I like to direct,” filmmaker Lois Weber told Photoplay in 1915, “because I believe a woman, more or less intuitively, brings out many of the emotions that are rarely expressed on the screen.” A hundred years later, Weber’s words still apply: nearly every movie I see by an exciting new female filmmaker—Ava DuVernay (Selma), Andrea Arnold (American Honey), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Elizabeth Wood (White Girl), Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) —takes me to emotional spaces I rarely encounter in movies. Yet Hollywood in its infancy was more open to women than it is now. As film scholar Cari Beauchamp has noted, from the 1910s through the early ’30s, nearly a quarter of the screenwriters in Hollywood were women; that same figure for the 500 top-grossing films of 2016, according to the Center for Study of Women in TV and Films, was only 14 percent.
The retrospective “Lois Weber: Pioneer Progressive Filmmaker,” which opened last week and continues through April at Gene Siskel Film Center, gives viewers a chance to rediscover the first great woman of the American cinema, an artist largely forgotten by movie history but ranked by critics of her day alongside such pioneers as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Those two filmmakers may have drawn their material from history, literature, and the Bible, but Weber advanced a more topical agenda, writing original stories that addressed social issues and explored progressive ideas. At the dawn of the movies, she laid down a marker for the sort of socially committed drama we still see in filmmakers like Courtney Hunt (Frozen River), Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), and Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy). Yet Weber’s films are also deeply informed by her ideas about class, and progressives today might find some of them startling.
Shelley Stamp’s fine biography Lois Weber in Early Hollywood traces the filmmaker’s rapid rise inside a movie colony still taking shape. A young singer from Pennsylvania, Weber married theater actor Phillips Smalley in 1904, when she was 24 and he was 38, and suspended her own performing career to follow him on the road, earning extra money on the side by writing film scenarios. In 1910 the couple were hired by Edwin S. Porter (The Great Train Robbery) to write and direct ten-minute dramas for his Rex Motion Picture Company, and during the next three and a half years they cranked out more than 150 releases, supervising all aspects of production themselves, as Porter advocated. This was a period of great opportunity for women in the industry, some of whom moved naturally from secretarial duties to scenario writing. As Weber told a reporter in 1928, “I grew up in the 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.”
The retrospective includes three of the Rex shorts but focuses mainly on Weber’s later features made for Universal Pictures and her own Lois Weber Productions. After leaving Rex for a short, unhappy stint at the fledgling Bosworth, Inc., the Smalleys landed at Universal in April 1915, and Weber thrived there. Carl Laemmle, the studio founder, ran Universal as a family operation, which generated a congenial working environment for women, and the studio’s sprawling Universal City complex in the San Fernando Valley provided Weber with state-of-the-art facilities. Shortly after her arrival, Laemmle entrusted her with his costliest production to date, an adaptation of Daniel Auber’s opera The Dumb Girl of Portici, starring the renowned Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Screening later in the series (Sat 4/22, 3 PM; Thu 4/27, 6 PM), this period drama about a mute Neapolitan woman caught up in a tax revolt against the Spanish crown was hardly a characteristic project for Weber, but she acquits herself admirably, demonstrating a sense of dramatic scale comparable to that of Griffith or DeMille.
Weber came into her own with a series of intimate dramas that powerfully connected the cinema with the real world and the present. Hypocrites, released by Bosworth in 1915, had impressed critics with its story of a minister frustrated by his parishioners’ lack of spiritual commitment, and its reputation figured heavily in the Smalleys’ new deal with Universal. “I’ll tell you what I’d like to be, and that is, the editorial page of the Universal Company,” Weber told the studio newsletter when the couple first arrived, and true to her word, she embarked on a string of dramas dealing with pressing social concerns. Shoes (1916), inspired by Jane Addams’s study of urban red-light districts, tells of an impoverished shop clerk so desperate for a new pair of shoes that she sells herself sexually. Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916) dealt with opium addiction, The People vs. John Doe (1916) with capital punishment. Where Are My Children? (1916), the most notorious of them all, openly traded in the taboo subjects of abortion and contraception, taking its cue from the arrest earlier that year of birth control activist Margaret Sanger.
Where Are My Children? (Sat 4/15, 3:30 PM) may have seemed progressive a century ago, but today it’s most remarkable for the class-based assumptions Weber brought over from Sanger’s work. Richard Walton (Tyrone Power Sr.), a respected district attorney, believes strongly in eugenics, a philosophy of human breeding that was fashionable at the time but would later inspire such practices as sterilization, forced abortion, and genocide. Walton is mounting a prosecution against a doctor for disseminating birth control literature, a felony at the time, but as the doctor testifies, relating awful stories of unwanted and poverty-stricken children, Walton comes to embrace contraception as a method of thinning the lower classes. Privately the attorney yearns for a child of his own, but his wife can’t conceive; then, in a melodramatic twist, he discovers that she and her spoiled friends, eager to preserve their leisure-class lifestyle, have been secretly terminating their pregnancies with a local doctor. The ensuing censorship battle over Where Are My Children? had less to do with the forbidden subject matter than with the confused ideas surrounding it.
From the beginning the Smalleys had been billed as codirectors, but in practice Weber wrote and directed while Phillips Smalley supervised production. By 1917 she had eclipsed him professionally, launching her independent Lois Weber Productions with a handsome distribution deal from Universal that made her the highest-paid director in the industry. Weber bought a residential estate in East Hollywood and converted it into a studio, shooting her films in sequence whenever possible and favoring locations for both exterior and interior settings; her mise-en-scene is extraordinarily dense, the rooms so authentic they pull you in. Weber also swore off the “heavy dinners” of her Universal period and turned to more marketable romances and domestic dramas that nonetheless questioned conventional ideas about gender.
From 1921, What’s Worth While? (Sat 4/29, 3 PM) shows Weber working in this lighter vein but still probing social norms. The spoiled easterner Phoebe (Claire Windsor) falls in love with a photo of Elton (Louis Calhern), her father’s young business partner in an oil property out west; when Phoebe and Elton meet in person, she’s offended by his crude ways but attracted by his masculinity and his command of nature. Hoping to bridge the social gulf between them, Elton spends two years in Europe educating himself, but when they’re reunited, Phoebe is disappointed by his polish. “He had been her superior—her master!” she realizes in a title card. “And now they were equals! She had put him through the conventional mill that had ground out all the men she knew!” Graceful and witty, the movie seems a world apart from such social provocations as Shoes and Where Are My Children?
Widely regarded as Weber’s masterpiece, The Blot (Sat 4/8, 3:30 PM; Mon 4/10, 6 PM) brings into perfect harmony the social commentary of her Universal work and the domestic intrigue of her later projects. Amelia Griggs (Windsor), a lovely small-town librarian, lives in near poverty with her mother (Margaret McWade) and father (Philip Hubbard), an ill-paid college professor. Circling Amelia are three suitors of varying means: Reverend Gates, a minister whose congregation keeps him on slave wages; Phil West (Calhern), a rich swell who studies with Professor Griggs; and Peter Olsen, the shy eldest son of the immigrant family who live next door. The Blot burns with the shame of poverty, challenging its viewers to grant teachers and clergy a living wage, but it also betrays a nativist streak that might still resonate in Trump’s America: there’s a great sense of resentment toward the Olsens, who are supported by the father’s successful shoe business and lord it over their better-educated neighbors.
The Blot may have been framed as another romance between Claire Windsor and Louis Calhern, but the key performance comes from McWade as Mrs. Griggs, an aging woman who was born into wealth but now bears the responsibility for running the professor’s household on his meager salary. McWade, who’d worked with Weber only once before, has a face made for sorrow, and Weber pulls you deep inside the character’s envy and shame. Even a visit from the minister is cause for embarrassment to Mrs. Griggs, who takes silent note of her own paltry tea tray, her husband’s damaged shoe, an armchair’s worn upholstery. Her kitchen window is right across from Mrs. Olsen’s, and the other woman delights in showing off her ample stock of groceries. At one point Mrs. Griggs gazes in disbelief as the youngest Olsen, still a toddler, hobbles around the neighbors’ backyard in a discarded pair of expensive silk pumps; by contrast, Mrs. Griggs is forced to steal scraps from the Olsens’ garbage can to feed Amelia’s cat.
Weber drew another fine performance from Calhern as Phil West, whose attraction to Amelia leads him into some unexpected insights. He appears first as a spoiled brat, horsing around with his two pals as Professor Griggs tries to lecture, but the young man gains depth as he gives Amelia a ride home and notices her frayed gloves and worn-out shoes. Scene by scene, Phil begins to comprehend the poverty that has existed right under his nose, and his gadabout friends at the country club begin to seem shallow; he strikes up an oddball friendship with the young Reverend Gates and makes awkward, well-meaning attempts to alleviate the Griggs family’s financial situation. By the end of the movie Phil has won Amelia’s hand, but Weber deflates this happy ending with a final image of the minister, who has loved Amelia all along, retreating up the sidewalk into the shadows—against Phil’s money and privilege, Gates never had a chance.
The Blot marked a turning point for Weber both personally and professionally. After the film was completed in 1921, she and Smalley took an extended trip to Europe, then came home and divorced. At the same time, the movie business was changing, as studios consolidated and the hands-on philosophy that Weber favored was replaced by a more corporate, cost-conscious approach. Lois Weber Productions shut down as the big studios began to squeeze out independents, and Weber returned to Universal, where her star fell and she wound up working as a script doctor. (She reportedly salvaged the studio’s lavish 1925 production Phantom of the Opera.) Money wasn’t a problem—she married a citrus farmer and began focusing on her real estate holdings—but by the early 30s, as the Depression took hold, women were being drummed out of the studios. Weber was hailed in her own time for her creative accomplishments, but today her greatest achievement may lie in simply being remembered. v