You read that right, she wasn’t the highest paid female director, once she even outranked her male peers like D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, making Lois Weber the first American female director, as well as the highest paid director in Hollywood for a time.
Life Before Directing
Weber was born in 1879 to middle class Christian parents in Pennsylvania. Early in her life she took after her father, who had spent several years in missionary street work. Weber left her home in her late teens to and work as street-corner evangelist and social activist. She worked and lived in poverty until the evangelical Church Army Workers she was with were disbanded in 1900. Weber, also an excellent piano player, started touring the United States as concert pianist soon after.
In 1904, she moved to acting, convinced the theatrical profession needed a missionary, and how better to do that than becoming an actress herself.
During her stage career she met Wendell Phillips Smalley, a stage manager, and after just a couple of weeks they were married. They worked as creative team and Smalley was credited in a lot of their films as co-director.
In 1908 the American Gaumont Chronophones hired Weber. Alice Guy and Herbert Blaché, heading Gaumont in the US, claimed to have started Weber on her very successful career as director, seeing the potential in her when working with her on set. Weber herself found a medium in motion pictures, where she could creatively express herself while still fulfilling her want to tackle controversial subjects. She was able to produce work with the aim to “have an influence for good on the public mind” (Photoplay 1913, 73).
I like to direct, because I believe a woman, more or less intuitively, brings out many of the emotions that are rarely expressed on the screen. I may miss what some of the men get, but I will get other effects that they never thought of.
The Films of Lois Weber
Watching Weber’s films I found it fascinating the way she used editing and filming techniques already more than a century ago which are deemed state of the art even today. Watch her silent film Suspense:
A Tramp stalks a mother and her infant while the father, chased by the cops, rushes home to attempt the rescue.
It’s incredible how Weber builds tension and uses a triple split screen, for the first time in movie history, to show simultaneous action. Additionally, she used mirror shots which I find innovative even today.
Just as ground-breaking as her visual style was her choice of topics. She wrote and directed films about deeply controversial social issues, which are still relevant today. ‘The people vs. John Doe’ (1916) dealt with capital punishment, ‘Hop, the Devil’s Brew’ (1916) with drug abuse, ‘Shoes’ (1916) with poverty and wage equity, and ‘Where are My Children?’ (1916) with contraception, which was still illegal at the time.
In ‘Where are My Children’ a district attorney prosecutes a doctor for illegal abortions and finds out that society people, among them his wife, used the doctor’s services:
Her films were massive box office successes, despite or maybe because of their controversial nature.
In 1917 she left Universal to form her own company, Lois Weber productions. That’s when she was at the peak of her career, and the extremely lucrative distribution contracts she negotiated with Universal made her, for that time, the highest paid director in Hollywood. During her active years Weber directed over 100 films.
However, Weber’s career, as the career of so many other female filmmakers at the time, declined in the 1920s. Hollywood realised how much profit there was in the movie industry, and women didn’t fit in the picture.
Furthermore the taste of the audience shifted after the end of the first world war. People didn’t want to go to the cinema to be educated, they preferred easier entertainment. Weber had problems adjusting to the new movie making world. After her divorce in 1922, she only made a few more films. It’s noteworthy that Smalley, her ex-husband, directed not a single film after their separation.
Weber died at age 60 widely unknown for her great achievements in the early days of cinema. She was only ‘rediscovered’ in the 1970s by historians like Anthony Slide and Richard Koszarski.
Stamp, Shelley. “Lois Weber.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. [last viewed 26th of June 2020]
Bizarre.Los.Angeles, November 2017, Lois Weber — photos and quotes [last viewed 26th of June 2020]
Lois Weber on IMDb [last viewed 26th of June 2020]
Lois Weber at Wikipedia [last viewed 26th of June 2020]
A History of Silence — the Cinema of Lois Weber
Lois Weber. Intro by Susan Sarandon