Weber, Lois (1881–1939)
Weber, Lois (1881–1939)
American film director, one of the most important and prolific in the era of silent films, who brought to the screen her concerns for humanity and social justice . Name variations: Mrs. Phillips Smalley. Born Florence Lois Weber on June 13, 1881, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania; died on November 13, 1939, in Los Angeles, California; second daughter of George Weber (an upholsterer and decorator) and Mary Matilda (Snaman) Weber; married Phillips Smalley, in May 1905 (divorced 1922); married Captain Harry Gantz; no children.
Toured as a concert pianist at age 17; after giving up music, joined the Church Army Workers as a missionary worker in the slums of Pittsburgh; joined a theatrical touring company, where she met Phillips Smalley; began work as writer, actor, and director for Gaumont film company (c. 1907); working with Smalley as a team, moved from Gaumont to Reliance Studio, then to Rex Company (1909); with Smalley, was put in charge of Rex, by then under control of Universal Studios, where she became important as a director (1912); elected mayor of Universal City; moved to Bosworth Company (1914); returned to Universal (1915); established own studio with financial help from Universal (1917); signed contract with Paramount to direct five films (1920); Paramount deal withdrawn (1921); divorced Smalley (1922); suffered nervous collapse, but returned briefly to directing (1926); worked as script doctor and directed screen tests at Universal (early 1930s); directed last film, her only sound film (1934).
Selected filmography as director:
(also writer and actress) The Jew's Christmas (1913); (also writer and actress) False Colors (1914); (also writer) Hypocrites (1914); (also writer) It's No Laughing Matter (1914); (also writer and actress) The Leper's Coat (1914); Like Most Wives (1914); (also actress) The Merchant of Venice (1914); (also writer) The Dumb Girl of Portici (1915); (also actress) The Scandal (1915); (also actress) Sunshine Molly (1915); Discontent (1916); The French Downstairs (1916); (also writer and actress) Hop, the Devil's Brew (1916); John Needham's Double (1916); (also actress) The People vs. John Doe (1916); (also writer and actress) Saving the Family Name (1916); Shoes (1916); Where Are My Children (1916); Even As You and I (1917); (also actress) The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1917); For Husbands Only (1917); The Man Who Dared God (1917); The Mysterious Mrs. M (1917); The Price of a Good Time (1917); There's No Place Like Home (1917); Borrowed Clothes (1918); The Doctor and the Woman (1918); Forbidden (1919); Home (1919); Mary Regan (1919); (also writer) Midnight Romance (1919); Scandal Managers (1919); When a Girl Loves (1919); (also writer) The Blot (1921); To Please One Woman (1921); (also writer) Too Wise Wives (1921); (also writer) What Do Men Want? (1921); (also writer) What's Worth While? (1921); A Chapter in Her Life (1923); (also writer) The Marriage Clause (1926); Angel of Broadway (1927); (also writer) Sensation Seekers (1927); (also writer) White Heat (1934).
Since early silent films seldom included screen credits, it is not easy to determine who was writer, director, or cinematographer on many of the industry's earliest works. In the first references to the work of Lois Weber in the trade papers, she was generally credited along with her husband Phillips Smalley for the films they produced together as Smalley Productions, so it is not clear to what extent Smalley contributed to the creative process. What is certain, however, is that Weber's reputation as both writer and director soon surpassed that of her husband. The little else that is known about Weber's early years indicates that she was a person of outstanding gifts combined with a personal fragility that would remain in evidence throughout her career.
Few facts are available about Weber's youth, except that she was born in 1881, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, the daughter of George and Mary Matilda Weber , was educated in Pittsburgh, and was touring as a concert pianist by the age of 17. According to a profile written by Bertha H. Smith for Sunset magazine in 1914, Weber's musical career ended during a concert in South Carolina, when a piano key came off in her hand, leaving her confidence so shattered that she could no longer play.
When Weber returned home to Pittsburgh, the idealism that was to be a mark of her film work prompted her to join the Church Army Workers, a missionary group that sang hymns on street corners and helped the poor in the city's industrial slums. In 1905, after an uncle suggested that the stage might be a better platform for her interest in reforming audiences, she joined the Vance and Sullivan stock company in a touring production of the melodrama Why Girls Leave Home. Phillips Smalley was the company manager, and the two married that year in Chicago. As an actress, Weber garnered favorable reviews, but the couple disliked the long separations that touring imposed, and she soon settled in New York to establish a home.
The early 1900s were formative years in the film industry. Filmmakers were experimenting with improving their story-telling techniques through the use of close-ups, changes in the position of the camera, and the editing of scenes. Short narrative films found audiences through vaudeville exhibitors, who set up film projectors in stores to show programs of several short films, and people flocked into these nickelodeons. As the demand for films grew, the newborn industry welcomed talented people who could write scripts, direct films and play leading roles. As it turned out, Lois Weber could do all three. By about 1907, she had become interested in film and joined the Gaumont film company.
Before long, Phillips Smalley joined Weber at Gaumont; from Gaumont, the couple moved to Reliance Studio, then in 1909 to Rex Company, which had been established by Edwin S. Porter, one of the most important innovators in silent film. In 1912, Porter left, and Rex Company became part of Universal, where Weber and Smalley took charge of productions still being made under the Rex name.
Together with Smalley, Weber assembled a company of actors and produced two two-reelers a month. The scripts were written by Weber, while the couple co-directed and also played leading roles. Four of these early works were His Brand (1913), The Jew's Christmas (1913), The Leper's Coat (1914), and The Career of Waterloo Peterson (1914). The last of these was a light comedy about studio life; the other three all carried clear moral messages: the brand that a cowboy inflicts on his wife appears on his newborn son; racial prejudice can be overcome by the love of parents; and fear of disease can produce its symptoms.
As the film industry began to establish its permanent home in California, Weber and Smalley joined the westward migration of talented people in the field. Weber's popularity with the staff at Universal led to her election as mayor of Universal City. Then in her early 30s, Weber had also built a reputation for dealing in a forthright way
with bold subject matter. As she told Smith, "I can preach to my heart's content, and with the opportunity to write the play, act the leading role, and direct the entire production, if my message fails to reach someone I can blame only myself."
In the autumn of 1914, Weber and Smalley left Universal to join the Bosworth Company, a production company formed by actor Hobart Bosworth. There, Weber completed several longer, four- and five-reel films, which were released through Paramount. Three, entitled False Colors (1914), It's No Laughing Matter (1914), and Sunshine Molly (1915), were melodramas dealing with family life. Reviewers for Variety praised False Colors as "a powerful melodrama"; labeled It's No Laughing Matter "a winner" with a farmer character never before seen "in such a natural way on the screen"; and noted that Weber "made quite a big story out of a simple romance, with very good results" in Sunshine Molly.
In 1914, Weber also made The Hypocrites for Bosworth. The story of the film involves a young minister who unveils a statue of The Naked Truth, causing a crowd to stone him and destroy the statue. The statue is transformed into a naked young woman who wanders about holding up a mirror that reflects the hypocrisy in human nature, in business, in politics and in society. In filming the young woman, Weber appears to have used a double-exposure technique that the reviewer for Variety described as creating "the essence of sweetness in purity." But the same reviewer, anticipating that the story would provoke controversy, commented: "[I]t would not be surprising, after seeing this film, that the maker should decide to present it as a special picture show." The film did create a sensation with audiences in New York, and was met elsewhere with outright hostility; in Ohio, it was banned by the board of censors, and the mayor of Boston demanded that clothes be hand-painted on the nude woman, frame by frame. Two years after its release, when The Hypocrites was booked into the Strand Theater in New York, the critic for The New York Times wrote, "There is nothing objectionable about the picture, which is indeed superior to the majority that have followed in the two years since it was made. It is at least intelligent."
In April 1915, Weber returned to Universal, where she directed Jewel that year (she would later remake it in 1923 under the title A Chapter in Her Life). In both versions, the heroine brings happiness to others with the aid of principles very close to those of Christian Science, although the film contained no direct reference to the religious sect.
When Universal decided to make a film featuring the world-famous ballerina Anna Pavlova and the Ballets Russes dance company, Weber was chosen to direct. The Dumb Girl of Portici was Pavlova's first and only dramatic film, made in 1915 and based on the opera Masaniello. Critics and audiences were disappointed with Pavlova's acting debut, and reviews were mixed. The New York Dramatic Mirror reviewer found it a "good spectacle," but a "great disappointment in so far that it gave the star so little opportunity to dance."
With Where Are My Children and The People vs. John Doe (both 1916), Weber returned to scripts that carried a strong message. Anticipating controversy over the subject matter of Where Are My Children, she used opening titles that took what seems a surprisingly modern approach, suggesting that the film might not be suitable for children, unless they attended with parents, in which case it might do them an immeasurable amount of good. As the film opens, a district attorney is following the trial of a young doctor accused of distributing literature advocating birth control. Although the doctor argues that the conditions he finds in the slums have convinced him of the need for worldwide enlightenment about birth control, he is convicted. The wife of the district attorney, along with many of her socially active women friends, is childless, and after her brother seduces the housekeeper's daughter, the wife recommends the girl to her own doctor, who performs an abortion that leads to death of the girl and this doctor's conviction. As the doctor is led away, he warns the district attorney to look in his own home, and when the district attorney checks the physician's account book, he is horrified to discover that abortions are the reason that his wife and many of her friends are childless. The story is framed by special effects depicting the floating souls of unborn children at the opening of the film and ghostly images of children superimposed around the husband in the closing scenes while he wonders, "where are my children."
For audiences, the film carried equally strong dual arguments, for birth control and against abortion. Universal was concerned about the reaction of censor boards and scheduled an exclusive showing at the Globe Theater in New York, resulting in record attendance and excellent critical reviews. The National Board of Review, which had rejected the film as unsuitable for mixed audiences, reconsidered, and the film was approved for adult audiences. Though the controversy continued, the film was banned only in Pennsylvania, and Where Are My Children reportedly earned the studio some $3 million.
The People vs. John Doe, which the critic for The New York Times called "a terrific indictment of a system that permits a man to be convicted and sentenced to death on purely circumstantial evidence," was based largely on an actual criminal case. When it opened in New York, Mischa Applebaum, founder of the Humanitarian Cult, addressed the audience after the film to "supplement with words the moral of the picture." According to the Times critic, it "seems not to be a drama acted before the camera, but a transcript of life itself," and for those interested in film art, this film "offers an absorbing study."
Through such works, Weber became one of the most important directors at Universal, with her films listed as Weber Productions and a salary of $5,000 a week. By the summer of 1917, she had decided to organize her own company, Lois Weber Productions, and with financial help from Universal, she bought an estate, with acres of grounds that could be used for outdoor locations and buildings for studio space (which she leased while fulfilling the remainder of her Universal contract).
In 1917–19, Weber directed six more films for Universal, all featuring actress Mildred Harris . Critics found these lighter films—The Price of a Good Time, For Husbands Only, The Doctor and the Woman, Borrowed Clothes, Home, and Forbidden—entertaining but not great, though they had compliments for Weber. "Miss Weber has a facility for … the presentation of the natural things of life—which after all, is true art," wrote Variety in a review for Borrowed Clothes. "Her little touches of detail do more for her pictures than possibly anything else."
In 1920, Weber signed a contract with Paramount to produce five films. The terms called for payment of $50,000 per film plus half the profits. In October 1919, she had begun her first independent production, To Please One Woman, starring a young, unknown actress, Claire Windsor , for release in 1921. But audience tastes were changing. Interest in the reform movements that characterized the early years of the century was waning, and filmgoers now preferred mostly to be entertained. The moralistic messages of Weber's earlier films had lost their appeal. Studios, under increasing pressure from censors, were also inclined to avoid controversy in choosing scripts.
To Please One Woman was not well received by reviewers or the public. Variety thought it "failed to make much of an impression either for merit in direction or distinction in story value," and Weber's next two films, What's Worth While and Too Wise Wives (both 1921), met with no more enthusiasm. Paramount then dropped its distribution contract, and the last two of her five films, The Blot and What Do Men Want, were distributed that year by a small independent company.
Things were also not going well in Weber's private life. In 1922, she and Smalley divorced, and film historian Anthony Slide refers to reports of a suicide attempt. Others refer to a nervous collapse. According to Slide, after her marriage to Captain Harry Gantz, Weber felt able to return to making movies. Back at Universal, she directed two more silent features, The Marriage Clause (1926) and Sensation Seekers (1927). Reviewers for both Variety and The New York Times lamented the weak story lines while praising Weber's skill as a director, but it was now increasingly difficult for her to find work.
Lois was often mistakenly taken to be a Christian fundamentalist, but she was more of a libertarian, opposing censorship and the death penalty and championing birth control…. [I]f there was a single maxim that underlay each film it was that selfishness and egocentricity erode the individual and the community.
Out of friendship, an executive at Universal offered her work doctoring scripts and directing screen tests of young starlets. Then Cecil B. De Mille asked her to direct what was to be her last silent film, The Angel of Broadway (1927). Weber undoubtedly drew on her early missionary experiences in filming this story of a nightclub entertainer who begins by studying a Salvation Army girl to create a parody for her act and ends up converted to the cause.
Weber's final film was a talkie, White Heat (1934), financed by Seven Seas, a small independent company. The reviewer for The New York Times found it "a humorless account of the amorous difficulties of a young sugar planter" that compensated for its technical inferiority with "the reality and beauty of its Hawaiian setting." That same year, Weber advocated the use of film as a classroom teaching tool, but she failed to find takers for her ideas and scripts.
Reports of Weber's final years are sketchy. Over the years, she had acquired real-estate holdings and at one time reportedly managed an apartment building in Los Angeles. According to Slide, mismanagement of her assets left her almost penniless at the time of her death of a gastric hemorrhage at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, on November 13, 1939, at age 57 (she had suffered from a gastric ulcer for many years). Her funeral expenses were paid by Frances Marion , a screen-writer to whom Weber had given her first film job.
Lois Weber was a prolific director. By her own reckoning, she made over 400 films. Over the years, however, many have disappeared, and because of sketchy early records, others are difficult to authenticate. Today, about 50 films have been positively identified as directed by Weber. Prints of some of these are available in archives in the United States and Great Britain.
During the silent-film era, Weber was highly respected within the film industry for her talent and skill. "I would trust Miss Weber with any sum of money that she needed to make any picture that she wanted to make," said studio executive Carl Laemmle, when Weber was the peak of her career. "She knows the motion picture business as few people do and can drive herself as hard as anyone I have ever known."
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Lucy A. Liggett , Professor of Telecommunications and Film, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan