When the history of the dramatic early development of motion pictures is written, Lois Weber will occupy a unique position.
Thus spoke a journalist in a 1921 Motion Picture Magazine article. At the time, Weber was one of the most familiar and respected directors in the film industry–and the most prominent of the few female directors overall. Today, from our vantage point of nearly a century later, it may seem like that journalist’s prediction hasn’t quite come true. Weber certainly does have a unique place in cinema history, but that place has been largely overlooked for many decades.
However, thanks to new restorations of her work being shown at film festivals and a wealth of online resources for film scholarship, Weber’s slowly but surely being restored to her place in the early filmmakers’ pantheon–a place she had certainly earned, with the goal of nothing less than the moral uplift of mankind.
Born on June 13, 1879, Florence Lois Weber was one of three children in a solidly middle class Pennsylvania Dutch family. Her parents, George and Mary “Tillie” Weber, were devout Christians who had once worked as missionaries. Lois grew up with two main passions: music–she had been a very talented piano player since childhood–and her faith. While in her late teens she decided to join the Church Home Missionary, an evangelical organization which organized “rescue missions” in impoverished and vice-ridden areas. For two years Lois and her fellow missionaries sang on street corners and in the red light districts of New York City and Pittsburgh. Doubtless her firsthand witness to the darker side of life had a strong influence on her later career, especially on her decisions to include material that would raise some eyebrows.
When her particular mission group disbanded Weber began to study music, and by the early 1900s was travelling the country as a singer and pianist. This lasted until about 1904, when an awkward incident made her decided to end her musical career:
Just as I started to play a black key came off in my hand. I kept forgetting that the key was not there, and reaching for it. The incident broke my nerve. I could not finish and I never appeared on the concert stage again. It is my belief that when that key came off in my hand, a certain phase of my development came to an end.
Humiliating though the incident was, it made Weber consider new options. Still having the strong desire spread her Christian faith, she felt that occasional face-to-face conversations out on the street corners weren’t cutting it. After talking matters over with an uncle, she decided to become an actress: “As I was convinced that the theatrical profession needed a missionary, he suggested that the best way to reach them was to become one of them, so I went on the stage filled with a great desire to convert my fellowman”.
The wavy-haired, naturally handsome young woman would work at several stock companies, acting in musical comedies and melodrama and occasionally singing solos. One of those companies was managed by actor Wendell Phillips Smalley, a distinguished-looking Harvard graduate and former lawyer. Weber and Smalley took a liking to each other, and in April 1904 they decided to marry.
Having spent several years in the grueling routine of travelling stage companies, in 1906 Weber took a break and focused on being a homemaker in New York. In her spare time she wrote freelance scenarios for “moving pictures”. Intrigued by the film industry–which offered more stability than those constantly-moving acting troupes–Weber soon started working for the Gaumont Film Company, specifically American Gaumont Chronophones, which made early versions of sound pictures. No doubt she benefited from seeing Alice Guy-Blaché, the world’s first female director, in action (Guy-Blaché had recently come to New York to manage Gaumont’s American studios).
A Career in “Moving Pictures”
Finding herself increasingly fascinated with every aspect of filmmaking, Weber was soon not only writing scenarios for Gaumont’s many one-reelers but directing and starring in them, too. Female directors in the silent era, although in the minority, weren’t unheard of–fortunately so for eager learners like Weber. Soon Smalley would join her and they would co-star in numerous shorts, usually dramas similar to the ones being made at Biograph at the same time.
After making films for Reliance they moved to the Rex Motion Picture Company, which they took over in 1912, and finally to Hobart Bosworth Productions in 1914, which gave them the greatest creative freedom. They released their films as “The Smalleys,” with Weber getting credit as a writer and director. They began to gain a reputation for quality, genteel dramas that came with a message. Their plots frequently explored romantic relationships, class differences, people turning from frivolous or immoral lifestyles, and of course religion (Weber seems to have been particularly interested in Christian Science). This clipping from Motion Picture News reviews a typical Smalley two-reeler:
Note the reviewer’s assumption: “…a valuable lesson that may, however fly over the heads of any but a very intelligent audience.” These intellectual lessons were, in fact, precisely what Weber and Smalley were going for–although they had more faith in the public’s intelligence than certain critics. In a 1915 interview, Weber explained:
I am often twitted with trying to produce and write plays which are above the heads of the public but I resent this as an insult to the general public, who, I believe, are as well able to interpret beautiful thoughts and to fully understand photoplays, which lead one’s desires for better things.
Writers were fascinated by this hardworking, high-minded husband and wife team, especially their commitment to churning out quality films. One journalist reported: “They are not pedantic, this gifted pair, and there is never a doubt that they are intensely in earnest and intend to carry out their ideas and ideals.”
The “Yellow Journalist” Of the Screen
The Smalleys made dozens of shorts, including the surviving drama Suspense (1913) which included a triptych screen effect. At Bosworth they began experimenting with features. One of the most well-known is Hypocrites (1915), telling the two stories of a medieval monk and a modern-day minister who realize their sermons aren’t reaching their congregations. It made a sensation due to Weber’s decision to have the allegorical “Naked Truth” represented (in double exposures) by a fully nude actress–in an artistic way, of course.
Quotes from Weber reveal that such material wasn’t merely a gimmick to get higher ticket sales, but was more accurately a gimmick calculated to increase exposure to her messages. She explained her reasoning:
I knew, though I had never meant it to be regarded in that way, that the baser instincts inherent in man would send many to see that picture. Hundreds of thousands have seen Hypocrites, but those who went with evil thoughts for the gratification of a lustful curiosity uppermost in their mind, found a searchlight suddenly turned on their own conscience. I know, I saw it. I heard the coarse laugh when the Naked Truth first appeared on the screen; but then I saw those same men and women shudder as truth turned her mirror on them, revealing to the world the pretender, the leper, the rake. And, chastened, they left… Hypocrites is not a slap at any church or creed–it is a slap at hypocrites, and its effectiveness is shown by the outcry…
She and her husband’s good reputations weathered them through these occasional storms of controversy (Weber was sometimes nicknamed the “yellow journalist of the screen”). They would continue releasing features such as The Dumb Girl of Portici (starring ballerina Anna Pavlova), Where Are My Children?, and Shoes (all 1916), some of their few pictures that still survive today.
Phillips Smalley had often been deferential to his wife’s filmmaking advice and opinions, and by 1916 he began taking a backseat to her talents. Soon she was being recognized as one of the top directors in Hollywood–certainly its most well-known female director. Her debate-worthy films covered topics like marriage problems, the hardships of the working class, birth control, addiction, and even the difficult subject of abortion. By 1917 she had her own studio, Lois Weber Productions (assisted by Universal), and was the only female member of the Motion Picture Directors Association.
“Everyone and everything holds a plot.”
In person Weber was a gracious woman who carried herself in a stately way. Interviewers were impressed by her and her dedication to evangelizing–one reported: “…To know Lois Weber is to know that she is a white crusader bearing on her shield the flaming cross of her convictions.” Movie fans read about her warm, homey studio, which by 1920 was a fine old house complete with grounds and a tennis court. She ran this studio in an orderly way, starting each new production by reading her scripts out loud to both cast and crew so it would be familiar to everyone. Despite having a sizable stage she tended to film on location, liking the authenticity of real kitchens and drawing rooms.
In a 1921 issue of Motion Picture Magazine Weber shared her passion for creating thoughtful stories with journalist Emma-Lindsay Squier:
“There is no doubt that marriage is the most important event in our lives and the least studied or understood. It presents so many problems that it offers an endless array of plots for human stories.”
“Plots! How do you think of so many new ones?” I ventured, with something like envy in my voice.
“They are everywhere!” she replied. “All around us–everyone and everything holds a plot. I’ve been a it for years and yet I come to each with a fresh enthusiasm…Each proposition thrills and interests me–its possibilities.”
She was also unfazed by criticism of her “bolder” (by 1910s standards) material. When asked about a scene showing a man mentally undressing a woman (by using double exposures to show the outline of her body), Weber replied calmly: “But men do it. I have seen them do it numberless times! It struck home, that’s all.”
What is perhaps her most famous feature today, the class differences critique The Blot, was released in 1921. Post-1921, Weber’s star began to fade. She found it difficult to stay independent within the burgeoning studio system, and her “sermonizing” films were starting to seem old-fashioned in the new era of flapper culture.
To further complicate matters, her marriage with Phillips Smalley began to fall apart. After attempts at reconciliation they quietly divorced in 1922, although they would remain friends. In 1923 she reportedly had a nervous breakdown, and would stay out of the spotlight for the next two years. She would then marry Captain Henry Gantz, a retired army officer, in 1925.
While she made a few more films in the 1920s, Weber retired from directing in 1927, instead focusing on real estate. In the 1930s famed screenwriter Frances Marion was able to secure her a position with United Artists, where she worked on scripts and scouted for new actresses, who were often impressed by getting to interview with the famed director herself.
In 1934 Weber had an opportunity to direct the modest sugar plantation drama White Heat, her only talkie. Her finances dwindled up to the end of the 1930s, and she would divorce Gantz in 1935.
In 1939 Weber became terminally ill, apparently from a bleeding ulcer that had plagued her for some time. On November 13, 1939, she passed away in the company of her sister Ethel and friends Frances Marion and Veda Terry. She was only 60. She would be cremated and Marion would pay for the funeral (attended by around 300 people), but today the whereabouts of her ashes are unknown.
Analyzing Lois Weber
Since her modest rediscovery in the 1970s or so, Lois Weber’s been a subject of fascination for many researchers. The question’s often been discussed: why was this prominent director overlooked so quickly and for so long?
“Sexism” is likely what’s springing to your mind, of course–Weber was left out of some of the earliest film histories (dating from the 1930s), or if mentioned at all was merely called a woman director who “made movies about birth control.” But there’s a practical answer too–many of her films were lost, and those that survived were often hard to access. And Weber’s films, with their serious intentions and occasional old-timey acting, tend to intrigue a smaller audience than ones by crowd pleasers like Charlie Chaplin.
From what I can see, today Weber has fared quite a bit better than some of her fellow forgotten directors–the prominent and influential Oscar Apfel, for instance, or Viola Dana’s director John H. Collins. Her work is at least receiving discussion and recognition by historians, and folks are eager to proclaim her as one of our most important and skilled early filmmakers. Almost too eager–parts of her lengthy Wikipedia page seem like a battleground between three ambitious graduate dissertations:
What fascinates me about Lois Weber is how, even today, she’s outside of the box. It seems that some writers, upon hearing there was a prominent female director in an era that’s frequently stereotyped, have visions dancing in their heads of the kind of filmmaker they want her to be. Thus, her Christian allegories and earnest moral messages come as a surprise, and I’ve often seen them downplayed–or at times, unfortunately, even mocked.
But Lois Weber herself might’ve taken such consternation in stride. After all, she defied expectations in her own time, and she continues to defy different sets of expectations today. And this writer hopes the legacy of this high-minded woman will continue to be recognized for decades to come–and with appreciation for what she was hoping to accomplish.
Note: Weber’s feature The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) was recently released on DVD/Blu-ray by Milestone films–be sure to check it out!
Koszarski, Rchard. The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.
Carter, Aline. “The Muse of the Reel.” Motion Picture Magazine. March 1921.
Peltret, Elizabeth. “On the Lot with Lois Weber.” Photoplay, October 1917.
Squier, Emma-Lindsay. “What Do Men Need?” Picture-Play Magazine, May 1921.
Willis, Richard. “Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley: A Practical and Gifted Pair With High Ideals.” Movie Pictorial, May 1915.
“Hypocrites.” Marlborough Express, Monday June 18, 1917, page 8.