Lois Weber was early Hollywood’s original shero. In a career that spanned almost three decades at the beginning of moviemaking, Weber wrote and directed more than 40 features and over 100 shorts. She was the first woman to direct a feature film in the US –The Merchant of Venice in 1914, the first woman admitted to the Motion Picture Directors’ Association in 1916, and in 1917 she became the first woman to run a Hollywood studio.
In her time Weber was considered one of the three “great minds” in early film-making, alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. While her male peers have long been celebrated as the fathers of American cinema, Weber has been largely forgotten.
Weber made her name with a series of popular films on controversial social issues while she was the top director at Universal in the mid-1910s. If Griffith and DeMille sought to establish cinema’s prestige by drawing on highbrow literary and historical material, Weber seized upon the new medium’s capacity to animate critical issues of her day. Cinema, she said, was a “voiceless language,” able to engage audiences in the era’s most contentious debates. And that she did. Weber tackled subjects like urban poverty and women’s wage equity in Shoes (1916), drug addiction in Hop, or The Devil’s Brew (1916), capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), and the campaign to legalize birth control in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917). One early observer noted that Weber could “deal successfully with subjects which other directors would not dare touch for fear of condemnation.”
Although she vowed to abandon such “heavy dinners” when she left Universal to form her own studio, Weber remained a trenchant critic of social norms throughout the 1920s. Her films on marriage and domesticity – Too Wise Wives (1921), What Do Men Want? (1921) and The Blot (1921) – provoke fundamental questions about changing sexual mores, traditional family structures, and a rising culture of consumption in the Jazz Age. In later films like The Marriage Clause (1926), Sensation Seekers (1927) and The Angel of Broadway (1927), Weber produced highly reflexive critiques of stardom and Hollywood’s glamour culture, particularly its commodification of women.
Throughout her career Weber mentored other women at all ranks of the industry – actresses, screenwriters, and directors alike. She demanded a place at the table in early professional guilds, decried limited roles available for women onscreen, and protested the growing climate of hostility towards female filmmakers in the 1920s. When a high-ranking studio executive proclaimed that women did not make good motion picture directors, Weber penned a two-part syndicated newspaper article calling for more women directors. Compared to when she got her start in Hollywood, “women entering the industry now find it practically closed,” she wrote. Where she had once commanded tremendous respect on any set, by the late 1920s Weber found that men were often unaccustomed to working under a female director and sometimes even unwilling to do so.
For a filmmaker so renowned in her time, Lois Weber is remarkably unknown. The first histories of Hollywood, written in the late 1920s and early 1930s, ignored the contributions of women like Weber to the fledgling movie business – a pattern that has persisted to this day. Yet as Hollywood debates gender equity onscreen and off, Weber’s legacy is vital to remember.
Written for Sheroes of History by Shelley Stamp, author of Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, winner of the Michael Nelson Prize from the International Association for Media and History and the Richard Wall Special Jury Prize from the Theatre Library Association.
Find out more…
A great place to start would be Shelley’s book Lois Weber in Early Hollywood. There is also a book called Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History by Anthony Slide.
You can watch some of Lois Weber’s films online today. Here is a short one called Suspense: