Shelley Stamp is the author of Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon and Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, winner of the Richard Wall Special Jury Prize from the Theatre Library Association. She is currently curating a DVD box set Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers and with Anne Morey she is writing Women and the Silent Screen in America. Stamp is Professor of Film & Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The most profitable movie released by Universal Pictures in 1916 was a film on birth control and abortion, written and directed by a woman who was also that studio’s most respected and highest-paid director. That filmmaker was Lois Weber, Hollywood’s original dangerous woman, and the film was Where Are My Children? What Lois Weber accomplished a century ago has become almost impossible to imagine in Hollywood today. As the film industry debates gender equity onscreen and off, Weber’s legacy is vital to remember.
In her time Weber was considered one of the three “great minds” in early Hollywood, alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. While her male peers have long been celebrated as the fathers of American cinema, Weber has been largely forgotten. Yet of all the women active in the early movie industry, Weber produced the most sustained and substantial body of work. In a career that spanned three decades, Weber wrote and directed more than 40 features and over 100 shorts. She was the first woman to direct a feature-length film in 1914 (The Merchant of Venice), the first woman admitted to the Motion Picture Directors’ Association in 1916 (as an exception to their men-only policy), the first woman to run a Hollywood studio in 1917, and a member of the first Director’s Committee at the newly-formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. At the height of her renown Weber was dubbed “the wonder woman of the films,” the “super-woman of the silent drama,” and a “director deluxe of filmdom.”[i] Yet few recognize her name today.
Weber was best known for a series of popular films she made on controversial social issues while she was Universal’s top director in the mid-1910s. If Griffith and DeMille sought to establish cinema’s prestige by drawing on highbrow literary and historical material, Weber took an opposite tack. She seized upon the new medium’s capacity to animate critical issues of her day. Cinema, she said, was a “voiceless language,” able to engage popular audiences in the era’s most contentious debates.[ii] And that she did. Weber tackled subjects like urban poverty and women’s wage equity in Shoes (1916), drug addiction in Hop, or The Devil’s Brew (1916), capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), and the campaign to legalize birth control in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917). Though she fought censorship battles on many of these titles, Weber developed a reputation as a thoughtful, socially engaged filmmaker. One early observer noted that she could “deal successfully with subjects which other directors would not dare touch for fear of condemnation.”[iii]
Although she vowed to abandon such “heavy dinners” when she left Universal to form her own studio, Weber remained a trenchant critic of social norms. Her films on marriage and domesticity, notably Too Wise Wives (1921), What Do Men Want? (1921) and The Blot (1921), provoke fundamental questions about changing sexual mores, traditional family structures, and a rising culture of consumption in the Jazz Age. In later films like The Marriage Clause (1926), Sensation Seekers (1927) and The Angel of Broadway (1927), Weber produced highly reflexive critiques of stardom and Hollywood’s glamor culture, particularly its commodification of women.
Toward the end of her career Weber became increasingly outspoken about the limited roles available to women in Hollywood – both onscreen and behind the scenes. Complaining that female characters in too many Hollywood movies were treated as nothing more than “cute little dolls” and “over-dressed Christmas trees,” Weber vowed to introduce a “new feminine screen type,” a “womanly woman,” who “possessed both brains and character.”[iv] Critics began to notice that actresses who had formerly been given little to do onscreen aside from look pretty were, under Weber’s direction, given fully formed parts and allowed to exercise the full range of their acting talent. Billie Dove, who became a star in Weber’s films, remembered her as “the best director I ever had.” Dove professed, “I had a lot of men directors that I liked too, but she understood women.”[v]
Throughout her career Weber quite consciously mentored other women at all ranks of the industry – actresses, screenwriters, and directors alike. She demanded a place at the table in early professional guilds, which had initially excluded women, and protested the growing climate of hostility towards female directors in the 1920s. When a high-ranking studio executive proclaimed in 1928 that women do not make good motion picture directors, Weber penned a two-part syndicated newspaper article calling for more female filmmakers. Compared to when she got her start in Hollywood, “women entering the industry now find it practically closed,” she said. Where Weber had once commanded tremendous respect on any set, by the late 1920s she found that men were unaccustomed to working under a female director and sometimes even unwilling to do so.[vi]
For a filmmaker so renowned in her time, Lois Weber is remarkably unknown today, forgotten in most histories of early Hollywood. This is not for lack of trying. In the final decade of her life, Weber struggled against all odds to ensure her own historical legacy. Yet, even before she directed her last production in 1934, Weber was written out of Hollywood history, cast aside in the first chronicles of American moviemaking that focused exclusively on pioneering male figures and valued women only as stars. Scores of women like Weber, who had been essential to the early movie business as directors, screenwriters, producers, journalists and studio executives, were “forgotten” in an initial rush to legitimate the newly powerful industry.
But this history is essential to remember. Even now, film industry executives and pundits continue to find themselves surprised that women make popular, profitable, and interesting films, that female protagonists and female stars can carry a picture, even, astonishingly, that women watch movies at all. Female filmmakers still negotiate the awkward terrain of chick flicks; and being “seen on the screen” is still considered women’s primary role in cinema. These fictions have a long tail. Histories of Hollywood that forget pioneering women like Lois Weber produce a false narrative with profound consequences for subsequent generations of female filmmakers and filmgoers.
[i] “Lois Weber, Film Genius, Has Spectacular Rise to Fame,” unidentified newspaper clipping, n.d., n.p. env. 2518, Robinson Locke Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (RLC); “‘Scandal’ Terrific Denunciation of the Gossiping Evil, Seen at Orpheum Today,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, c.1915, env. 2518, RLC; and Florence Lawrence, “Lois Weber in Studio De Luxe,” Los Angeles Examiner, 6 June 1917, n.p., env. 2518, RLC.
[ii] Moving Picture World, 9 Aug 1913, 640.
[iii] Marjorie Howard, “’Even As You and I’, A Drama of Souls at Bay,” Moving Picture Weekly, 14 Apr 1917, 18.
[iv] William Foster Elliot, “Exit Flapper, Enter Woman: Lois Weber Describes Next Screen Type,” Los Angeles Times, 6 Aug 1922, III, 25.
[v] Quoted in William M. Drew, At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties (New York: Vestal Press, 1999), 32.
[vi] Lois Weber, “Many Women Well Fitted by Film Training to Direct Movies,” San Diego Evening Tribune, 24 Apr 1928, 3; and Lois Weber, “Hostility of Men Drawback to Women Making Success in Picture Directing, Claim,” San Diego Evening Tribune, 25 Apr 1928, 13.
Feature image courtesy of the British Film Institute.