Despite being one of the first women directors in motion picture history, American filmmaker Lois Weber (1881–1939) is not very well remembered today, as her films have not measured well against the test of time.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Weber directed films dealing with social themes and often strived to make moral points in her work. As such, her films tended to be preachy and didactic. But in her prime, she was one of the most popular and highest paid directors in the film industry. Weber was a prolific filmmaker; in the early silent film era, when the art and business of motion pictures was still in its infancy, she made significant contributions to the emerging medium as a director, producer and writer. However, today her work is of interest only to scholars, as it provides historical and social perspective. For modern audiences, her films offer little, if any, entertainment value.
Working in an industry that would eventually become a male-dominated province, Weber thrived during a time when gender was not a major concern. In the period in which Weber toiled, before film became a big business, many other women found ongoing employment as directors, writers, producers, and actors. Weber proved so successful that she eventually started her own production company.
Weber, like her contemporary female colleagues, realized that film provided an opportunity to advance personal attitudes and agendas. She instinctively understood film's unique power to reach out to and influence a large audience. As such, she took advantage of her role to make personal films about social issues close to her heart. She tackled controversial topics such as birth control and abortion in Where are My Children? (1916), capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), Christian Science with Jewel (1915) and A Chapter in Her Life (1923). Favorite themes included women's role in society, marriage, social disparity, hypocrisy and the corruption that infests business, politics and religion.
In her cinematic indictments, she challenged her audience's own attitudes. As such her films were lauded as well as reviled, condemned and attacked as being sensational. Further, her work had been criticized as being preachy, as Weber's approach was more evangelical than that of a social reformer. She was not an advocate of women's rights and never became involved in the then-popular women's suffrage movement. Rather, she championed marriage and viewed women's role as that of house keepers.
Weber was born on June 13, 1881, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, close to Pittsburgh. While growing up, Weber displayed musical talent. When she was 16, she did a brief tour as a concert pianist and she sang with the missionary Church Army. When she expressed a desire to study voice in New York City, her parents objected, causing her to run away. On her own in New York, she lived in poverty, a circumstance that would later influence her films.
In the 1890s, possessing a missionary zeal to convert people, she worked as a street-corner evangelist and sang hymns in poverty-stricken sections of New York City. She also worked in the Church Home Missionary in Pittsburgh. When she sought to reach more people, she followed her uncle's advice and began a career on the stage.
Weber achieved a degree of success as an actress at the Hippodrome in New York. In 1905, she married fellow actor Phillips Smalley, who she met while touring as a cast member in the period melodrama Why Girls Leave Home. On stage, she performed with Smalley, who was also the touring company's manager. Catering to her husband's wishes, however, she temporarily left the stage to become a housewife.
Began Her Film Career
Weber left her role as a homemaker in 1908 when she met Alice Guy Blaché and Herbert Blaché and took a job at Herbert Blache's Gaumont Film Studio, an early film production company located in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where she worked as a writer, director and actress. At the time, all major film studios were located on the East Coast. While at Gaumont, she learned the craft of film direction by working with director Herbert Blaché. The experience was an important turning point in her career. Film, she believed, provided the perfect vehicle for her evangelism, as it would provide her with the broader audience that she sought.
In 1912, she teamed up with her husband to find work in the new film business. In the early part of their shared career, they worked at small film production companies, starting with Gaumont and then moving to Reliance, Rex, and Bosworth. At Rex, they worked for Edwin S. Porter, the film pioneer who made The Great Train Robbery (1902). When Porter left the company, Weber and Smalley took over.
At Rex, Weber and Smalley made a large number of shorts and feature films. Weber wrote scripts and screen subtitles. She also acted, directed, designed sets and costumes, edited film, and developed negatives. Throughout her career, Weber liked to be involved in many elements of film production. In a 1916 interview with The Moving Picture Weekly, she commented that a director should have sole authority in the "arrangement, cutting, titling or anything else" necessary to compete a film. "What other artist has his work interfered with by someone else?" she said. At this time, Weber and Smalley also experimented with an early form of sound films, with technology that involved actors' dialogue recorded on phonographs and synchronized to images on the screen.
Films Provoked Controversy
In 1913, Weber began directing regularly, and her films often generated controversy due to the frank nature of the subject matter. One of her most controversial films was Hypocrites, released in 1914. It was an indictment of public and religious hypocrisy. In the film, the lead actor, assuming a dual role, plays a monk troubled by the world's rampant hypocrisy and a priest who is stoned to death by his congregation for displaying a statue of a naked woman called "The Naked Truth". The priest had hoped the statue would awaken his congregation to their own hypocrisies, but they instead regarded him as immoral.
The depicted statue also generated real public outrage. Censors instructed Weber to cover the image, frame by frame. As often happens with films of this nature, the moviegoers went to see the film for its more sensational elements, rather than its moralistic message. But Weber was undeterred in her perceived purpose, and filmgoers would have to endure a sermon with their titillation. As taken from The Projector: Film and Media Journal website, the year of the film's release, she said, "In moving pictures I have found my life work. I find at once an outlet for my emotions and my ideals. I can preach to my heart's content."
Weber would encounter controversy and censorship often throughout her career. On occasion, police shut down showings of her films. In 1918, Theatre Magazine ran an article that criticized Weber for the indecency and suggestiveness present in her work. But Weber remained undaunted and continued producing her "missionary pictures" while defending her films against charges of exploitation.
Became Highest-Paid Female Director
In 1915, Universal financed a private film studio for Weber on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. By 1916, she was the film company's highest paid director, earning five thousand dollars a week, which was a considerable salary at that time. Moreover, she became one of the entire film industry's most compensated directors. Universal paid Weber top dollar and gave her a broad range of artistic freedom because her films were among the studio's biggest hits and, as a filmmaker, she was respected by critics.
Weber's output would be quite prolific. In all, she would make more than 400 films. Today, that amount sounds incredible. However, in the early years of film, most movies were short one-and two-real productions. That, of course, would change, when D.W. Griffith, the pioneering motion picture director and producer, made The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and Intolerance in 1916, two film spectaculars that stretched the parameters of film production, including screen running time.
Weber herself directed a long, five-reel film in 1916 called Where are My Children?, which was anti-abortion yet pro-birth control. The film's sensational subject matter caused it to be banned by the Philadelphia Board of Censors. In the wake of that condemnation, censorship trials involving the film's exhibition took place throughout the country. But the controversy only attracted more people to see the film, which would eventually take in three million dollars.
In 1916, Where are My Children? was followed by Shoes, which attacked child labor, Discontent, which depicted clashes between generations, and The People vs. John Doe, which addressed the injustices of capital punishment. In 1917, Weber made The Hand that Rocks the Cradle as a tribute to Margaret Sanger, an early advocate of birth control.
Deemed a "Great" Director
At this point in her career, Weber was in her prime productive years, which ran from 1913 to around 1922, a period that saw the release of her most important films. An article in Moving Picture Stories called her "the greatest woman director." In 1917, she formed her own production company, Lois Weber Productions, and released her films through Universal.
In 1920, she signed a contract with Famous Players-Lasky for $50,000 per picture and a percentage of profits. But the arrangement did not work out. She made five films for the company, but she was dropped a year later after she made three films that lost money. Critics were beginning to find her films dull, and she was beginning to lose her audience.
Still, two of the five films she made for Famous Players-Lasky (which would eventually evolve into Paramount Pictures), were regarded as being among her best work. One of the films, Too Wise Wives (1921) contrasted two marriages, focusing on the wives. One wife is selfless and devoted to home and family; the other is materialistic and self-absorbed. The film's message stressed the importance of the marriage arrangement. The film met with moderate success. More successful was The Blot, also released in 1921. The film focused on a proud-but-poor family loathing to accept charity, and the plot provided Weber with a vehicle that allowed her to condemn a society that places capitalistic pursuits above the intellectual and moral. The most remarkable thing about the film was its ambiguous ending, where the audience was left to ponder the main characters' future. Such a conclusion was unheard of at the time. Perhaps because of this innovative ambiguity, The Blot is the best known of all Weber films. After The Blot, however, she would only make five more films.
In Weber's independent productions, her husband worked with her as an assistant director. But the couple's fortunes began to fall as her films became less and less successful at the box office. Works like Weber's, which had a heavy moralistic tone, once ruled the day in the early twentieth century, when Victorian attitudes prevailed. However, after World War I, the country's character was undergoing a significant change. Post-war disenchantment was helping to usher in the "Jazz age" and the "Roaring '20s." Weber's style was becoming increasingly unpopular with audiences.
By the middle of the 1920s, she had lost her independent company and she divorced her husband, who had become an alcoholic. The breakup, coupled with her career decline, led to Weber suffering a nervous breakdown. After the release of A Chapter in Her Life, in 1923, Weber would not direct another film for three years.
She finally returned to directing with The Marriage Clause in 1926, after she remarried. Weber followed that with Sensation Seekers, a film critical of then-current "Jazz Age" morality. That same year, she made her last silent film, The Angel of Broadway, which involved a cabaret dancer and a Salvation Army girl. The film was not well received. In the era of the "flapper," the plots of both films suggest that Weber was out of touch with the times and audiences.
Weber's last silent film, Topsy and Eva, was released in 1927. She made her next film seven years later; White Heat (1934), which was Weber's first and only sound motion picture. The independently produced film underscored just how out of touch with the public Weber had become. The rather tastelessly titled film involved miscegenation and racism on a Hawaii sugar plantation. Despite the potentially provocative elements, the film was dull and Weber had a hard time finding distributors.
Following that failure, the remainder of her career was vastly different from its peak. During the last five years of her life, Weber worked as a script doctor for Universal, the company where she once rose to the top of her profession as a director. After several years of illness, Weber died on November 13, 1939, in Hollywood, California. She was penniless and ignored by a once-fledgling industry that she helped nurture to maturity.
In later years, however, she was remembered by other film artists, as well as film historians. Weber was described as having a powerful personality, and she was a great influence on other contemporary woman directors including Frances Marion, Cleo Madison and Ruth Stonehouse. In addition, she helped male directors Frank Lloyd and Henry Hathaway at the start of their long and successful Hollywood careers. Hathaway would later praise Weber for the influence she had on his own work.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, Fourth Edition, St. James Press, 2000.
"If She Were Alive Today: Lois Weber," CineWomenNY, http://www.cinewomenny.org/cinenews/feb03/ifshewerealive.html (December 20, 2005).
"Lois Weber," Reelwomen.com, http://www.reelwomen.com/weberbio.html (December 26, 2005).
"Lois Weber: Woman Filmmaker," The Projector Film and Media Journal, http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/theatre/current/projector/vol3issue2folder/vol3issue2art3.htm (December 20, 2005).
Nationality: American. Born: Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, 1882. Family: Married Phillips Smalley, 1906 (divorced 1922). Career: Touring concert pianist, then Church Home Missionary in Pittsburgh, 1890s; actress in touring melodrama Why Girls Leave Home for company managed by future husband Smalley, 1905; writer and director (then actor) for Gaumont Talking Pictures, from 1908; teamed up with Smalley, moved to Reliance, then Rex, working for Edwin S. Porter; the Smalleys (as they were known) took over Rex, a member of the Universal conglomerate, following Porter's departure, 1912; joined Hobart Bosworth's company, 1914; Universal funded private studio for Weber at 4634 Sunset Boulevard, 1915; founded own studio, 1917; signed contract with Famous Players-Lasky for $50,000 per picture and a percentage of profits, 1920; dropped by company after three unprofitable films, 1921, subsequently lost company, divorced husband, and suffered nervous collapse; briefly resumed directing, late 1920s; script-doctor for Universal, 1930s. Died: In Hollywood, 13 November 1939.
Films as Director:
(partial list—directed between 200 and 400 films)
The Troubadour's Triumph
The Eyes of God; The Jew's Christmas (co-d, sc, role); TheFemale of the Species (+ role)
The Merchant of Venice (co-d, role as Portia); Traitor; LikeMost Wives; Hypocrites! (+ sc); False Colors (co-d, co-sc, role); It's No Laughing Matter (+ sc); A Fool and HisMoney (+ role); Behind the Veil (co-d, sc, role)
Sunshine Molly (co-d, role, sc); Scandal (co-d, sc, role)
Discontent (short); Hop, the Devil's Brew (co-d, sc, role); Where Are My Children? (co-d, sc); The French Downstairs; Alone in the World (short); The People vs. John Doe (+ role); The Rock of Riches (short); John Needham'sDouble; Saving the Family Name (co-d, role); Shoes; TheDumb Girl of Portici (co-d); The Flirt (co-d)
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (co-d, pr, role); Even as Youand I; The Mysterious Mrs. M; The Price of a Good Time; The Man Who Dared God; There's No Place like Home; For Husbands Only (+ pr)
The Doctor and the Woman; Borrowed Clothes
When a Girl Loves; Mary Regan; Midnight Romance (+ sc); Scandal Mongers; Home; Forbidden
Too Wise Wives (+ pr, sc); What's Worth While? (+ pr); ToPlease One Woman (+ sc); The Blot (+ pr, sc); What DoMen Want? (+ pr, sc)
A Chapter in Her Life (+ co-sc)
The Marriage Clause (+ sc)
Sensation Seekers (+ sc); The Angel of Broadway
A Cigarette, That's All (sc)
By WEBER: article—
Interview with Aline Carter, in Motion Picture Magazine (New York), March 1921.
On WEBER: book—
Heck-Rabi, Louise, Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984.
On WEBER: articles—
Pyros, J., "Notes on Women Directors," in Take One (Montreal), November/December 1970.
"Lois Weber—Whose Role Is It Anyway?" in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), May 1982.
Ostria, V., "Lois Weber, cette inconnue," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1985.
"Lois Weber Issue" of Film History (Philadelphia), vol. 1, no. 4, 1987.
* * *
Lois Weber was a unique silent film director. Not only was she a woman who was certainly the most important female director the American film industry has known, but unlike many of her colleagues up to the present, her work was regarded in its day as equal to, if not a little better than that of most male directors. She was a committed filmmaker in an era when commitment was virtually unknown, a filmmaker who was not afraid to make features with subject matter in which she devoutly believed, subjects as varied as Christian Science (Jewel and A Chapter in Her Life) or birth control (Where Are My Children). Hypocrites was an indictment of hypocrisy and corruption in big business, politics, and religion, while The People vs. John Doe opposed capital punishment. At the same time, Lois Weber was quite capable of handling with ease a major spectacular feature such as the historical drama The Dumb Girl of Portici, which introduced Anna Pavlova to the screen.
During the 1910s, Lois Weber was under contract to Universal. While at Universal, she appears to have been given total freedom as to the subject matter of her films, all of which where among the studio's biggest moneymakers and highly regarded by the critics of the day. (The Weber films, however, did run into censorship problems, and the director was the subject of a vicious attack in a 1918 issue of Theatre Magazine over the "indecent and suggestive" nature of her titles.) Eventually the director felt the urge to move on to independent production, and during 1920 and 1921 she released a series of highly personal, intimate dramas dealing with married life and the types of problems which beset ordinary people. None of these films was particularly well received by the critics, who unanimously declared them dull, while the public displayed an equal lack of enthusiasm. Nonetheless, features such as Too Wise Wives and The Blot demonstrate Weber at her directorial best. In the former she presents a study of two married couples. Not very much happens, but in her characterizations and attention to detail (something for which Weber was always noted), the director is as contemporary as a Robert Altman or an Ingmar Bergman. The Blot is concerned with "genteel poverty" and is marked by the underplaying of its principals—Claire Windsor and Louis Calhern—and an enigmatic ending that leaves the viewer uninformed as to the characters' future, an ending unlike any in the entire history of the American silent film. These films, as with virtually all of the director's work, were also written by Lois Weber.
Through the end of her independent productions in 1921, Lois Weber worked in association with her husband, Phillips Smalley, who usually received credit as associate or advisory director. After the two were divorced, Lois Weber's career went to pieces. She directed one or two minor program features together with one talkie, but none equalled her work from the 1910s and early 1920s. She was a liberated filmmaker who seemed lost without the companionship, both at home and in the studio, of a husband. Her career and life were in many ways as enigmatic as the ending of The Blot.