Welcome to Common Careers, the series about women who helped to create the moving image world and industry and make it the dynamic and vibrant world that it is today. As I noted in my initial introduction, this series has come about as a result of the fact that we have begun to talk about women’s invisibility on a larger scale again. Discussions on the Bechdel Test and statistics on how many women are hired on a regular basis in powerful roles have become part of the “daily share-ables” on our social media landscape (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter). But what we are not making part of the new feminist media discourse is the fact that there was a previous set of women who set the stage and had their creative say and work ignored once the Big Boys with their Big Toys came around. These were the women who helped build what we have now and truly gave us a foundation for the way we look at actresses of today and women’s place in media. And they’ve been there since the very start. And with that, we will begin just there- at the very beginning of movie history, the silent era.
Lois Weber, author of “How I Became a Motion Picture Director” (1915), was, as Shelley Stamp writes, “one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades.” Not only that, Weber was one of the first individuals to use full frontal nudity in a film that was not intended for pornographic use.
While it may seem surprising that there were women in the the early days of film who were not only granted power within the industry but were also able to use their creative energies in order to further messages of female equality, it is essential to look at the social landscape at the time. Women’s suffrage had been growing and gaining speed and membership over the last 50+ years, so by the time Weber began her career as an actress and then as an apprentice under the guidance of the woman who is widely considered to be the first female motion picture director, Alice Guy-Blaché, the pursuit (and investigation) of subjects such as birth control, marriage, economics and freedom was not entirely verboten. At least not according to the standards that a modern female director of the time whose desire was to investigate these “social problems” through the filmic text and create a context for which more could be better understood and learned by a society that (more than likely) was not having much of it.
As we will see, looking at the early women in film, they may not always have aligned themselves with the women’s rights movement. While the content of their filmwork and their careers and, indeed, their very existence in the film community identified them as having a strongly advanced female position, many of these women didn’t identify with political structures and their personal lives reflected a different world than their professional ones. Women in early film, Lois Weber being a prime example, were not always “big hearty independent females who didn’t need a man.” As history has shown, a certain percentage of the hard luck stories of these amazing women came from their dedication to their marriages or relationships above their careers, and much of their work and careers failed when their relationships did. Lois Weber was extremely successful throughout much of her life, but had terrible luck with men (struck it rich with the alcoholic variety), and ended up dying penniless and practically forgotten at age 60. The only film community members who supported this legendary figure after death were other women in the community: celebrated screenwriter Frances Marion paid for her funeral and renowned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper gave her more than a few sentences in the newspaper as an obituary. And for a woman who changed the silver screen? That seems beyond heartbreaking. It’s just wrong.
Lois Weber and her first husband, Wendell Phillips Smalley, began making films together for Universal in the 1910s. Weber could do it all and did! She wrote, directed, acted, did subtitling, edited and apparently developed negatives as well. She started really getting attention when she started making films that made people a little upset due to the highly controversial content. The primary film talked about within this context is her 1914 feature film, Hypocrites, which she directed and wrote. Not only did this film feature full frontal nudity, but it dealt with issues of moral blindness, religious figures and being faced with the “Naked Truth” in the form of (literally) the naked form of a highly attractive (but uncredited) Margaret Edwards (who later plays a naked statue in the film as well).
Hypocrites was banned in Ohio, reportedly asked by James Michael Curley, the mayor of Boston at the time, to have the negatives be painted over so that the “Naked Truth” be a bit less revealing, and altogether scandalous. But it was popular and gained her confidence with the higher-ups at Universal who made her one of the top-paid filmmakers in Hollywood at that time. Weber went on to make other films like Where Are My Children? (1916) with her husband, which focused on illegal abortion, birth control and concepts of “obscenity” loosely based on Margaret Sanger.
This film was very popular (although, again, not with the censors), included the “high-tech” use of trick photography and multiple exposures and inspired an unofficial sequel, Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) in which Smalley and Weber star as husband and wife sex education and family planning advocates. Tragically, Hand is considered a lost film, like many of the great silent works of the day, and unless it is located at some later date (never give up hope!), we may never know what that film held for us. Erik Bondurant writing on Where Are..states that “Lois Weber, one of the first and greatest directors in cinema history, provides a much-needed woman’s voice and eye on the topic.” While many things about abortion and family planning have changed since the days of Margaret Sanger getting slapped with obscenity charges for birth control pamphlets, I think it is safe to say that the films that Weber contributed within this genre of women’s social reform are no small matter in film history. Indeed, if one were to look at the films released in 2013/14, and consider what we can/can’t do and what is socially acceptable or what will make money and the fact that we are allowed R ratings and plenty of full frontal nudity (no negative painting required!), it could be said that the works being released in the teens were of a more strident and generous nature for women’s livelihoods.
Aside from issues of family planning, Lois Weber tackled poverty and its connection to a young woman’s moral breakdown (Shoes, 1916), drugs (Hop, the Devil’s Brew, 1916), antisemitism (A Jew’s Christmas, 1913) and many other issues with her films. The problem is that, much like Hand That Rocks the Cradle, most of these films are lost to us. As Anthony Slide so deftly notes, “The major problem in any attempt to rediscover America’s first female directors is that the films themselves are missing…Lois Weber directed some forty feature films but only a dozen can be found in film archives. It is not even the simple matter of the films being lost. An equal problem is that what films have survived are not always the best examples of the director’s work.”
Lois Weber was not only a striking figure by way of filmic subject matter or in the high amounts of money that she was being paid as a filmmaker, but when she left Universal in 1917, Weber formed her very own production company, establishing her place in history as the first female director to do so. Lois Weber Productions concentrated on films that were more focused on the female experience in domestic life: What Do Men Want (1921), a melodrama about male infidelity in marriage, and The Blot (1921), a story that centers on issues of poverty and wealth between the classes and how they experience one another and survive were examples of the kinds of works that were par for the course. However, unlike working for Universal, she was able to have a great deal more power in the manner in which the films were shot (on-location and in narrative sequence).
While Weber’s career went downhill in the 1920s, and some have attributed it to her failed marriage to Smalley (as he was her partner in many creative endeavors) it is more likely, according to Shelley Stamp, that things took a downturn due “to larger circumstances at play in Hollywood during the early 1920s, circumstances that compromised the fate of many independently run production companies, especially those headed by women. Plus, Weber’s focus on urban social problems, rather than amusement, and on the complexities of marriage, rather than romantic courtship, was increasingly perceived as outdated, overly didactic, and dower.” However, it is worth mentioning that during this same time, Weber solidified her relationships with the female community of Hollywood in a variety of ways and, although her career might have been heading south, she was maintaining her dedication to being a strong woman in the community and seeking out bonds with the rest of the women in Hollywood. She went to special women’s luncheons, did a national speaking tour on the subject of “Woman’s Influence in the Photoplay World.” “Alternating with her talks on ‘woman’s influence,’ ” As Shelley Stamp writes, “Weber also spoke about more controversial topics like ‘Moving Picture Censorship’ and ‘The Sunday Blue Laws’ to women’s clubs in Denver, Salt Lake City, Topeka, and Indianapolis. A staunch opponent of censorship, Weber addressed clubwomen at a time when they were stepping up calls for greater regulation of motion pictures. Following their successful campaigns for women’s suffrage and prohibition, both ratified in 1920, women’s groups were considered extremely influential and effective advocates for social change.” If Lois Weber couldn’t change the world through making the films, she was going to try to connect with the other powerful women in the country in order to create and point out the changes that needed to occur. Once a social reformer, always a social reformer.
Stamp’s initial summary of Weber’s career turnaround is highly probably. While Lois Weber eventually remarried and produced more films, she never again reached that same peak that she had back in the ‘teens. But judging from publications of the time, she may have not been alone in this. Circumstances changed for industry women in the 1920s and onward. The May, 1917 issue of Photoplay magazine describes the misogynistic landscape that women directors were dealing with to a T: “Another good omen is the subsidence of the ‘her-own-company’ epidemic. It seems to have been a winter disease, as the coming of spring brought with it a cessation of corporation founding activities.” Of course, this “news piece” is just above another item that discusses Ruth Ann Baldwin, another female director of the time, describing her in terms of belonging to the “so-called fairer sex” and having just married an actor that she had recently “bossed around” in a number of films for Universal. As time went on, opportunities for women to flourish a la Lois Weber, slowly collapsed and transitioned into very different opportunities and all new challenges. Although women maintained a certain amount of power and became highly in other areas, the so-called “her-own-company epidemic” was a very special period of film history and one that really created a space for films to be made that explored the female experience.
Finally, Lois Weber’s work, while we don’t have as much as we would like, has had some wonderful time spent on it recently and has renewed interest in this wonderful and tragically ignored figure in women’s film history. The EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands has done a remarkable job restoring her film Shoes (1916). I was lucky enough to see a presentation about it at an archivist’s conference a while back and the work and energy that they put forth on this piece is simply stunning. With that, I leave you with a clip showing the before/after of the restoration work, and hope that you have enjoyed this week’s Common Careers!
ADDENDUM: Huge shout out to Professor Shelley Stamp!! She was an amazing professor that I actually was lucky enough to have during my undergraduate years at UCSC, and without her copious writings on Lois Weber, I would not have been able to verify some of the information I had and thus complete this profile. I highly recommend that you read the entirety of this article if you are more interested in Lois Weber: http://www.frameworkonline.com/Issue52/521stamp.html and also REALLY recommend that you all visit the Lois Weber profile that Shelley Stamp also did on the INCREDIBLE AND AWESOME Women Film Pioneers Project. https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-lois-weber/
Also, that site is my hero. Seriously.