The Early Visionaries of American Film: A Series – Part 2
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…Women were the driving force behind Hollywood and the movies. This is the second part of a series paying homage to the women who broke the glass ceiling and wrote and directed the films that gave birth to the “Golden Age” of cinema and the motion picture industry. Unfortunately, when the men realized the gold mine films were becoming, the women faded away thanks to the Hollywood studio system. Well, as the saying goes, “that’s the way they do you.”
Lois Weber (June 13, 1879 – November 13, 1939)
Florence Lois Weber was an American silent film actress, screenwriter, producer, and director, who is considered the most important female director the American film industry has known and is one of the most important and prolific film directors in the era of silent films. Along with D.W. Griffith, Lois Weber was the American cinema’s first genuine auteur, “a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie”. In that spirit, Lois Weber utilized the motion picture to put across her own ideas and philosophies.
Weber brought to the screen her concerns for humanity and social justice in an estimated 200 to 400 films, of which as few as twenty have been preserved, and she has been credited by IMDb with directing 135 films, writing 114, and acting in 100. Weber was also one of the first directors to come to the attention of the censors in Hollywood’s early years.
During the war years, Weber achieved tremendous success by combining commercially successful scripts with a rare vision of cinema as a moral tool. At her zenith, few men, before or since, have retained such absolute control over the films they have directed – and certainly no women directors have achieved the powerful status once held by Lois Weber. By 1920, Weber was considered the premier woman director of the screen and author and producer of the biggest money-making features in the history of the film business.
Among Weber’s notable films are the controversial “Hypocrites”, which featured the first full-frontal female nude scene in 1915; the 1916 film “Where Are My Children?”, which discussed abortion and birth control, and was added to the National Film Registry in 1993; and what is often considered her masterpiece, “The Blot” in 1921.
In 1913, Weber and husband Smalley collaborated in directing a ten-minute thriller, “Suspense”, based on the play Au Telephone by André de Lorde, which had been filmed in 1908 as “Heard over the ‘Phone” by Edwin S. Porter. Adapted by Weber, it used multiple images and mirror shots to tell the story of a woman (Weber) threatened by a burglar (Douglas Gerrard). Weber has been credited with pioneering the use of the split-screen technique to show simultaneous action in this film, According to film historian Tom Gunning, “No film made before WWI shows a stronger command of film style than “Suspense” which outdoes even Griffith for emotionally involved filmmaking”. “Suspense” was released on July 6, 1913.
“Suspense” – Split Screen
In 1913 Weber was one of the first directors to experiment with sound, making the first sound films in the United States, and was also the first American woman to direct a full-length feature film when she and husband Phillips Smalley directed “The Merchant of Venice” in 1914, and in 1917 the first woman director to own her own film studio.