I’ve mentioned director Lois Weber in passing a couple of times, but let’s get properly into her.
Unlike Mabel Normand or Anita Loos, she probably wouldn’t make the list for my dream 1920s girls’ night, but she was pretty fascinating and impressive all the same.
According to film historian Anthony Slide: "Along with D.W. Griffith, Weber was American cinema's first genuine auteur, a filmmaker who utilized the motion picture to put across her own ideas and philosophies.”
She was a devout Christian who said of her decision to go into the arts: “I was convinced that the theatrical profession needed a missionary, so I went onto the stage filled with a great desire to convert my fellow man.”
And she succeeded - Lois Weber is generally credited with raising cinema from a kind of cheaper alternative to vaudeville, to an art form capable of tackling social issues.
The films she made in the teens argued against capital punishment, drew connections between poverty and prostitution, and argued for birth control. She ran into state censorship boards regularly, but quickly figured out that if she invited prominent social progressives and reformers to early screenings and got them onside, she could legitimately present her movies as exploring issues rather than glorifying them.
Incidentally, she also shot the first female full frontal nude.
In 1913’s Hypocrites, she had the character of “Truth” appear naked, to make the point that truth should be exposed and hide nothing. This will become important when we start to discuss the Motion Production Code in a few weeks’ time. A huge point that Hays and Breen and their cohorts missed is that context is everything. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to see the difference between one filmmaker presenting a character as vulnerable and exposed, literally the ‘naked truth’ — and another shooting a female character running away from the baddie and whoops her clothes fall off.
One of the things I love about Lois Weber is that she was a lady.
She had a very dignified, Victorian schoolmarm image. Even as the flapper age got underway, Lois continued to be photographed in the kind of high necked ruffly blouses I associate with the Dowager Countess of Grantham. She was married, middle class and well spoken, and all that seemed to help her to get away with a lot more than someone who presented as more radical.
When I was a trainee director a bajillion years ago, I was writing rehearsal notes one day with a pink pen that had glittery things sticking out the top. If memory serves, it had been in my Christmas stocking, and it was entirely fabulous. The production manager pulled me to one side and warned me that if I was to have any hope of being taken seriously, I couldn’t ever write with a pink glittery pen in rehearsal. Stupidly, I believed him and spent the next decade or so in unisex clothes barking gruffly at actors and probably looking like an absolute plonker.
So I love that Lois Weber never compromised an iota from metaphorically writing with a pink glittery pen. She looked and a bit like Mary Poppins, and I have a feeling no production manager would have dared “helpfully suggest” she change how she presented herself so as to be taken seriously.
One of Weber’s best remembered movies is 1916’s Where are the Children.
I’ve talked about it before so I won’t go into it all again. Suffice it to say, it’s definitely problematic by 21st century standards… but I have to love it a wee bit. It acknowledged that there are women who don’t want to spend their lives pregnant, just because. In 1916. And though it’s not exactly pro choice (again by 21st century standards) it does conclude that if abortions are going to happen, they shouldn’t kill women. Which is a message I think we can all get on board with.
Further, it was a smash hit. It was one of Universal’s biggest grossing films of 1916, and there were stories from New York of audiences lining up for days to get into screenings. Just let that sink in while we remember that there are production companies in the year of our lord 2020 turning down scripts because ‘we did a women’s thing recently.’
The following year, in 1917, Lois Weber announced she would be making films:
“…independently in my own studio, Lois Weber Productions, for distribution, on their merits.”
While a few actresses already had their own studios, Lois was the first female director to produce herself. In the same year, she also became the first woman to be accepted into the newly formed Motion Pictures Directors’ Association.
However, by 1920, times were changing, The jazz age was kicking off and sexy comedies and action movies were all the rage.As Weber’s biographer Shelly Stamp explains: “her films [started to be] seen as didactic instead of revolutionary, “preachy” instead of radical.”
Her career limped on throughout the twenties, She made a couple of “comebacks” but none that really took. She continued to write, and ran Universal’s story department for a while in the late twenties, but she was never one of the top echelon of directors again.
Lois Weber died from a stomach ulcer in 1939, destitute, with her one-time protegé, screenwriter Frances Marion at her bedside. Frances Marion then organised and paid for her funeral, proving once again that when the chips are down, it’s your girlfriends you can count on.
And on that cheery note… 😬
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