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Lois Weber: Frequently Forgotten Pioneering American Movie Director
September 20, 2013 10:24 AM   Subscribe

Lois Weber was an important early American film-maker who pushed the boundaries of film-making so she could better tell the stories she wanted to tell. Several of her early silent films are on youtube: Suspense (1913; ~10 minutes) (she directs herself, experiments with the split-screen view and unusual and effective camera angles including shots from above and using the car's side mirror); Hypocrites (1915; ~4 minutes) (featuring dual roles, nudity, and a strong use of techniques like multiple exposures and complex editing - as well as a strong moral message); and Where Are My Children (1916, ~1 hour, 10 minutes) (a complex and controversial film even then about birth control (pro) and abortion (anti)).

This led her to make the even more controversial The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (now lost), inspired by Margaret Sanger, which focused passionately only on the need to legalize birth control. The full version of The Blot, her masterpiece about class differences, is not online, but TCM offers this article on the movie and the director as part of the History of Film marathon. She also made movies dealing with capital punishment, gender relations, working conditions, and other social interests (many of which were banned, censored, denounced, and very popular), as well as telling stories from Shakespeare to Tarzan.

Lois Weber (1879-1939) was as important as D. W. Griffith but far less well known. She was an actor, a producer, a writer, and most critically, a director. As a director she pushed the boundaries and techniques of film-making. Her progressive philosophies and faith influenced her work; her skills made her one of the most sought after directors; her content brought her to the attention of censors frequently.

She had a short but highly successful career producing very commercial movies in Hollywood as well as her (for that era) progressive message movies, being a director in demand … and then lost it all in the early 1920s as audience tastes shifted. In Lois Weber in Jazz Age Hollywood, Shelley Stamp writes about her life after her directing and producing career imploded, including stints as a writer, story fixer, networker, occasional director, and sometimes agitator.
posted by julen (12 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
I feel like I just read an article on a female moviemaker from this period, but I don't know that this was her. And I can't find it now, and it's not any of the articles you linked.

Anyway, this is very cool, thanks for the post, julen.
posted by emjaybee at 10:52 AM on September 20, 2013


Maybe Alice Guy-Blache? A kickstarter to make a documentary about her closed (successfully) in August, and there were a number of articles about her. She is generally considered to be the first female director in history, and is probably responsible for the first narrative films. She made her first film in 1896, ran movie studios in France and then in the US, and then fell off the radar in 1920 (Influenza + Divorce + Bankruptcy).
posted by julen at 11:06 AM on September 20, 2013


Neat post about somebody I knew nothing about. She sounds awesome and it's a shame somebody like Griffith is well known even to non-film buffs like myself, but she isn't.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:12 AM on September 20, 2013


Fascinating post, thanks!

> Lois Weber (1879-1939) was as important as D. W. Griffith

But this is just silly. It's perfectly possible to insist on the importance of an overlooked figure without making overheated comparisons like this. I don't like Birth of a Nation either, but come on. Griffith is one of the most important directors who ever lived; Weber doesn't even come close.
posted by languagehat at 11:24 AM on September 20, 2013


That's not her, julen (though Ms. Guy-Blache is also awesome). I seem to recall it was a woman who starred in her own movies, who was scandalous and had books written about her and parodies done of her. Seems like the kind of thing I'd see on the Hairpin or Toast but I haven't turned it up yet. She might have been more of an actress/celebrity but I was pretty sure early film was involved. It was not someone I'd heard of before.

Argh. Stupid brain.
posted by emjaybee at 11:36 AM on September 20, 2013


Great post, and I'm looking forward to watching the surviving films.
posted by immlass at 11:59 AM on September 20, 2013


Me> Lois Weber (1879-1939) was as important as D. W. Griffith

languagehat: "But this is just silly. It's perfectly possible to insist on the importance of an overlooked figure without making overheated comparisons like this. I don't like Birth of a Nation either, but come on. Griffith is one of the most important directors who ever lived; Weber doesn't even come close."

Obviously, I disagree. Griffith is more well known, and certainly is looked to as the standard-bearer. People have more access to his work (fewer lost films, available in more places), and his work has certainly been taught and become part of the canon. You can see the influence of his directing and staging (no matter how I feel about his bigotry - Weber certainly had her own bigotry issues. It's hard to find any film-maker from that time that didn't.) in direct nods in films from the 1920s and on.

I believe Weber's influence is more subtle. Her technical improvements and her different storytelling style affected the ways her peers and students (most of whom were more famous than her by 1930) made movies. But I will be truthful here and say that I deliberately did not say she was as important a director as D. W. Griffith. I was including the impact her commercially successful studio (that she managed) had, the impact of her writing, the way she could use people's assumptions about her gender to actually get some of controversial movies made, her cleverness as a producer on the films she specifically produced, and even if how the work she did after she fell from the top impacted the business.
posted by julen at 12:19 PM on September 20, 2013


Suspense is just a perfect silent film.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:17 PM on September 20, 2013


I love how film and motion pictures are such a (relatively) new invention, but creativity is as old as the hills.

These are intensely creative.
posted by Sphinx at 6:46 PM on September 20, 2013


Where Are My Children? is pretty great. I love the pouty Mrs. Walton, her horrible brother, her brooding husband the District Attorney.... Their motorcars and their hats!
posted by geeklizzard at 7:48 PM on September 20, 2013


An extra word about judgments of quality and importance; I think that the creation of value and what gets valued is influenced by patriarchy. And that what is given critical attention and taken seriously, what is considered of value, gets constructed over time and creates a feedback loop that continues defining value. I've put a fair amount of time into researching women's work that was wildly successful artistically and commercially, even judged for many years to be great. I've seen so many ways that then their work, their status as artist, writer, filmaker, or any other kind of producer of culture, gets devalued. The process is worth our attention. It is a fundamental fallacy to think that what we think now or what was thought 50 years ago to be the best work of a time, is the best out of some artistic Darwinian process where the chaff is winnowed away by time and the best survives. The deeper I dig and look and the more I absorb, the less true that is for me. It is an expansion of "what is good" and valuable -- not a throwing down and replacement -- to value work like Weber's. I deeply disagree with languagehat, and don't think it is silly to compare the importance of Weber with Griffith. It is much sillier to keep creating self-fulfilling critical prophecies. Kill Rock Stars!!!!!!!!!
posted by geeklizzard at 8:30 PM on September 20, 2013


> I will be truthful here and say that I deliberately did not say she was as important a director as D. W. Griffith. I was including the impact her commercially successful studio (that she managed) had, the impact of her writing, the way she could use people's assumptions about her gender to actually get some of controversial movies made, her cleverness as a producer on the films she specifically produced, and even if how the work she did after she fell from the top impacted the business.

That's fair enough. Thanks for the clarification.

> It is an expansion of "what is good" and valuable -- not a throwing down and replacement -- to value work like Weber's.

It certainly is. What's the added value in overstated claims that will just make people who know the subject roll their eyes? "Here, read/watch this, it's great!" is effective; "It's as good/important as Shakespeare/Griffith!" is pointless and alienating.
posted by languagehat at 7:47 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


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