She was once the most successful studio film-maker in Hollywood. Caryn James explores the incredible rise, tragic fall – and recent re-discovery – of a cinema legend.

A nude scene! Abortion; birth control; prostitution! In the silent-movie era, Lois Weber’s films were shockingly ahead of their time – and also immensely popular. She wrote, directed, produced and sometimes starred in her films, and in 1916 was the highest paid studio director in the US, man or woman. She pioneered techniques including split screen and double exposure, for a time ran her own studio, and along with Alice Guy-Blach​é was one of the two women who contributed the most to cinema at its start. But she died alone, broke and nearly forgotten in 1939. What happened?

The answer reverberates even now. “Women have been opening movies since the silent era,” Brie Larson said recently, brushing aside the lingering issue of whether a female-led movie could dominate the box office. (Her Captain Marvel certainly did.) “People just push us away once the movement gains momentum and act like we were never really there,” she said. That sweeping but historically accurate statement applies with particular force to the rise and decline of Lois Weber. Once a dominant force in the industry, she and other women were swept aside when men took over Hollywood. 

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Weber recalled, looking back on her career, “I grew up in a business when everybody was so busy learning their particular branch of the new industry, that no one had time to notice whether or not a woman was gaining a foothold.” As a young woman in Pennsylvania, she sang with her church on evangelical missions on the streets, and later saw film as a way to preach a worthy social message. Yet she had always been a rebel. She acted on stage when that was a disreputable thing to do, and left the theatre when she married an actor, Phillips Smalley. Together they started making movies, but it was soon clear that Lois was the creative force.

One of her early films, Suspense (1913), is a small masterpiece that holds up incredibly well today. At 11 minutes long, it is worthy of the best of Hitchcock. Weber stars as ‘The Wife,’ who is alone with her baby in a remote house when a man, called ‘The Tramp,’ tries to break in. With the imposter at the door, the wife phones her husband at his office, and Weber splits the screen into three triangles so we can see all the characters simultaneously. There is an ominous close-up of the vagrant’s eye gazing through the keyhole of the door. Weber uses devices we now take for granted in suspenseful films, such as a shot of a telephone wire being cut with a knife. None of those techniques would matter if the film had not not been edited to create incredible tension. If Suspense had been Weber’s only film, she would still be an important figure in cinema history.

Not all her films are such fun to watch, including the 1915 Hypocrites, in which she uses heavy-handed allegory to expose social hypocrisy. A minister preaches to his congregation, and the film goes back in time as he dreams that he is a Medieval monk carving a statue of Naked Truth. The actor playing the monk is beyond histrionic; like many actors of the time, he wears more eyeliner than any woman in the film. But Hypocrites is remembered for the scene in which the statue comes to life as a naked woman, translucent in a double exposure as she frolics across the screen.

Weber had it both ways, preaching to audiences and titillating them at the same time

Historians still disagree about whether the actress was wearing a bodystocking, but the nudity was convincing enough to cause outrage from some US state censorship boards. Weber denied that the nudity was a publicity stunt, citing the delicacy of the image. “I hoped the picture would act as a moral force,” she said. In a contemporary scene set at a political rally, for example, the naked woman holds a hand mirror and a title card reads, “Truth holds her mirror up to politics.” Cleverly, Weber had it both ways, preaching to audiences and titillating them at the same time.

The next year, Weber was at the height of her fame, turning out three of her most important films. Shoes (1916) is among the strongest and the most likely of her features to appeal to modern viewers. The histrionics are gone in this story of a shop-girl named Eva, who helps to support her indigent parents and sisters. Her shoes are full of holes and falling apart, and she cannot afford new ones on her minuscule salary. She becomes so desperate that she decides to sleep with a lecherous nightclub singer. Playing the shop-girl, the actress Mary Maclaren is still heartbreaking as we watch her make her choice, dressing for her rendez-vous with the singer, looking sadly at herself in a cracked mirror. The film goes to black after she meets him at the club, but the next day she is wearing new shoes.

The film is remarkable for its non-judgemental attitude toward Eva. An advertising poster for the film described it as: “Three eventful weeks in the life of a half-Slave Shop Girl, driven to sin through no fault of her own.” Weber attacked social inequity and backward ideas, not the people who were victims of them.

She who dares

Her more controversial film that year, Where Are My Children?, deals with birth control and abortion, at a time when both were illegal. The story begins with a district attorney prosecuting a man who has been charged with promoting ‘indecent literature’, a pamphlet with information about contraception. As an introductory title card says: “All intelligent people know that birth control is a subject of serious public interest.” Not all. Her home state of Pennsylvania banned the film as “not fit for decent people to see”. Other states were more lenient, and the movie was Universal Pictures’ most successful film of the year. 

As advanced as Weber’s thinking was, in some ways Where Are My Children? is wildly out of touch today. The plot centres on the attorney’s wife, who leads her frivolous society friends to an abortion doctor, the clumsily named Dr Malfit, and has an abortion herself. The title cards moralise about her selfishness in not having children, which was considered a middle-class woman’s duty (Weber and Smalley’s only child had died as an infant five years before.) ‘Ill-born’ children are the cause of crime, the characters believe, an opinion Weber seems to endorse. But she was a trailblazer simply by bringing the birth-control conversation out of the shadows. 

She may also have been the first woman to direct big action scenes in her 1916 film The Dumb Girl of Portici. The great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova stars in this ambitious curiosity, set in Italy in the 17th Century, when Spanish Viceroys were in charge. Pavlova plays a mute fisherwoman seduced by a nobleman. Oddly, she dances very little, although her character doesn’t so much walk as prance.

One of the most expensive movies of the day, The Dumb Girl of Portici includes energetic crowd scenes throughout, all perfectly orchestrated. Rows of soldiers on horses ride into the centre of town. A mass demonstration takes place outside the Viceroy’s palace. A riot breaks out as soldiers attack the peasants. At the time, Weber was often mentioned alongside DW Griffith as one of the most important directors. In its elaborate settings, historical period and its scope, Dumb Girl is her most Griffith-like film. It is also among her least typical, but it marks another breakthrough. Women action directors who are just now beginning to get traction in the industry may not even know that Weber got there first.

Men realised that this weird new-fangled thing called movies could actually make money

By the 1920s, the world had changed around her. Audiences had lost their taste for socially conscious films. Talkies came in. And most significantly, as film historians including Cari Beachamp have pointed out, men realised that this weird new-fangled thing called movies could actually make money. When movies became a big business, Beauchamp has said, “the guys wanted the jobs” – and they got them. 

But Weber continued making movies, including one talkie – her last film – in 1934. She divorced Smalley, and later married a man who squandered her money, then left her. Recently, she has been rediscovered. Her films have played again at festivals and special screenings around the world. Several are available on DVD and streaming services. A box set of DVDs, Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers (released in the US by Kino), includes many of her films. Netflix streams a selection from that set, including Suspense.

Milestone Films has released restored DVDs of Weber films in the US and UK, including Dumb Girl and Shoes. While many silent films are marred by tinkly, Keystone Cops music, this version of Shoes includes a new score by Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson that is as eloquent and restrained as Mary Maclaren’s acting. And a book of collected interviews with, and articles about, the film-maker, Lois Weber: Interviews (edited by Martin F Norden), has recently been published by University Press of Mississippi.

Too bad it took a century for Weber to make her comeback, but she might not have been surprised. In 1928, as she saw Hollywood change, she wrote a newspaper article lobbying for greater opportunities for female film-makers. “Women entering the field now find it practically closed,” she wrote. “A male beginning would not be so handicapped.”  She was way ahead of her time in calling that out, too.

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