Women of Hollywoodland celebrates the pioneering female filmmakers at the dawn of Hollywood in the 1910s and 1920s. This week, we discuss Lois Weber -the first American woman to direct a feature film, in 1914.
Welcome to episode 2 of Women of Hollywoodland, the podcast that explores the feminist dawn of Hollywood. This week, we’re chatting about director Lois Weber.
So last week, we talked about Frances Marion who, amongst other things, was the first female screenwriter to win the Oscar in 1930. As most of you probably know, the first female DIRECTOR to win the Oscar was Katherine Bigalow – in 2009. So it would be easy to conclude that when it comes to directing, women are playing pretty serious catch up.
However — okay so, there were four feature-length films made in 1912, and most people agree that the first to be released was Cleopatra, making it the first American feature film. For some reason, there’s a misconception around that Birth of a Nation was the first feature, but it definitely wasn’t, by around two years. The first feature to be directed by a woman was an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, released in 1914 – barely two years later, and incidentally the same year. as Birth of a Nation. So not so much catch-up after all. The Merchant of Venice was directed by Lois Weber.
She was born in Pennsylvania on June 13, 1879 into a fairly artsy family. Her dad worked at the Pittsburgh Opera Theatre, and Lois was considered a child prodigy on the piano.
She said of her childhood. “I don’t remember a time when I did not write – certainly I’ve written and published stories since I could spell at all.”
She entered theatre as an actress, touring with various stock companies from 1904, and there she met and married actor and director Phillips Smalley. Not long after their marriage Weber retired to become a homemaker – which as far as I can make out, lasted approximately twenty minutes, before she started writing and selling film scenarios from home on a freelance basis.
This led, in 1908, to Weber and Smalley being hired as a writing-directing-producing team by the American Gaumont Chronophone company. As you might remember from last week, writing, directing and producing, were fluid and even the terms interchangeable in those days. Now, I should mention here that Weber and Smalley did work more or less as a team until they divorced in the early twenties, but it’s important to note that everyone – including Smalley – saw her as the senior partner and creative brains of the outfit. He used to refer to their joint projects as “Mrs Smalley’s pictures” – so I think it’s fair to say he knew his place.
American Gaumont was owned and operated by another husband and wife team – Herbert Blanché, and Alice Guy Blanché. As I mentioned earlier, Lois Weber was the first American woman to direct a feature-length film – Alice Guy Blanché, who was French, was the first woman to direct a feature. Bear in mind here too, that we’re talking only about feature length films here – women, Mabel Normand, for example, had been directing shorts for years at this point.
So already, in just two episodes, we have a chain emerging. Lois Weber gave Frances Marion her first start in Hollywood, and Alice Guy Blanché gave Lois Weber hers. Which, interestingly, backs up findings from a 2015 study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego University. They concluded that the best chance women have of being hired in Hollywood, is finding a female boss. So you could argue that what’s changed in 100 years is that less women are being hired – because less women are there to hire.
After a couple of years, Weber and Smalley moved on to the Rex Motion Picture Company, very quickly becoming what we might call today the creative directions. Res then amalgamated, with five other small companies, to form a studio you might have heard of – Universal – and they all moved from New York to Los Angeles.
In the teens, Universal was famous for its lady directors – in fact there were more female directors working at Universal than at all the other studios combined. In addition to Lois Weber, the “Universal women” of the teens included Ruth Ann Baldwin, Grace Cunard, Eugenie Magnus Ingleton, Cleo Madison, Ida May Park, Ruth Stonehouse, Lule Warrenton, and Elsie Jane Wilson.
And as it happens – within the low bar of today – Universal still doesn’t do too badly, hiring 7.1% female directors compared to Paramount’s 4.7% or Warner Brothers’ 2.3.
It’s often argued that this was for reasons of economy. While the top female directors and writers often out-earned their male peers, then, as now, on the whole, women tended to work for less – and Universal was all about that bottom line. Out of all the studios in those very early days, Universal was probably the most business and profit minded – so on one hand, they may have been hiring women because they were cheaper, but on the other, they clearly trusted women to churn out profitable films.
Universal City – which is Universal Studios, Hollywood, today – was a little bit like what the Google complex is us – more than a workplace – a lifestyle, a symbol of a brand new and pioneering industry.
In 1913, it elected its own mayor – Lois Weber, who in turn appointed actress Stella Adams as chief of police.
In Women of Early Hollywood, Karen Ward Mahar asks “was this feminism, or was it spectacle?” and, to be honest, the jury’s out.
Some film historians portray Universal’s founder and chief Carl Laemmle as the kind of prototype ‘woke’ guy, while others are more cynical. In some ways, I’m reminded of, do you remember two or three years ago, when models at the Chanel show in Paris came down the catwalk waving placards about women’s rights? On one hand it was like – Karl Lagerfeld as a feminist icon? Uhhh… but on the other, it got people talking, and is there not something positive about feminism being powerful and topical enough to be co-opted by fashion?
And that’s how I see the idea of Universal being the Sweden of early Hollywood- at the very least, it’s fascinating that it was seen as a concept that would sell in 1913. Because make no mistake – woke or not, Carl Laemmle was a businessman through and through – and more than that, he was a bit of a publicity genius, credited, amongst other things, with creating the first movie star. If he was selling even the façade of a female dominated society, it’s because it would sell.
At Universal, Lois Weber directed several shorts in the early teens, including Suspense in 1913, which is basically the blueprint for every thriller made since. In fact, it establishes several techniques that Hitchcock tends to get all the credit for – and in 1913 Hitchcock was a wee boy at school.
The story opens with a housekeeper sneakily quitting her job by leaving a note which reads, in a deft piece of exposition, that no staff would ever stay in a place so lonesome.
So now we have a young wife is home alone in the middle of nowhere with a baby, and there’s a tramp lurking about outside the house. The wife – played by Weber herself – phones her husband to tell him someone is breaking in, and there we have the famous three-way split screen – the first in an American film – in which we see the wife, the husband, and the tramp cutting the phone line.
The rest of the film is basically the husband’s efforts to get home before the baddie gets his wife. To be fair, that aspect isn’t overly feminist given that the wife basically sits around looking scared – but in her defence, she won’t even be able to vote for another six years, I think we can cut her some slack.
In his hurry to get to his wife, the husband steals a car, he just runs out his office and leaps in the first car he sees – so the whole time, the police and the owner of the car are in pursuit. And it’s just beautifully shot – there’s one shot where it’s an angle on the car’s side mirror – bear in mind they didn’t have rearview mirrors in those days – where we see the police car in the mirror gaining on him.
I feel as though we often imagine the very early silents as a bit amateur, a bit clunky, and many were – but the cinematography in Suspense wouldn’t be out of place in a movie released today. And the editing too – there’s a sequence of really fast jump cuts between the husband in the car, to the wife hiding with the baby, to the baddie breaking into the house, that’s classic thriller movie tension building. Put it this way: half the thriller tropes that Scream parodied can to be found in Suspense.
It was the following year that Weber became the first American woman to direct a feature with The Merchant of Venice, and she and Smalley then left Universal for the Bosworth Film Company in part because she wanted to make films with hard hitting social messages, and Universal was all about the cheap and cheerful popcorn movies. Though they didn’t actually start selling popcorn at movie theatres until the 30s… you know what I mean.
According to film historian Anthony Slide: “Along with D.W. Griffith, Weber was American cinema’s first genuine auteur, a filmmaker who utilized the motion picture to put across her own ideas and philosophies.”
Her ideas and philosophies were really what drove her. She was a devout Christian and said of her decision to go into the arts: “I was convinced that the theatrical profession needed a missionary, so I went onto the stage filled with a great desire to convert my fellow man.” And she succeeded – Lois Weber is generally credited with raising cinema from a kind of cheap alternative to vaudeville to an artform capable of tackling hefty social issues. In the late teens, there was what was known as the “uplift movement” – a concerted effort to release movies of higher social and artistic ideals, in a quite deliberate attempt to appease various conservative groups and particularly, state censorship boards. Bear in mind this was long before PG and R ratings or any kind of federal regulation on content.
Lois Weber was basically the poster child for uplift films – but that said, she wasn’t exactly conservative by today’s standards. Her films in the teens argued against capital punishment, drew connections between poverty and prostitution, and argued for birth control. Though she did run into state censorship boards regularly, she got clever quite quickly and started inviting prominent social progressives and reformers to early screenings and getting them onside, so she could quite legitimately present her movies as intellectually exploring issues rather than glorifying them.
Incidentally, she also shot the first female full frontal nude – in 1913’s Hypocrites, she had the character of “Truth” appear naked, to make the point that truth should be exposed and hide nothing. But – it’s not difficult to see the difference between the artistic decision to present a character as naked, and a “I’m running away from the baddie and whoops my clothes fell off.”
One thing that helped her in this – and one of the things I love about her – is that Lois Weber was a lady. She had this very dignified, almost Victorian, feminine image – in photos she’s invariably in one of those high necked ruffly blouses you associate with the Dowager Countess of Grantham. She was married, and middle class and well spoken, and that seemed to help her to get away with a lot more than someone who presented as more radical.
The reason that I love the way she dressed and presented herself, is just the fact that she clearly felt zero pressure to compromise her femininity in any way. When I was a trainee director a billion years ago, I remember one day writing my notes with a pink pen that had glittery things sticking out the top, and the production manager pulled me to one side and warned me that if I was to have any hope of being taken seriously, I couldn’t write with a pink glittery pen. But Lois Weber wrote with a pink glittery pen – because she wasn’t competing in a man’s world. It was Lois Weber’s world and she did whatever she pleased.
Anyway – Weber and Smalley then returned to Universal – where Weber became the highest paid director there – and in 1916 they made Where Are My Children, which was the studio’s highest grossing film of the year. I think it’s worthwhile exploring it a little bit, because it’s not the kind of movie I think most people imagine they were making in the teens – and it gives us a glimpse of what a film industry that features prominent female voices is like – bear in mind it was released 101 years ago.
So we have a district attorney – at the beginning of the film, he’s involved in a case in which a doctor is being tried for distributing “lewd” material – pamphlets educating the poor on birth control. The doctor testifies as to the destitution and heartbreak caused by uncontrolled breeding – he tells of one patient who killed herself when the baby she can’t afford to feed properly dies.
And you could argue that it’s all a bit patriarchal – but still, it’s pretty real about what it’s like to have millions of babies while poor. Anyway the doctor gets sent down – and interestingly, the title card specifies that a jury “of men” rejected the case – in 1916 women weren’t legally eligible to sit on juries, so it could have gone without saying that men convicted him. It strikes me as a wee bit pointed that it doesn’t.
The second storyline is about the district attorney’s wife and her friends, all society women who don’t want pregnancy to interrupt their cocktail parties – and to be fair, the film is pretty judgy about them, but again, 1916. As moral lines in the sand go – it’s not unreasonable. The fact that it acknowledges women who just don’t want kids exist is pretty progressive.
Then the wife’s brother comes to stay – and he rapes the maid’s daughter. Whether or not it’s strictly rape in a legal sense in 1916, there’s no bones about the fact that he’s a predatory creep from the first instant we see him. The maid’s daughter becomes pregnant and the district attorney’s wife takes him to her special doctor – but this time the doctor screws up and the maid’s daughter dies. The doctor is then put on trial – I think for manslaughter, but it’s slightly vague given that performing abortions at all at the time is illegal – and he is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour. As a final act of revenge though, he gives the DA his patient book – who of course sees his wife’s name appears several times.
He condemns his wife and her friends – but to me, it’s not clear that this is the film’s point of view, as much as the comeuppance of a hypocrite who is happy for poor people’s breeding to be controlled, but horrified that his own wife doesn’t want to pop out kids like a Pez dispenser.
One the most striking aspects of Where are My Children is simply how thought provoking it is. Though Weber herself said time and time again that she was here to preach – the film really doesn’t. It more just sets out things that happen when women can’t control whether they are pregnant or not – and if there is one unequivocal message in it, it’s that, if abortions are going to happen, let’s make sure that they don’t kill women. Which – wherever you stand personally on the issue – I think is a message we can all get on board with.
Predictably – perhaps even rightly – there was loads of controversy upon the release of Where Are My Children, with several states banning it – but it was also a huge hit, with crowds in New York being turned away after lining up outside cinemas for days at a time and still not getting into screenings.
The following year in 1917, Lois Weber established her own studio – financed by Carl Laemmle – becoming the first female director to do so. This was announced in a brilliant ad, reading “producing independently in my own studio, Lois Weber Productions, for distribution, on their merits.” By this time it was established that Weber was *the* writer director – Smalley was made the studio manager. In the same year, Weber became the first woman to be accepted into the newly formed Motion Pictures Directors’ Association.
However, by 1920 or so, her films were starting to be released to mixed reviews and she was struggling more and more to finance them.
As Weber’s biographer Shelly Stamp says: “her films [started to be] seen as didactic instead of revolutionary, “preachy” instead of radical.” The film industry in general did hit a bit of a financial roadblock in the early twenties – the US was in the post war recession just as filmmaking became more sophisticated, and more expensive. Lois Weber seems to have been hit the hardest. Part of the issue was just that times were changing – by 1921, 22, the jazz age was in full swing and people weren’t interested in socially worthy movies.
Her career limped on throughout the twenties – she made a couple of “comebacks” but with less and less success. She did continue to write, and briefly ran Universal’s story department in the late twenties, but after 1922 she was never one of the top echelon of directors again.
She died from a stomach ulcer in 1939, destitute, with her sister and protegé, screenwriter Frances Marion at her bedside. Frances Marion then organised and paid for her funeral, proving once again that when the chips are down, it’s your girlfriends you can count on.
To a certain extent, her story is far from uncommon in Hollywood – how many directors, writers, stars can we all think of who are everywhere for a few years then suddenly never heard from again? But rarely is a filmmaker as impactful as Lois Weber as forgotten as she was.
In Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, Shelley Stamp says:
Over the following two decades, the process of marginalising, then ultimately “forgetting” Weber’s work, alongside that of many other women active in early Hollywood, only accelerated. …
Stamp reports that in 1927, the magazine Moving Picture World described Weber as “the only woman ever to achieve success as a motion picture director” – an astonishing erasure of historical record.
So it seems as though this wasn’t just a question of one director’s career floundering – but of quite a systematic attempt to re-write history. Both Griffith and Demille – the two directors whose careers most resembled Weber’s – would both release turkeys and struggle at times, particularly with the transition to sound – but they’re both still venerated as the ‘fathers of cinema’.
And perhaps more importantly, Lois Weber was no aberration – she was one of the top, certainly one of the most influential directors, but she was far from the only woman working behind the scenes in Hollywood at the time.
And we’ll discuss that, a little bit more next week.
Thanks again for listening to episode number two of Women of Hollywoodland, I hope you enjoyed it, and if you did and could spare a moment to rate, review, share, subscribe, it would be really appreciated. You can also find out more about this episode and the whole Hollywoodland project at hollywoodlandseries.com – and please feel free to leave any comments, questions or thoughts there – I’d love to hear from you. Thanks again, and see you next week.