fbpx Lois Weber: Pioneer Progressive Filmmaker | Gene Siskel Film Center

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.