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.”
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.