Watch Four Daring Films by Lois Weber, “the Most Important Female Director the American Film Industry Has Known” (1913–1921)

These days, every cinephile can name more than a few women among their favorite liv­ing film­mak­ers: Sofia Cop­po­la, Ava DuVer­nay, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Cam­pi­on, Agnès Var­da — the list goes on. But if we look far­ther back into cin­e­ma his­to­ry, com­ing up with exam­ples becomes much more dif­fi­cult. There’s Ida Lupino, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, whose The Hitch-Hik­er made her the only female direc­tor of a 1950s film noir, but before her? No name from that ear­ly era is more impor­tant than that of Lois Weber, in some esti­ma­tions “the most impor­tant female direc­tor the Amer­i­can film indus­try has known.”

Or so, any­way, says Weber’s exten­sive Wikipedia entry, part of the rel­a­tive­ly recent effort to res­cue from obscu­ri­ty her vast body of work: a fil­mog­ra­phy esti­mat­ed at between 200 to 400 pic­tures, almost all of them con­sid­ered lost. Weber’s cham­pi­ons empha­size not just her pro­lifi­ca­cy but her bold­ness, not just tech­no­log­i­cal­ly and aes­thet­i­cal­ly — 1913’s Sus­pense, for exam­ple, pio­neered the split-screen tech­nique — but social­ly.

Even in its infan­cy, she used her medi­um to deal with issues like pover­ty, drugs, cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, women in the work­force, and even con­tra­cep­tion. (In 1915’s Hyp­ocrites, she went as far as to include the first full-frontal female nude scene in motion pic­tures.)

Though born in 1879, well before the advent of cin­e­ma, Weber grew up with a sur­pris­ing­ly suit­able back­ground to pre­pare her for this kind of film­mak­ing. Raised strong­ly reli­gious, she left the fam­i­ly house­hold to take up street-cor­ner evan­ge­lism and church-ori­ent­ed social activism. Ear­ly in the 20th cen­tu­ry she moved from her native Pitts­burgh to New York, where she set her sights on singing and act­ing. “I was con­vinced the the­atri­cal pro­fes­sion need­ed a mis­sion­ary,” she lat­er explained, and hav­ing heard that “the best way to reach them was to become one of them,” she “went on the stage filled with a great desire to con­vert my fel­low­man.”

Weber’s work in the the­ater opened the door to oppor­tu­ni­ties in the then-nascent movie indus­try. By 1914, she could con­fi­dent­ly say in an inter­view that “in mov­ing pic­tures, I have found my life’s work. I find at once an out­let for my emo­tions and my ideals. I can preach to my heart’s con­tent, and with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to write the play, act the lead­ing role and direct the entire pro­duc­tion, if my mes­sage fails to reach some­one, I can blame only myself.” The recent restora­tion of sev­er­al of her sur­viv­ing films has made it pos­si­ble for her mes­sage to reach a cen­tu­ry she nev­er lived to see — and to give their view­ers the chance to eval­u­ate the claims made by film his­to­ri­ans like Antho­ny Slide, who puts her along­side D.W. Grif­fith as “Amer­i­can cin­e­ma’s first gen­uine auteur, a film­mak­er involved in all aspects of pro­duc­tion and one who uti­lized the motion pic­ture to put across her own ideas and philoso­phies.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

103 Essen­tial Films By Female Film­mak­ers: Clue­less, Lost In Trans­la­tion, Ishtar and More

The Ground­break­ing Sil­hou­ette Ani­ma­tions of Lotte Reiniger: Cin­derel­la, Hansel and Gre­tel, and More

A Short Video Intro­duc­tion to Alice Guy-Blaché (1873–1968), the First Female Film Direc­tor & Stu­dio Mogul

Watch The Hitch-Hik­er by Ida Lupino (the Only Female Direc­tor of a 1950s Noir Film)

The First Fem­i­nist Film, Ger­maine Dulac’s The Smil­ing Madame Beudet (1922)

An Ambi­tious List of 1400 Films Made by Female Film­mak­ers

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Karl Reitmann says:

    That short film “Blot” make no sense what­so­ev­er…

  • Mark H Sutherland says:

    Lois Weber was a gift­ed auteur and indeed bold. “Where Are My Chil­dren?” (1916) dealt with con­tra­cep­tion in a sophis­ti­cat­ed way, reveal­ing dif­fer­ent aspects of a con­tro­ver­sial top­ic with­out “push­ing a line” or detract­ing from the work.

    Dr Marie Stopes (Britain’s Mar­garet Sanger) described the film as “wretched”. As a mem­ber of the British Cin­e­ma Com­mis­sion (board of cen­sors), she did her best to stop it from being shown in Britain (See: Speech to the Vol­un­tary Par­ent­hood League by Dr Marie C Stopes, Octo­ber 27 1921, page 18). For­tu­nate­ly she was not suc­cess­ful.

    Were Weber alive today, could she have made “Where Are My Chil­dren?” I think not, and sus­pect that she would have faced the obsta­cles met by McIl­hin­ney and McAleer in mak­ing “Gos­nell” (2018).

    Despite the improve­ments in tech­nique and tech­nol­o­gy since the silent era, film-mak­ers are today more restrict­ed than they were 100 years ago. Our soci­ety is the poor­er for it.

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