Lois Weber: The Forgotten Pioneer of Socially Conscious Filmmaking

Paper by Hunter Hawkins.

Have you ever seen a film that changed your life? That changed your view of the world as a whole? You can thank one of the most important pioneers of conscious cultural impact through film: Lois Weber. At one point, she was the highest paid director in Hollywood during the silent film era of the early 1900’s and teens, and the “first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association,” but today, she is largely lost in history books (Stamp). In her heyday, Weber churned out over a hundred films, most independently produced, self written and directed films which held the mirror up to society in regards to topics like poverty, child labor, gender politics, and death—seldom discussed on-screen, during the silent era (Lewis 40). What makes Weber notable is that, while much of filmmaking in this time was centered on entertainment and escapism, she dared to shine the light on issues Americans would normally sweep under the rug, much less pay to see. This dedication to exposing the truth and her uniqueness in filmmaking led to great prestige and popularity, but eventually also led to her disappearance from the industry by the early 1920’s. Weber grew in her success simultaneously in the early years that the US film industry was beginning to standardize and establish itself as an important part of society and culture as a whole. Unfortunately by the time of the Great Depression, independent film companies with narratives outside of entertainment and escapism did not survive, thus washing Weber out (Stamp). Her legacy is still seen today, however, through the independent production companies making widely recognized, nationally patronized films with the sole aim of opening viewers’ perspectives to the harsh truth of the world. ​Lois Weber exemplifies how the female perspective impacted early Hollywood, encouraging social awareness and morality in film, making the industry an axis for positive change. Throughout the creation and distribution of many successful films in the silent pre-code era, Weber used compelling narratives and advanced film techniques of the time to inform and persuade audiences’ views of controversial topics, such as abortion and birth control in ​Where Are My Children​ (Lois Wever & Phillips Smalley, 1915).

Weber’s important and unique perspective in filmmaking can be attributed to the fact that she was an absolute renaissance woman, and her ethics-focused Christian background as an evangelist (Hopwood). Having begun her artistic life as a child prodigy pianist and operatic singer, she had many talents for performing which would launch her into Hollywood later as a writer and actress, and soon after, director and producer, all the while with the same evangelist altruistic driving force to inspire her films (Landy 47). She spent many years in a partnership with her first husband, at Rex Productions and Bosworth Inc, as the “first woman to direct a feature film” and later, she began her own studio, Lois Weber Productions in 1917 (Zale 512). She offered an essential, separate source of ideas for films by looking at the current events and “newspaper headlines,” rather than following in suit with directors like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, who were trying to establish filmmaking as a prestigious, socially-accepted form of art by making adaptations of written works (Zale 511). Weber overcame the adversity of being a woman in the US film industry (and the workforce in general) at the time, especially in behind the scenes jobs, and delivered films from a thus rare female perspective. Weber’s ethics-based core saw filmmaking as an opportunity to share her beliefs with others on a larger scale. This is evident in nearly every one of her films, particularly the ones she directed independently from Smalley. Her and her films’ presence in Hollywood at the time were extremely important because her position allowed her the agency to also uplift other female filmmakers and artists who otherwise would have been overlooked because of their gender, such as the renowned screenwriter Francis Marion. Weber’s importance and influence in Hollywood cannot be underestimated, and what we can glean from the remaining recordings of her films are time-withstanding evidence of this.

After having written and directed a few small pieces, the first film to really put her on industry radar was a short, co-directed with Smalley, entitled ​Suspense​ (Weber and Smalley, 1913), in which she starred (Weber and Smalley). In just ten minutes, it displays her early innovations in filmmaking on a technical and narrative level, through her pioneering use of split-screen editing action, but this film was just the tip of the iceberg in her talents, and certainly the tip of the iceberg of her controversial discussions through film. ​Suspense​ (1913) tells the story of a woman and child who are abandoned by a servant for the home being too lonesome, and then a tramp sneaks into the home. She calls the husband and he rushes home, stealing a car and nearly killing a man on the way, but the police come just in time and all is well with the family together again. The first shot that catches a keen eye is a one from the view of the servant, looking through a door’s keyhole to see the woman and child before leaving. The shot uses the keyhole as a cut out of the mother and child, as she’s rocking it to sleep—an inventive way to truly see things from the servant’s eyes. Then, there is a triangular cut out shot of the husband, at the office, which is then met by two opposite triangular cut outs of the wife on the phone, and the tramp sneaking in through the front door of the house, all happening at once. Then, there is an eerie overhead shot of the Tramp looking up from the front door mat, which gives a clear shot of the woman’s point of view. This film shows early signs of the type of emotionally-targeting shot styling and direction that Weber uniquely brought to the US film industry.

She made a few more notable short films, and a few feature length, but the first one to credit and acknowledge her artistic independence from her husband and “the Smalleys” moniker was her film adaptation of ​Merchant of Venice​ in 1914 (Richards 67). But her most notable self-credited film to follow was the forty-nine minute long silent film, ​Hypocrites​ (Weber, 1915), which also marked her first notable scandal, perking the attention of the US film industry censors at the time due to the films discussion of religion and its portrayal of nudity. ​Hypocrites​ is the story of a Christian Minister (Foote) dealing with a congregation made up of hypocrites, who falls asleep after reading a news segment about how Hypocrisy is a hidden evil, and then “dreams himself as a medieval monk named Gabriel, who rises (courtesy of a double exposure) from the sleeping pastor’s body,” and goes on to literally climb a hill to achieve the Naked Truth (Edwards), depicted as a nude woman (Young 98). The film moves on to show the church congregation either attempting to follow up the hill to the Truth with him, having to leave behind literally heavy things like bags of gold, or grimily choosing to stay on the low, “broad way” easy and unethical route. When the Naked Truth finally appears, she is visually elusive and transparent in effect, a metaphorical description of the transparency of truth while letting the audience know that she is not a physical person like the society people, and is more of a mythological being. This displays Weber’s writing skills and filmmaking abilities, in her clever use of long exposure and processes, and also the blue and green tinting of film in different sections of the minister’s dream sequence. Next in the film, Gabriel returns to society to create an artwork to honor the Naked Truth, but when it is presented, the nakedness upsets the crowd, causing them to run away as “Truth departs from the people.” (Weber). This is a further use of narrative, viscerally describing how people run from the truth because it scares them, despite the simultaneous beauty and undeniable realness of it. The film then describes how the church congregation has not been living out their lives in a fashion dictated by the Christian teachings, and they are only there to portray a favorable image, thus making them the titular hypocrites, through vignette scenes labeled like “The Truth holds her mirror up to politics,” with Gabriel and Naked Truth visiting these people, revealing ugly behaviors, like a politician claiming that his “platform is honesty,” meanwhile taking money from people suspiciously. The film covers a great deal of ethical ground, very directly, while artistically and metaphorically addressing the hypocritical issues within religious structures that Weber, who was Evangelical herself, likely encountered directly. With this film, Webber aimed not to encourage the audience to escape into another reality, like many films at the time, but rather to present it as a mirror to society, like Truth’s literal mirror. In this early era of Hollywood (though not so much has changed in the mainstream films today), it was highly taboo to feature a fully nude actress, and this tabooness was exactly Weber’s point in making it. Discussing religion at all, particularly critiquing it, was also an extremely taboo topic. At this formative time period in silent film Hollywood, industry standards for censorship had not yet been fully established and enforced on filmmakers, but there certainly was community backlash in regard to nudity and sex as early as 1894 when a “series of ‘erotic-dance’ Kinetoscope programs were banned and seized,” for example (Lewis 113). Ironically, organized forms of attempted censorship like The Motion Picture Production Code, which was luckily not enforced until the 1930’s, were founded often by Catholic or Christian based groups and leaders who wanted films to only promote good ethics, and Weber’s view of ethics largely drew from her own Christianity (Lewis 113). Weber’s goal was also to promote good ethics, but her methods provided that the crimes and horrible unethical realities needed to be shown on screen in order for them to be changed; she did not believe that censorship was the answer. She thus underwent a great deal of trouble to have many of her films consistently shown, due to public rioting or state banning, despite their huge popularity and success.

Weber went on to make films addressing even more issues in the next few years, such as the sixty-minute feature ​Shoes​ (Weber, 1916), casting light on the raw harshness of poverty through the tale of a working class woman who is so poor that she is unable to pay for new shoes and is lead to prostitution. This film also exemplifies Weber’s desire to expose reality to the masses, but this time specifically targeting the perspective of the poor working class. Weber once stated about her processes in filmmaking, “​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,” (Weber, as cited in Kozarski 223). Later in her career within her independent production company, her ninety-minute silent film ​The Blot (Weber, 1921) (which is often considered her masterpiece) took on the issue of poverty again, but this time with a focus on familial dynamics and more personal details due to the extended length of the film (Parchesky). Perhaps her most controversial film, however, was the sixty-minute ​Where Are My Children​ (Weber, 1916), due to its in-depth undertaking of the issues of sex, birth control, and abortion, through a heartwrenching tale of a family and children-adoring but lacking husband and lawyer, and the many secret tragedies of abortion revealed throughout the film. The intimate nuances of the issues portrayed in this film may never have reached the large screen without Lois Weber’s presence in Hollywood, and her dedication to educating the masses on her ethical beliefs as well as issues of sex from a woman’s point of view.

Where Are My Children​ (1916) was a shocking film to be made and screened in Hollywood at the time, as depicting sex alone was something for pro-censorship folks to riot about. But Weber took it even further, by putting cards at the very beginning of her film to preface, mentioning that “the question of birth control is now being generally discussed,” and that the issue is best discussed through the medium of film (Weber). Then, an image of the gates of heaven appears, as “behind the great portals of Eternity, the souls of little children waited to be born,” (Weber). Then, it prefaces by describing our protagonist, Richard Walton (Power) the District Attorney, as being disappointed that his wife was childless, without saying so to his wife. We discover throughout the film that Walton’s housekeeper’s daughter Lillian has been knocked up by accident, and taken by the seducer to have an abortion by a Dr. Malfit (de la Cruz), which leaves her ill and eventually dead, triggering a lawsuit by the impassioned Walton. In his findings of evidence against the doctor, he sees on a document that his wife and many of her friends have secretly seen Malfit for many abortions in order to prevent the disruption of their social lives. Enraged, feeling that his unborn children have been murdered, he barges in on a party and orders his wife’s friends to leave his house. The two are both very upset, crying for a long scene, until a card signifies that Mrs. Walton (Riaume) had “perverted Nature” (aborted children) so many times that she was unable to have children anymore. Weber’s aim with this film was to promote brith control in order to prevent the tragedy of abortion, and she accomplished this mission excellently through the story, though also highly controversially. As Weber noted at the beginning of the film, the discussion of birth control was happening, but nothing had described it as persuasively and viscerally as her film, tugging on the heartstrings of her audience with an especially heart wrenching final scene.

In the final sequence of ​Where Are My Children​ (1916), Walton and Mrs. Walton have stayed married, but they sit lonely by the fire, without children. Slowly, they age rapidly on camera, “throughout the years” as a text card states, without any real physical children. The Waltons are instead visited by ghostly, heavenly, cherub-like children which appear semi-transparent in the editing of the film. These cherubs are referential to the titular line of, “where are my children?”, which Walton angrily states (in a text card) to Mrs. Walton earlier on, and also the gates of Eternity which were referred to at the very start of the film. The ghost children do not stay for more than a moment, disappearing at the same time that Walton’s hair turns white and a cane appears, signifying his old age. The two sit alone until three ghostly adults appear, perhaps signifying the heavenly children having grown up, then perhaps signalling the elderly couple to join them in heaven and pass on. The special effects at the start and end of the film are especially poignant, as the heaven’s gates are tinted to appear golden, and the children are eerily translucent through special effects use of different exposures (notable for the time period). Weber’s narrative is skillfully set up to have viewers adore Walton’s wish for but lack of children, and also view Mrs. Walton as selfish for disposing of unborn children in a seemingly cavalier way. This film of course is a stylized tale which unfortunately villainizes the woman, but it still promotes the idea that birth control should be an option, and even that abortions should be carried out safely and with great thought. For this time period, this film was a huge step forward for women’s access to reproductive rights. Birth control was not widely accepted and legalized until the 1960’s, but it was media voices like Lois Weber who helped make it happen at all.

In conclusion, Lois Weber was an extremely influential and important filmmaker who worked hard through the adversity of being a woman in an industry where she had to take years in order for her to be credited separately from her husband for doing work on her own. She went into the industry and worked her way up, all the while still holding her goal of bringing her perspective and ethical beliefs to the masses. She succeeded at great lengths and unfortunately is misremembered today partially due to her resolve to stick to revealing the truth. But films like The Hypocrites ​(1913) and ​Where Are My Children​ (1916) have made pathways for filmmakers today to address socially taboo issues with even more emotional depth and rawness, along with technological advances. Independent filmmaking has continued to serve its duty as a mirror of truth to society, and its history is largely in debt to the filmmaker Lois Weber.

Works Cited
Hopwood, Jon C. “Lois Weber.” ​IMDb​, IMDb.com, 2020, www.imdb.com/name/nm0916665/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm.
Landy, Marcia. “A Chapter in Her Life (1923): A ‘Chapter’ on the History, Aesthetics, and Ethics of Lois Weber’s Filmmaking.” Film & History (03603695), vol. 47, no. 1, Summer 2017, pp. 46–58. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=124642060&site=ehost-live &scope=site.
Lewis, Jon. ​American Film: a History​. W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
Lois Weber, in Richard Koszarski, An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature
Picture, 1915–1928 (University of California Press, 1994): 223.
Richards, Andrea. “LOIS WEBER: THE AUTEUR OF EARLY HOLLYWOOD.” ​Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture​, 2007, pp. 67–67. ​Academic Search Complete​, Lois Weber.
Stamp, Shelley. “Lois Weber.” ​Lois Weber – Women Film Pioneers Project,​ 2013, wfpp.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-lois-weber/.
Weber, Lois and Phillips Smalley, directors. ​Suspense.​ Universal Film Manufacturing Company, 1913.
Weber, Lois, director. ​Shoes.​ Universal Film Manufacturing Company, 1916. Weber, Lois, director. ​The Blot.​ F.B. Warren Corporation, 1921.
Weber, Lois, director. ​The Hypocrites.​ Paramount Pictures, 1915.
Weber, Lois. ​Where Are My Children?​ Universal Film Mfg. Co., 1916.
Young, Paul. “Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber: Hypocrites and the Allegorical Mode of the Transitional Feature Film.” ​Cinema Journal,​ vol. 55, no. 1, 2015, pp. 95–119., doi:10.1353/cj.2015.0061.
Zale, Jennifer. “Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, by Shelley Stamp.” ​Women’s Studies​, vol. 46, no. 5, 2017, pp. 511–514., doi:10.1080/00497878.2017.1325668.

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