Posted in Movies, Silent film

Lois Weber

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Words on Paper

Thursdays in the Blog Me MAYbe blogfest have the theme “May I tell you something about someone else?” I decided to go with one of the people I spotlighted on my old “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire page. Baruch Hashem, I seem to have saved all the pages while my pages were still cached in the immediate aftermath of that whole fiasco with that pathological nutcase and her sycophantic friends.

Lois Weber lived from 13 June 1881 till 13 November 1939, dying at 58 years old. From the mid-Teens to the early Twenties, she was the most popular, successful, well-regarded film director in America.

During the early decades of cinema, there were many women in positions of power, success, prestige, and immense popularity—actors, directors, screenwriters, scenarists, title card writers, producers, etc. Lois made films her way, even though many people in her era regarded many of these subjects as strictly taboo or offensive to polite, decent, normal, civilised society. She covered the whole gamut—prostitution, promiscuity, poverty, domestic abuse, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, the gap between the haves and have-nots, racism, sexism, child abuse, capital punishment, feminism, you name it.

She owned her own company, as well as discovering a number of great actors. Lois was also the very first woman to direct a full-length feature, The Merchant of Venice, in 1914.

Sadly, after her heyday, for decades she went ignored, her praises unsung. First, because the types of hard-hitting issues films she was making fell out of favour after the early Twenties. People began to prefer lightweight fare about jazz babies and their necking parties, not heavy-duty stuff about issues like domestic abuse and the evils of capitalism.

The second, more major reason was precisely because she was a woman. Women ruled Hollywood until about the Forties, but suddenly all of that began changing, and people’s lists of their favourite actors began to be composed of mostly men. Previously, the huge majority of actors on such lists were women. Institutionalised sexism pushed women to the back burner, and suddenly there were no longer as many female directors, producers, and screenwriters.

And in addition, all of the great groundbreaking techniques she’d discovered and put to use first, such as putting a camera on wheels, were suddenly attributed to people such as D.W. Griffith. That man never even thought about doing some of these things till after she’d done them, yet today people swear by him as though he were this great innovative director who did all of this stuff first. He copied it off of a woman and took credit where credit was most severely not due!

Thankfully, when more women began entering Film Studies courses at colleges and universities after women’s lib came along, they began looking for female role models, and found a wealth of them in the early filming industry, Lois among them. Lois never made a film unless she agreed with the issue or thoughts being presented. She was true to herself and her principles, even though that may have turned some people off, either because they thought the topic wasn’t one for polite society or women or because they found the tone preachy.

Some people have suggested she went into decline because she divorced her husband Phillips Smalley in 1922, the man with whom she’d run her studio. The old sexist belief that a woman can’t really be that great all on her own and has to have a big strong man standing behind her doing the stuff she’s taking credit for. However, Lois continued to direct and write on her own terms after the divorce, even with diminished success, whereas Phillips never found success again, at any level. Now who’s riding whose coattails to success?