Lois Weber: Woman Filmmaker
Anne Marie Sweeney

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 heart’s content.
-Lois Weber, March 1914

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. Weber’s 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). Weber’s work in early American cinema spanned three decades of which the consequences are still being realized and recreated today.

An ideological approach of Weber’s 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 woman’s 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, “Weber’s portrayal of women in her motion pictures is…in many ways, more realistic and sympathetic than contemporary feminist visions offered to us by today’s cinema” (366). In an effort to prove the confidence of Foster’s statement, one must compare the women of contemporary film with those of Weber’s silent film era. The women of Weber’s 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 people’s 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 Weber’s role during the Women’s 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 Weber’s 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 country’s patriarchal system began to topple.

The first women’s 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 women’s 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 women’s 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 women’s involvement in politics would “undermine their moral and spiritual role, as well as create chaos by meddling in matters that were beyond their understanding” (“Woman’s 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 can’t 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 film’s narrative structure as a thin veiling of her own feelings for the public’s 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 Weber’s 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 Weber’s 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 husband’s 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 other’s arms.

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 doesn’t 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 Women’s 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 roles…to focus on acquiring more wealth will only exacerbate social problems by heightening materialism over spirituality” (267). Thus the focus of Weber’s work as a filmmaker was not in the same vein as the Woman’s 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 Weber’s depictions.

Lois Weber’s contributions to film have resurfaced in later women directors including such social realists as Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Elaine May. Filmmaker Dorothy Davenport Reid’s 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 Women’s History: Mildred Pierce and the Twentieth Century, Julie Weiss concedes that what results is, “a conflict between the desire to see women’s 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 Weber’s 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). Weber’s ideology could serve for research in areas of modern discovery and how anti-feminist filmmakers compare to that of America’s 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.

 

Works Cited


Acker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present. New York: Continuum, 1991. p. 12-16.

Bowser, Eileen. History of the American Cinema: 1907-1915. Vol. 2. Ed. Charles Harpole. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990.

Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995.

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 Women’s 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. America’s First Women Filmmakers. The Library of Congress Smithsonian Video, 1995.


Weiss, Julie. “Feminist Film Theory and Women’s History: Mildred Pierce and the Twentieth Century.” Film and History 22 (1992): 79.


Williams, Neville, ed. Chronology of World History: 1901-1999, The Modern World. Vol. 4. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1999.


“Woman’s Rights” http://iaia.essortment.com/womenssuffrage_rcfa.htm.

 

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