June 13th in (Feminist) History

loisweberOn this day in 1879 was the birth of Lois Weber, an American actress, screenwriter, producer,and director, who was known as “one of the most important and prolific film directors in the era of silent film”, and “the most important female director the American film industry has known”. She is known as one of America’s first “auteurs” in the cinema; a woman who was involved in every aspect of the production of her films, all of which were imbued with her personal philosophies and ideas. The morals which she believed in lead to her creation of films involving marriage, women’s role in social, social disparity, hypocrisy, business corruption, religion, and politics.

Born Florence Lois Weber in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, she was considered a child prodigy in music, with her passion being piano playing. Born in a devout Christian family, she left home and lived in poverty for two years, working as a social activist and street corner evangelist with the Church Army Workers. Her work involved preaching and singing hymns, as well as playing the organ at rescue missions in red light districts. When the Church Army Workers disbanded, she went back home to her family and then began performing as a soprano singer and pianist. She quit when an incident with a broken piano key during a recital made her lose her nerve to play in public– though she also stated that the incident made her feel that this phase of her life was now over.

In 1904, Lois took up acting and moved to NYC. She worked for five years as a repertory and stock actress, during which time she traveled with a road company performing “Why Girls Leave Home”, before she ended up marrying the stage manager, Wendell Phillips Smalley. Smalley, a descendant of the human rights pioneer Wendell Phillips, encouraged Lois to keep her maiden name, and she did. It was also with him that she got involved in the pioneer motion picture industry; first with the Gaumont Company (where she was mentored by the world’s first female director, Alice Guy Blance of France), and then Universal. It was during her brief year working with her husband at the Bosworth company that Lois made her first full-length film of the style she became known for; films with social and moral messages. It was also at this studio that she made ‘Hypocrites, which would become one of her most famous; not the least of which because she was known for posing naked in it to represent “the naked truth”. Another of her films at this time, “The Spider and Her Web” featured Lois as “The Spider”, a vamp who seduces and ruins intellectual men. (Until she is frightened into adopting an orphan and saved by motherhood, ugh, you were doing so well Lois.)

After that year she and her husband returned to Universal pictures, where she was allowed to produce her own feature-length films, having been denied that previously. At Universal she made “Shoes” (1916) and “Where Are My Children?” (1916), the latter of which caused controversy for it’s message; a plea for birth control for women. This was in fact the last movie Lois would be seen is as an actress; the plot involved a doctor’s wife imprisoned for illegally giving out family planning information. In 1917 she was established enough to start her own studio, Lois Weber Productions. It was here she made numerous other movies, including one called “What Do Men Want?”, in 1921. Perhaps the title was telling, as the following year Lois’s eighteen year marriage ended in a divorce which gave her a nervous breakdown, though she did eventually recover to make numerous other films.

Though a large number of her films were not preserved, she is said to have directed 135 films, written 114, and acted in 100 in total. She is also known for having pioneered the “split screen” technique, and made one of the first sound films in the U.S. She was also the first American woman ever to direct a full-length feature film with “The Merchant of Venice” in 1914 (at Bosworth Company; the film is now considered “a lost film”) and when she opened her own studio in 1917, she was the first woman director to ever have done so. The nudity in her 1915 film “Hypocrites” was the first full-frontal female nude scenes ever. Though she continued to make movies, Lois lost her popularity in the 1920s, when her moral beliefs came to be at odds with the hedonism of the era of the “flapper girl”. Lois made her last film, “White Heat” in 1934, and died 5 years later at the age of 58, of a gastric hemorrhage. Despite the fact that much of what she accomplished is no longer remembered today, it is said that, “few men, before or since, have retained such absolute control over the films they have directed – and certainly no women directors have achieved the all-embracing, powerful status once held by Lois Weber.”

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