Lois Weber: Pioneer Progressive Filmmaker
April 1 - 29
With all due respect to Alice Guy-Blaché, Germaine Dulac, Leni Riefenstahl, Dorothy Arzner, and other distinguished pioneers, Lois Weber was the preeminent female filmmaker in the first half-century or so of film history. Bringing a strong sense of morality, gender issues, and social consciousness to her films, she reached a peak of success in the mid-1910s, when she was regarded on a par with D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Although her popularity began to decline in the late 1910s, she continued to develop as a filmmaker, bringing greater subtlety and sophistication to her work.
The 1910s represented an era of opportunity for women in Hollywood that would not be equaled until at least the 1970s. One factor was the enormous popularity of female movie stars, who often had the clout to form their own production companies (Mary Pickford even co-founded a major studio, United Artists!). Another was the less hierarchical and compartmentalized structure of the film industry, which made it easier for women to cross over into directing from other fields, such as acting and screenwriting.
A third factor was the fear struck into the movie industry by censorship forces, culminating in the landmark Mutual Decision of 1915, which denied movies First Amendment protection. By the conventions of the day, women were considered the guardians of morality for society at large and therefore capable of providing "moral uplift" of the sort that Hollywood badly needed to spruce up its image.
When it came to moral uplift, no one had stronger, more iron-clad credentials than Lois Weber. Weber (1879-1939) came from a devoutly religious "Pennsylvania Dutch" family. As a young woman, she joined an evangelical organization called the Church Army Workers, preaching and singing hymns on street corners, and also working with prostitutes and other disadvantaged women.
After an unsuccessful attempt at a musical career, Weber went into the theater as an actress. Shortly afterward, she met actor and stage manager Phillips Smalley. They married and become professional partners, working closely together on plays and films (with Smalley often taking co-director credit), until their marriage fell apart in 1922. The nature of their collaboration has been a matter of scholarly debate, marked by an increasing tendency to see Weber as the dominant partner (at least professionally), and Smalley’s contributions to their films as being more or less supplemental.
Weber started working in movies in 1911, first as an actress, then as an actress/screenwriter, then as an actress/screenwriter/director, with the acting component getting phased out around 1916. She came to prominence after 1915 with a series of feature films, made for Universal, that had strong social messages and tackled controversial topics, such as birth control, abortion, drug addiction, and capital punishment. Despite (or perhaps because of) the censorship controversies they aroused, these films (which Weber later jokingly referred to as her "heavy dinner" films) were very successful, both critically and commercially. In 1917, she formed her own studio, Lois Weber Productions, with the Lamp of Truth as its logo.
Weber saw her filmmaking as an extension of her earlier evangelical activities—“an opportunity to preach to the masses,” as she called it. In her later films, from the late 1910s and early 1920s, she toned down the didactic side and became a subtler filmmaker, with a lighter touch. However, by that time, Weber was starting to lose popularity, her Victorian/Progressive morality out-of-step with the advent of the Roaring Twenties. Her greatest film, THE BLOT (1921), was a product of this period; it was also a commercial failure and the last film made by Lois Weber Productions. The previously prolific Weber made only five films after 1921, the last being WHITE HEAT, her only talkie, filmed in Hawaii in 1934.
— Martin Rubin, Associate Director of Programming
Special thanks to Dennis Doros of Milestone Films, Josh Morrison of Flicker Alley, and Lynanne Schweighofer of the Library of Congress.
The Dumb Girl of Portici
1916, Lois Weber, USA, 112 min. With Anna Pavlova, Douglas Gerrard.
- Sat, Apr 22nd 3:00pm
- Thu, Apr 27th 6:00pm
“A crucial rediscovery…reveals Pavlova to be, from the very start, one of the greatest movie actors, a charismatic and expressive actor who’s as forceful in repose as in action.”— Richard Brody, The New Yorker
The legendary dancer Anna Pavlova was lured into this, her only screen performance, by Universal’s offer of a then-astronomical $50,000 salary and an opportunity to perform one of her favorite roles, the title character Fenella in Daniel Auber’s 1828 opera La Muette de Portici. The action is set in Naples, where the mute Fenella is a sprightly, dance-happy peasant girl living with her fisherman brother. The city is chafing under the oppressive yoke of Spanish rule, imposed by the licentious Viceroy. The Viceroy’s dashing son Alfonso, disguised as peasant, ventures out of the palace and enjoys a night of passion with the lovestruck Fenella, who is then abandoned by her lover and imprisoned and tortured by his father. Her mistreatment, coupled with an unpopular new tax, sparks a people’s uprising that quickly degenerates into a bloody bacchanalia. Universal’s willingness to entrust Weber with this ambitious and costly production (much of which was filmed in Chicago) is an indication of the stature she had achieved in the film industry, and her handling of large-scale spectacle rivals that of Griffith and DeMille. This new restoration by the Library of Congress features an original music score by dance composer John Sweeney. DCP digital. (MR)
What's Worth While?
1921, Lois Weber, USA, 75 min. With Claire Windsor, Louis Calhern.
- Sat, Apr 29th 3:00pm
★★★★ "Easily my favorite silent of the [Cinesation] weekend, and one to catch if the Library of Congress's 35mm restoration (which looks gorgeous) should turn up near you." — Mike Gebert, NitrateVille
Weber discoveries Claire Windsor and Louis Calhern were her go-to couple in the early 1920s, with Calhern's heartiness providing a foil to Windsor's refinement, and vice-versa. The first film to pair them together, WHAT'S WORTH WHILE? is a sly commentary on gender roles. Windsor plays a spoiled Southern belle who is attracted to a rugged westerner (Calhern) despite his uncouth ways. Obligingly, he goes to London to become more refined, but, when he returns two years later, she finds him...perhaps a little too refined? 35mm archival print preserved by the Library of Congress; some missing footage in the first few minutes in filled in by explanatory titles. (MR)
Preceded by FINE FEATHERS (1912, Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, 14 min.), in which Weber plays a hard-up young woman who becomes maid, model, and lover to an artist (Smalley). 35mm archival print from the Collections of the Library of Congress.
Saturday, April 29 at 3:00 PM: Live piano accompaniment by Dave Drazin.
1916, Lois Weber, USA, 52 min. With Mary MacLaren, William V. Mong.
- Sat, Apr 1st 3:30pm
- Mon, Apr 3rd 6:00pm
"Brilliant." — Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
Weber drew upon the writings of Chicago social worker Jane Addams and her own experience as a missionary working in the prisons and slums of New York to fashion this bitter, compassionate, and authentic tale of a girl who, as the opening titles inform us, “sold herself for a pair of shoes.” Played with understated power by Weber’s 16-year-old discovery Mary MacLaren, Eva Meyer is a tenement girl who works in a five-and-dime store. Her meager salary is the main support of her family, which includes two younger sisters, an overwhelmed mother, and an indolent, unemployed father. Mary is tantalized by a fancy new pair of boots that would replace her own tattered footwear and bring a bit of sparkle into her drab life, but the object of her desire leaves her vulnerable to the attentions of a local cad (Mong). Weber skillfully tempers the moralism of the story with an indictment of the low wages that leave young women destitute and the consumer economy that positions them as objects among the objects they sell but cannot afford. This new restoration by the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam features an original music score by Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson. DCP digital. (MR)
Preceded by THE PRICE (1911, 15 min.), a melodramatic tale of a woman who abandons her family for the high life, co-directed by and co-starring Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley. DCP digital.
1921, Lois Weber, USA, 93 min. With Claire Windsor, Louis Calhern.
- Sat, Apr 8th 3:30pm
- Mon, Apr 10th 6:00pm
"Lois Weber's masterwork, her greatest achievement." — Anthony Slide, Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History
"THE BLOT is the ideal film to show to those who did not live through them what the twenties were like in America. One can see what living spaces were really like, not what art directors imposed on them — and what people really wore, not what fashion designers invented for them." — Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask of Innocence
THE BLOT is Weber's finest film and one of the treasures of American silent cinema. Beautifully integrating a broad social vision into an intimate domestic milieu, the film centers on the family of an underpaid professor whose daughter is desired by three men: a rich playboy, a shabby but sincere minister, and the son of boisterous and prosperous immigrant neighbors. Weber employs a mastery of significant detail (the shoes! the cats! the flowers!) and shifting points of view to draw an incisive picture of declining middle-class gentility. Silent film with recorded music score. DCP digital courtesy of Flicker Alley. (MR)
Where Are My Children?
1916, Lois Weber, USA, 62 min. With Tyrone Power Sr., Mrs. Tyrone Power.
- Sat, Apr 15th 3:30pm
"A landmark of Weber's Progressive Era filmmaking, a model of cinema vying to take on the challenge of presenting complex social issues through the lens of narrative cinema." — Shelley Stamp, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood
WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN? was one of the most controversial and successful of Weber’s so-called “heavy dinner” films that foregrounded pressing social issues in the mid-1910s. The film’s tangled treatment of contraception, abortion, and eugenics provides a fascinating X-ray of the fracture between lingering Victorian values and incipient liberalization at time of great upheaval in the position of women in American society. Beginning with a bizarre prologue depicting the hierarchy of infant souls in heaven, the film centers on a district attorney (Power) who sympathizes with a doctor put on trial for advocating birth control as a means of combating overpopulation among the poor. Meanwhile, the D.A.’s childless wife and her upper-crust gal-pals maintain a secret network of abortion referrals, and the chickens come home to roost when an abortionist blackmails the wife in order to avoid prosecution. WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN? overcame heavy censorship pressures to become one of Weber’s biggest hits. 35mm archival print preserved by the Library of Congress. (MR)
Preceded by SUSPENSE (1913, 10 min.), Weber's most famous short film, in which dazzling technique is applied to a home-invasion story. DCP digital courtesy of Flicker Alley.