Lois Weber (1879 or 1881-1939), arguably the most important American woman filmmaker of the silent era, was more than a director. She was also a screenwriter, actress and producer, in addition to being the first woman director to have her own studio, Lois Weber Productions. Weber made the first feature film ever directed by an American woman (or perhaps any woman anywhere), The Merchant of Venice (1914, co-directed with then-husband Phillips Smalley) and her early short films include Suspense (1913), which deploys cinema’s first use of a split-screen technique, and How Men Propose (1913), a comedy about the social conventions surrounding courtship. Although her career eventually fell apart, somewhat due to problems with Paramount, with whom she had agreed to work in order to distribute her films, Weber’s contributions to early cinema from the 1910s and early 1920s have not been forgotten. In 1996 Weber was the subject of a biography by noted film scholar Anthony Slide, Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History. Soon another biography will be published, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood by Shelley Stamp, proving that Weber’s name still resonates.
Hypocrites (1915) – Thanks to Kino, this early feature film is available on DVD. Described on the packaging as “A Powerful Indictment of Moral Treachery from America’s First Great Woman Filmmaker,” the film is indeed a product of Weber’s combined talents behind the camera, including writing the screenplay and co-producing the film with Phillips Smalley. The dramatic story is led by Courtenay Foote, who portrays a misunderstood monk, Gabriel the Ascetic. Throughout the film the image of “the Naked Truth” is represented by Margaret Edwards (seen above on the left), who appeared onscreen in the first example of full-frontal female nudity. Because of this scandalous content Hypocrites faced opposition in many U.S. states and overseas, involving issues of censorship and banning the film outright. Today the film is lauded for its impressive cinematography by Dal Clawson and George W. Hill, including double exposures and innovative shots with mirror reflections.
Shoes (1916) – Some of Weber’s most famous films were co-directed with Phillips Smalley, including Where Are My Children? (1916), a drama about the aftereffects of abortion on both women and men. That film was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1993, but years later, in 2014, the Library of Congress added another Weber film to their collection, this time a feature that Weber directed herself: Shoes. Adapted by Weber and Stella Wynne Heron from a novel by Hull House founder Jane Addams, as well as being co-produced by Weber and Phillips Smalley, the film stars Mary MacLaren (whose IMDb biography and Los Angeles Times obituary are fascinating) as a young woman struggling to support her parents and younger siblings as the sole breadwinner of the family. Eventually (and heartbreakingly), MacLaren is forced to prostitute herself in order to obtain a pair of shoes.
Too Wise Wives (1921) – Weber’s best-known solo-directed feature film, The Blot (starring a young Louis Calhern), was released in 1921, but that same year Weber also made a film specifically about the female experience, Too Wise Wives. Produced by Weber and co-written by her and Marion Orth (based on a scenario by Weber), this drama explores the compared and contrasted lives of two couples played by Louis Calhern/Claire Windsor and Phillips Smalley/Mona Lisa. Wifely concerns about husband-stealing is juxtaposed with the lavish nature of the couples’ affluent but ultimately vapid milieu.
Sensation Seekers (1927) – At the tail end of her career Weber’s number of assignments dwindled and some of those projects, including her final film, White Heat (1934), are lost. One of the extant films is the silent drama Sensation Seekers, adapted for the screen by Weber from Ernest Pascal’s short story “Egypt.” Billie Dove plays a rich and shallow young woman whose hard-partying ways catch up to her and she finds herself torn between her love for a kind minister and her former flame, a wealthy boyfriend. The film’s climax includes an action-packed tempest that reportedly required tons of gallons of water to be poured on Dove and the other actors, predating the treacherous floods of Michael Curtiz’s Noah’s Ark (1928) by a year.