Lois Weber: Woman Filmmaker
In moving pictures I have found my life work. I find
at once an outlet for my emotions and my ideals. I can preach to my hearts
Lumiere, Meliés, Porter, and Griffith are names
synonymous with the birth of film. Their work as filmmakers profoundly
shaped the framework of an art that has not changed much since these men
first set the precedent. Yet, another voice that held as much weight during
the teens and twenties but has since been silenced is that of woman filmmaker
Lois Weber. As director, producer, writer, and actor, Weber made an equally
important contribution to the style and function of film while still in
its impressionable youth. Her reputation at Universal Studios broke down
gender barriers in the industry so that by 1917, she owned her own production
company and was the highest paid director in Hollywood. Aware of the power
of film to influence a large audience, she kept her role as a social critic
in mind. Webers film were defined by and dealt with such bold issues
as birth control and abortion in Where are My Children? (1916),
capital punishment in The People Vs John Doe (1916), and class
disparity in The Blot (1921). In Reel Women: Pioneers of the
Cinema, Ally Acker asserts that at another point in history,
her career might have been in jeopardy, but because the movie industry
was just finding its feet, Weber won a lot of free press instead
(13). Webers work in early American cinema spanned three decades
of which the consequences are still being realized and recreated today.
An ideological approach of Webers films to the
gender relations of the 1910s and 1920s reveals how she thought the world
should be. Feminist theorists today are quick to label Weber as a pioneer
of the womans movement due to her placement in history, but Weber
was first a woman of moral guidance. Her primary focus as a filmmaker
was that of a social agenda and she agreed to pursue film only after realizing
the opportunity to reach hundreds of people at once. Weber challenged
the attitudes of her audience with obvious themes giving way to the more
subtle themes of protection of marriage and the humanist perspective.
Intertwined in her text, characters, and narrative structures are the
spoken conditions of society, women, and film.
In Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical
Dictionary, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster argues that, Webers
portrayal of women in her motion pictures is
in many ways, more realistic
and sympathetic than contemporary feminist visions offered to us by todays
cinema (366). In an effort to prove the confidence of Fosters
statement, one must compare the women of contemporary film with those
of Webers silent film era. The women of Webers films were
not social deviants, battling against construction of marriage or economic
equality. Weber herself did not participate in a single suffrage march
and supported marriages and the role of women as home keepers. Acker insists,
Her films most often focused on women, although she was loath to
pledge her allegiance to the suffragists
more important to [her]
was to attempt to change peoples attitudes (13). Weber supported
the social roles of the twenties, but also realized their complexity.
For this reason, she worked hard to let all women realize the choices
they made were important ones. Lois Webers role during the Womens
Movement was secondary to her mission that women would take an active
role in improving the quality of their lives.
America witnessed a number of social issues during the
high tide of Webers career from 1910 to 1930. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt,
Woodrow Wilson, and Warren G. Harding took control of the political gambit,
Henry Ford developed the assembly line, New York City made the first live
television broadcast, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, D.W.
Griffith completed the epic The Birth of A Nation (1919), the Nineteenth
Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, Fascist leader Benito Mussolini
and the first world war ripped across Europe, the Ku Klux Klan reached
staggering new memberships, and the practice of gambling and drinking
was outlawed. Following the end of World War I and the legal birth of
political equality for women in August of 1920, the country entered into
its most liberal gender stage. The Chronology of World History
hails 1922 as the year U.S. magazine Vanity Fair employs
the term flapper to denote an independently young woman who
does not conform to traditional notions of femininity, dresses in a provocative
manner, and smokes (167). With the new definition for women, the
countrys patriarchal system began to topple.
The first womens rights meeting at Seneca Falls,
New York in 1848 underscored the growing inequality in both the public
and private spheres of the country. Women began testing the strength of
their political, economic and sexual bonds by demanding a place at the
ballots, leaving conventional jobs, and exploring the use of birth control.
By the election year of 1912, the effects of the womens suffrage
movement had led to presidential hopeful Teddy Roosevelt who credited
himself as the first American statesman to recognize the right of
American womanhood to help rule the country (Bowser, 186). Politicians
cashed in on the idea that by putting womens rights on their platforms
they could potentially win support of half of the population. As expected
the leaders of the movement met with resistance from men and women. In
1911, anti-suffragist Josephine Dodge created the National Association
Opposed to Woman Suffrage who insisted that womens involvement in
politics would undermine their moral and spiritual role, as well
as create chaos by meddling in matters that were beyond their understanding
(Womans Rights). Heralds of sexual liberation also met
with criticism when Dr. Marie Stopes, the high-profile proponent of birth
control in the United States received libel damages in 1923 for being
accused of contributing to the immorality of women (Mercer, 953). The
role of women was changing from traditional housewife to dynamic individual
able to determine the political, economic, and sexual fate of the country.
Before women were ever allowed to vote, they were using
the medium of film to express their social reforms. Hundreds of women
held jobs as directors, writers, producers, and actors during the teens
before film was realized as a lucrative business. As soon as film was
understood for its financial guarantee, the opportunities for women in
the industry began to decline, and it would take another fifty years to
regain their significant holdings. Early women filmmakers like Alice Guy
Blachè, Germaine Dulac, and Lois Weber were successful at a time
when the industry was not concerned with gender. Like her contemporaries,
Weber wasted no time in what she probably realized was a rare chance to
propagate her personal goals.
Without hesitating for times to change, Weber made a
string of films in the mid- 1910s that met with strong reactions due to
their controversial nature. The most notable of these was Hypocrites
(1914) in which a priest uncovers the Naked Truth, in the
form of a naked woman to his congregation in the hopes of eradicating
their moral blindness. The crowd reacts negatively and stones the priest
to death for his immoral behavior. The film was reviewed by Variety as
saying, In a way Hypocrites is daring, but only because no
one else has attempted as much or has gone as far
after seeing it
you cant forget the name of Lois Weber (Slide, Film Criticism:
125). The image of the naked woman met with such outrage from the censor
boards that they ordered her to be covered, frame by frame. Weber used
the films narrative structure as a thin veiling of her own feelings
for the publics apathy with their lives.
The first image of Hypocrites is a woman sitting
on a chaise lounge coolly staring into the camera, followed by the intertitle:
What does the world, told a truth, but lie the more. The character
of the priest Gabriel is introduced as giving a sermon on hypocrisy to
an uninterested audience. The story continues into a dream sequence where
Gabriel imagines he is following Truth up a long, steep hill. The arrangement
of people who also attempt to climb the hill of truth serves as a political
statement for the structure of society and change.
A family arrives with excitement to climb the hill as
if the act of knowing truth was an attraction. The mother begins the ascent
as the father carries the weight of their daughter in his arms; he stumbles
and realizes he is not capable of making the trip. Their daughter with
outstretched hands calls her mother back to her duty. The mother encourages
them to join her, but they refuse to go with her. Her responsibility as
a mother and wife prevail in the end and nodding her head she descends
to give her daughter a kiss. Next, a single man walks by with his hands
in his pockets as he gives the hill only a passing grin. Then a wealthy
family arrives with the father carrying a large bag of money. A little
girl scampers up the hill with childlike innocence, calling to her father
to leave the gold and come on. He attempts to selfishly climb
and carry the bag at once when it rips, spilling money onto the ground.
Next, a couple arrives with the woman seeming intent on climbing the hill.
She is sidetracked when she discovers dirt on her hands whereupon the
man alleviates the situation with his handkerchief. A second couple arrives
with the woman again eager to climb the hill, but the man strongly discourages
her. He is distracted by the appeal of another woman and leaves, telling
her once more to climb down, so she does. Finally two men walk quickly
by without so much as a glance at the hill. The final intertitle of the
scene summarizes the individuals choices: The broad road or
the narrow way.
This scene carries larger implications for how the world
appears to Lois Weber. Richard Koszarski describes Hypocrites as
a thinly disguised sermon of the corruption of modern society
(140). Keenly aware of the hypocrisy of social constructs, Weber presents
the reasons why individuals fail to see truth: family obligation, money,
inconvenience, sex, and ignorance. Although a firm believer in the marriage
structure, Weber perhaps understood that the safety net of being in that
structure prevented people from taking action. The film focuses on the
duplicity of society and ironically enough audiences stormed the theatres
to witness the nude images and not for the moralist message putting Webers
theory into action. Interestingly, Weber chose a religious man to play
the carrier of truth and a naked woman as the symbol of truth. Early in
her career she was focusing not on the equality of genders in the country
but on the instability of humanism as it was.
Towards the end of her career, Lois Weber made a film
about the importance of the marriage construct in Too Wise Wives
(1921). The film met with moderate attention and is not regarded as one
of Webers most famous works. The story centers around two wives
and their differing relationships with their husbands. Mrs. David Graham
is dutiful, selfless, and lives only for her home and husband
whereas Mrs. John Daly, Sara, realizes what it takes to please her husband
and leaves the rest alone. Mrs. David Graham appears defenseless and desperate
trying to please her husband while Sara remains cool by shopping for new
clothes with her husbands money. Once again the narrative structure
of the film provides a framework for Weber to reinforce her social agenda
apart from the popularity of women liberation of the time.
Due to the focus of two opposing marriages, a number
of juxtaposing scenes are arranged to illustrate their differences. For
instance a breakfast scene ends in ruin when Mrs. David Graham runs to
her room in tears after not knowing how to please her husband. He leaves,
gone for the first time without kissing her. Immediately following
the intertitle is a scene with Mr. John Daly kissing Sara goodbye for
work. This style of narration creates the desired tension between the
two marriages. In the final act of the film, as Sara makes an attempt
to win Mr. David Graham from his wife, he rejects her and is aware
of the illness that could have been dangerous. He returns to his
weeping wife and makes amends with her while Sara does the same with her
husband. The film ends with both couples happily in each others
Throughout the film, it is difficult to determine the
better of the two wives. Mrs. David Graham seems correct and dutiful,
but also highly emotional and dependent. Mrs. John Daly, or Sara as she
is given a name doesnt fuss over every detail of her husband, but
also spends his money frivolously while scheming for another man. It is
only in the final scene when Mr. David Graham rejects Sara and grasps
the illness that could have destroyed his marriage structure
that Weber delivers her moral message. Her depiction that women should
retain the traditional role of wives to their husbands in Too Wise Wives
did not mirror the political, economic and sexual changes taking place
during the early twenties in response to gender inequalities. In Transcending
Boundaries: Lois Weber and the Discourse Over Womens Roles in the
Teens and Twenties, Thomas Slater declares, Weber does not suggest
that women should fight these inequities by becoming politically active.
Class, racial, and gender differences within this worldview, are simply
part of a natural order. For women to forsake their domestic and spiritual
to focus on acquiring more wealth will only exacerbate social
problems by heightening materialism over spirituality (267). Thus
the focus of Webers work as a filmmaker was not in the same vein
as the Womans movement and more appropriately should be seen as
a distinct attitude on the role of women. She believed women in America
during the twenties, rather than abandoning their social constructs for
gender equality, should take an active role in protecting the institute
of marriage. The reality of women in the twenties as Audrey Foster suggests
may have been more consistent with Webers depictions.
Lois Webers contributions to film have resurfaced in later women directors including such social realists as Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Elaine May. Filmmaker Dorothy Davenport Reids The Red Kimona (1926) opens with a group of young women struggling to climb a steep hill, much like in Hypocrites (1914). The women of the teens and twenties looked for role models in film, but there lies hypocrisy in putting women on the screen. In Feminist Film Theory and Womens History: Mildred Pierce and the Twentieth Century, Julie Weiss concedes that what results is, a conflict between the desire to see womens experiences, particularly feminism, reflected by films and the desire to document how women are repressed by filmic structures (79). By giving audiences pre-packaged women on screen, a dualism results in wanting to see women portrayed realistically on screen, but realizing that showing their conditions can reinforce the existing inequalities making change seem unavailable. But Lois Webers films argue that change is possible and that it takes an active individual to make the stereotypes change. In Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History, Anthony Slide explains, Her pulpit was the motion picture and her sermon the world and relationships are only as good as we allow them to be (153). Webers ideology could serve for research in areas of modern discovery and how anti-feminist filmmakers compare to that of Americas first female director. Through her entire career, Lois Weber made an outstanding contribution to the art of film and demanded of her audiences the commitment to life that she so regularly practiced.
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Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Women Film Directors: An
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Hypocrites. Dir. Lois Weber. First Ladies: Early Women
Filmmakers. Kino Video, 2000.
Koszarski, Richard. The Years Have Not Been Kind
to Lois Weber. 14 Village Voice (1975): 140-141.
Mercer, Derrik, ed. Chronicle of the World. London:
Durling Kindersley Limited, 1996.
Slater, Thomas. Transcending Boundaries: Lois Weber
and the Discourse Over Womens Roles in the Teens and Twenties.
18 Quarterly Review of Film and Video (2001): 257-271.
Slide, Anthony. Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost
Her Way in History. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.
_____. Selected Film Criticism. Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1982.
Too Wise Wives. Dir. Lois Weber. Americas First Women Filmmakers. The Library of Congress Smithsonian Video, 1995.