Can you name the “three great minds” working Hollywood 100 years ago?
If you guessed filmmakers D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, you are correct. Both have long been celebrated as the “fathers” of American cinema. But did you guess the third “great mind,” Lois Weber? Probably not: Weber is not as well known as her male contemporaries. Yet her legacy as one of early Hollywood’s top filmmakers is especially important to remember now as we discuss the roles women play onscreen and behind the scenes in Hollywood today.
It is a substantial legacy. In a career than spanned three decades, Weber wrote and directed more than 40 features and over 100 shorts. She was the first woman to direct a feature film, 1914’s The Merchant of Venice, the first woman admitted to the Motion Picture Directors’ Association in 1916, and she was the first woman to run a Hollywood studio in 1917.
Weber is best known for a series of popular films she made on controversial social issues while she was the top director at Universal in the mid-1910s. If Griffith and DeMille sought to establish cinema’s prestige by drawing on highbrow literary and historical material, Weber took an opposite tack. She seized upon the new medium’s capacity to animate critical issues of her day. Cinema, she said, was a “voiceless language,” able to engage popular audiences in the era’s most contentious debates. And that she did. Weber tackled subjects like urban poverty and women’s wage equity in Shoes (1916), drug addiction in Hop, or The Devil’s Brew (1916), capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), and the campaign to legalize birth control in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917).
Although she vowed to abandon such “heavy dinners” when she left Universal to form her own studio, Weber remained a trenchant critic of social norms. Her films on marriage and domesticity, notably Too Wise Wives (1921), What Do Men Want? (1921) and The Blot (1921), provoke fundamental questions about changing sexual mores, traditional family structures, and a rising culture of consumption in the Jazz Age. In later films like The Marriage Clause (1926), Sensation Seekers (1927) and The Angel of Broadway (1927), Weber produced highly reflexive critiques of stardom and Hollywood’s glamor culture, particularly its commodification of women.
An industry leader, Weber mentored many other women in early Hollywood – actresses, screenwriters, and directors alike. She demanded a place at the table in early professional guilds, decried limited roles available for women onscreen, and protested the growing climate of hostility towards female directors in the 1920s. When a high-ranking studio executive proclaimed that women do not make good motion picture directors, Weber penned a two-part syndicated newspaper article calling for more female filmmakers. Compared to when she got her start in Hollywood, “women entering the industry now find it practically closed.” Where she had once commanded tremendous respect on any set, by the late 1920s she found that men were unaccustomed to working under a female director and sometimes even unwilling to do so.
In the final decade of her life, Weber tried against all odds to ensure her own historical legacy. Yet, even before she directed her last production in 1934, Weber was written out of Hollywood history, cast aside in the first chronicles of American moviemaking that focused exclusively on pioneering male figures and valued women only as stars. Scores of women like Weber, who had been essential to early Hollywood as directors, screenwriters, producers, journalists and studio executives, were forgotten in an initial rush to legitimate the newly powerful industry. Restoring the legacy of pioneering filmmakers like Lois Weber is a project that is long overdue.
Film historian Shelley Stamp is the author of Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, named one of the Best Film Books of 2015 by The Huffington Post. She teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz.