly be made that Weber’s work is not suited for the modern film goer, the same case can also be made for the work of most silent era filmmakers. However, while the sparse plotting, overly melodramatic content and overt racism of Griffith’s work can be overlooked by history, the same courtesy is not extended to Weber. (Full disclosure: I can’t stand Griffith’s films.)
To hold Weber to a modern standard that her male counterparts are not seriously diminishes her work and the work of women like her. Almost none of the silent era films hold up today because modern audience expect very different things than the audiences of the 1910s and ’20s. This doesn’t make the work of Weber and other women like her any less important to film history.
Weber was one of the first directors to use split screen effects and shoot on location. She was responsible for supporting many other women in the industry including Francis Marion, one of the era’s most successful screenwriter, and helping actresses Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton and Dorothy Davenport Reid make the transition to work behind the camera. Her mentorship wasn’t limited to other women, she was also an integral part in starting the careers of directors Frank Lloyd and Henry Hathaway.
It is past time to shine a light on the remarkable life and, more importantly, career of Lois Weber.
Lois Weber was born on June 13, 1879 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. She began her career as a pianist and singer at 16 in New York City where she was also heavily involved with the local Missionary. She began acting on the advice of her uncle so she could reach more people with her message.
On the New York stage, she met her husband, Phillips Smalley. They were married in 1905 and by 1907 had begun a career in film as a directing partnership collectively billed as “The Smalleys”. In 1908 they began working for Gaumont. Under the guidance of Alice Guy, one of the world’s most prominent and respected female directors, Weber began to develop her talents as a director, writer and producer. While both Weber and her husband were given on-screen directing credits, Weber retained sole billing as the screenwriter. By all accounts, she was the primary driving and creative force of the partnership.
In 1912, the Smalleys were placed in charge of the Rex brand at Universal, taking over from Edwin S. Porter. At Rex, Weber was involved in all stages of production from direction to acting, set and costume design, editing and developing the negatives. She believed that a director should have complete control over every aspect of a film because “what other artist has his work interfered with by someone else?” In 1914, Weber became the first American woman to direct a full-length feature with an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice.
Weber championed film as an art form and believed in the power of film as an instrument of social change at a time when most in the industry still considered it a passing fad. She tackled a number of highly controversial issues in her films, beginning with Hypocrites in 1915. The film explores sexual desire and hypocrisy in organized religion and featured the first female full frontal nudity on screen. As a result the film was subjected to heavy censorship, with the mayor of Boston begging her to paint over the offending nude. In Ohio, the film was outlawed and caused riots in New York—all of which resulted in the film’s major popularity. “Hypocrites is not a slap at any church or creed,” said Weber. “It is a slap at hypocrites, and its effectiveness is shown by the outcry amongst those it hits hardest to have the film stopped.”
After Hypocrites, Weber continued to release films that dealt with controversial issues. The People v. John Doe (1916) takes a stand on capital punishment, Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916) covers drug abuse; poverty and wage equality were tackled in Shoes (1916) and Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) both promote sex education and family planning, campaigning for the use of birth control. Her films were both hugely popular with the public and critics alike despite, or perhaps because of, their highly controversial subject matter.
In 1916, Weber became the first (and, for decades, the only) woman elected to the Motion Pictures Directors Association, elevating her to one of the most prominent directors at the time of any gender.
In 1917, Weber left Universal to start her own production company, Lois Weber Productions, becoming the first woman to do so. She built a 12,000 square-foot shooting stage and negotiated a lucrative distribution contract with Universal that would make her the highest paid director (male or female) in Hollywood. Under her own company, she began to move away from the controversial topics she had explored in the past and instead began to focus on films that explored the life and experiences of women, particularly within marriage. She also began renting her studio out to other directors, helping several of them to jump-start their careers.
By the mid-1920s, Weber’s career saw a steep decline. Her studio went bankrupt and she suffered a mental breakdown. While many attribute her downward spiral to her divorce from Smalley in 1922, I agree with the Women Film Pioneers Project‘s Shelly Stamp that it was more due to the overall climate in Hollywood, particularly with regards to female filmmakers. Unfortunately, Weber never managed to transition into the sound era, making just a single sound film, White Heat in 1934.
Weber died in 1939 and like so many other women of her era, was relegated to the footnotes of history. While just over a decade before she had been one of the most important people in Hollywood, her death warranted only a few lines in Variety. There is no denying her importance to film as an art form, however, as she was one of the first directors to understand the power of film beyond its entertainment value. Of Weber, film historian Anthony Slide has said, “Few men, before or since, have retained such absolute control over the films they have directed—and certainly no women directors have achieved the all-embracing, powerful status once held by Lois Weber.”
Films You Should See:
Really, all Weber’s early films are worth watching for their socially conscious content and her later ones for a look into the live of women in the 1910s and 1920s. However, if you have to pick one film Hypocrites would be it. It broke boundaries in its use of nudity and solidified Weber’s place as one of the era’s most popular and important directors.
Want to Know More?
Women Film Pioneers Project: Lois Weber Profile
Lois Weber in Early Hollywood by Shelley Stamp: pub. University of California Press, 2015