A silent-movie mogul in the early 1900s whose controversial films tackled taboo topics like abortion and race relations, Lois Weber is probably the most important director you've never heard of.
At one time, she was the highest- paid director in Hollywood, male or female. Magazines called her “The Muse of the Reel” and a “Photo-Genius.” She made an estimated 300 films, was elected the first mayor of Universal City, and silent- movie superstar Mary Pickford called her “one of the most interesting women in the history of motion pictures.” And yet you probably wouldn’t recognize her name. When the film industry was in its infancy—roughly a century ago, in the silent- movie era—Lois Weber was one of the rare directors of the “fairer sex,” even though women hadn’t yet been granted the right to vote. Even more impressive, this director/actor/screenwriter triple threat made films that weren’t just major box-office draws, but also challenged the era’s views on hot-button issues like legalized birth control, abortion, drug addiction, women’s roles in society, racism, and interfaith marriage. She broke ground for women in Hollywood; a 1921 Motion Picture Magazine article declared, “When the history… of motion pictures is written, Lois Weber will occupy a unique position.” But while Lois Weber did make an incredible impact on film history, most movie buffs today probably couldn’t pick her out of a lineup.
Though it might be hard to imagine, the silent-film age presented a window of opportunity for women and minorities, according to Shelley Stamp, a historian and professor of film and digital media at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who’s currently working on a book about Weber. Plus, the more independent structure of early Hollywood allowed directors plenty of creative control. “It was before the period of studio conglomeration, Wall Street-financed studios, and the arrival of powerful unions, which blocked out women and people of color,” she says. “It was a moment of incredible opportunity for women—not just for Weber. Plenty of other women got into the industry as writers and directors. The question isn’t, ‘How was she able to achieve this when she did?’” says Stamp. “It’s ‘Why has everybody forgotten about it?’”
While we may never understand why the world has overlooked Weber, we do know a fair amount about her life. She grew up in Pennsylvania in a devoutly religious family who believed a career in showbiz was unbecoming for a woman. Yet from an early age, she showed a talent for performing. During a piano concert at age 16, however, a key came off and landed in her lap, and Weber was so traumatized that she abandoned the idea of becoming a concert pianist. She moved to New York City to act and study opera,and after scraping by on work as a piano accompanist, she was hired as a singer in 1908 by a company called American Gaumont Chronophones, which produced film recordings of staged musical performances. Soon, Weber began writing and directing dozens of short films and features for them. And in early 1911, Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley were hired as actors for the Rex Motion Picture Company, with Smalley also hired to direct. Weber’s talents shone through, and soon, she was writing screenplays, assisting her husband with direction, and eventually getting co-director credit.
“As Weber herself observed about the film industry in its earliest days,” says Marty Norden, a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts who also has a book about Weber in the works, “if you could do the work and it showed a profit at the box office, it didn’t matter what gender you were.” But Hollywood was still run predominantly by men, who saw Weber as an oddity. One journalist reported that Weber had “the masculine force combined with feminine sympathies and intuition, which seem the peculiarly combined gifts of women of genius.” L.H. Johnson, a writer for Photoplay, visited Weber on set in 1915 and later wrote that the director was a “demoness” who “works like a man” and created films with “super-masculine virility and punch,” despite the fact that she did it all in “a silk shirt-waist and a smart skirt.” Weber didn’t seem fazed by the condescension, at least not openly. She told Photoplay, “I like to direct because I believe a woman, more or less intuitively, brings out many of the emotions that are rarely expressed on the screen. I may miss what some of the men get, but I will get other effects that they never thought of.” Years later, she was more direct about her accomplishments, saying, “I can only speak for myself and other strong women in perfect health, but for years I demonstrated that I could outwork any man on my staff.”
Although Weber made a huge variety of films—including Westerns, mysteries, and Shakespearean adaptations—she made her mark with movies that delved into controversial topics, like capital punishment, birth control, and drug abuse. In a 1914 interview, she said, “In moving pictures…I find at once an outlet for my emotions and my ideals. I can preach to my heart’s content.” One of her early short films, titled The Jews’ Christmas, addresses cultural assimilation and religious intolerance through a narrative about a Jewish girl who marries a Protestant man, and is rejected by her father. Another film, the 1915 Hypocrites, calls out hypocritical behavior, like political corruption, with the visual of a nude woman who was supposed to represent the “naked truth.” The film was so provocative that critics flipped for it while audiences were shocked—there was even a riot at the film’s New York premiere. During the next several years, Weber turned out a string of hits for Universal. A 1926 Boston Sunday Globe article described her as“the hardest worked and highest paid” director in movies, and another journalist called her the “wonder woman of the films.”
Weber’s film Where Are My Children?, Universal’s highest-grossing movie of 1916, took on the issue of abortion and advocated for legalized birth control at a time when even disseminating information about birth control was illegal. It was Universal’s top-grossing film that year, raking in $3 million—$63 million in today’s dollars. Weber’s 1917 film The Hand That Rocks The Cradle also supported legalized birth control, and resulted in a censorship campaign. It marks Weber’s last on-screen appearance—she played a doctor’s wife who is jailed for supporting reproductive rights. Weber often talked to the press about how her films were in- tended to be teaching tools. Proving she was ahead of her time in more ways than one, she told the New London Day in 1916, “I have always felt, even when pictures were in their infancy, that the day would come when every public school in America would have its own projecting room and the classes…could learn more from the actual film visualization than from a thousand textbooks.”
If Weber is remembered at all, it’s as a “message” director who tackled difficult social issues in her films. But her artistic abilities were often overlooked because of that focus. Weber pioneered the use of the split-screen technique, preferred to shoot in real locations (as opposed to sets, the standard at the time), and was known for her attention to detail and inventive use of visual metaphors. Throughout The Blot, a film that touches on poverty and class- consciousness (and is available on YouTube), Weber uses shoes to represent the characters’ personalities. In one especially poignant moment, an impoverished woman sees her neighbors’ toddler playing around with an expensive pair of adult shoes. In a heartbreaking shot, the woman sadly looks down at her own worn shoes, cheaper than the ones the baby is using as toys.
By 1917, Weber was experiencing serious success; she was earning $50,000 (nearly $575,000 in today’s dollars) per film, and became the first woman granted membership in the Motion Picture Director’s Association. That year, she also cut a deal with Universal for her own production company—Lois Weber Productions, an independent outfit whose films would be distributed by Paramount. But the changes Hollywood was about to undergo wouldn’t benefit Weber. “The times called for longer, more elaborate films and ever-increasing budgets,” says Norden. “And that forced her into financial alliances with other companies that ultimately proved detrimental to her autonomy and vision.”
In the 1920s, as talkies hit the scene, Hollywood started reinventing itself as a glamour industry. Movies started to be seen less as teaching tools and more as pure entertainment. Against this flashy Jazz Age backdrop, Weber’s films about heavy social issues started to look preachy and moralistic. And as power concentrated in the hands of a few major studios, many smaller independent studios floundered. In 1921, Weber’s distribution deal with Paramount fell apart when the company rejected one of her films, What Do Men Want?, about a young, unmarried, pregnant woman who commits suicide after her lover leaves her. Paramount thought the film was too gloomy.
The failure of What Do Men Want? marked the beginning of the end of Weber’s directing career. Lois Weber Productions closed its doors in 1921, and she had to let her regular staff go. It was a huge blow. She’d gotten used to having complete creative control over her films, including writing, editing, directing—and even acting in—her own movies. Plus, she had the advantage of working with mostly the same cast and crew on each film. Now, that cohesiveness was gone.
At that time, Weber was also undergoing turmoil at home—she divorced her reportedly alcoholic, philandering husband in 1922—as well as on set. She was frustrated with the restrictions created by the big-studio system, and the control it had over her creative process. “The producers select the stories, select the cast, tell you how much you can pay for a picture and how long you can have to make it in,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1923. “All this could be borne. But when they tell you that they also will  your picture, that is too much.” Weber had a minor comeback with some flapper films in the mid- ’20s, but she never reclaimed her former glory. Things had changed dramatically for her in less than a decade. In 1920, she had told a journalist, “I don’t know of any other line of endeavor where there are more opportunities for women than in the making of photoplays.” But in a 1928 piece she wrote for the San Diego Evening Tribune, she lamented, “Women entering the field now find it practically closed.” When the Los Angeles Times asked her, in April 1928, when she’d return to directing, Weber said snappily, “When I find a producer who thinks I have intelligence enough to be let alone and go ahead with my own unit.”
Weber spent most of the 1930s as a freelance script doctor, and when she died of a gastric ulcer in 1939, at age 60, she was penniless; screenwriter and close friend Frances Marion paid for her funeral. To make matters worse, the media at the time gave Weber little credit for her role in the landscape of American cinema: there were no serious tributes or lengthy obituaries in the major newspapers. And since then, most of her films have been lost or damaged, leaving them unviewable for future generations—only about 20 have been preserved. However, with the advent of the second-wave feminist movement in the latter half of the 20th century, interest in Weber began to slowly revive. She was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February 1960, and in 1975, The Village Voice published a piece titled, “The Years Have Not Been Kind to Lois Weber,” in which the writer introduced Weber to a new generation, and complained that the director and her legacy had been “forgotten with a vengeance.” But since then, several books on women’s roles in film history have also tried to right this wrong, and upcoming books will shine even more light on this groundbreaking auteur. So while many of Weber’s films may have been lost to the ravages of time, her influence lives on.
By Gina McGalliard
Photos courtesy of Library of Congress
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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