Saturday, March 12, 2011

Remembering Lois Weber

Lois Weber, the first woman director of feature films in American cinema, had an active social agenda that she sought to promote through the medium of screen melodrama. During the first world war years, she achieved tremendous success by combining a canny commercial sense with a rare vision of cinema as a moral tool. For a time, Weber made a fortune trying to improve the human race through movies. For birth control and against abortion, against capital punishment and for child labor laws. This is a tribute to her, and also a celebration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

Lois Weber was a unique silent film director. She was the first woman to direct a full-length feature film with The Merchant of Venice in 1914. Not only was she a woman who was certainly the most important female director the American film industry had known in its early days, but unlike many of her colleagues up to the present, her work was regarded in its day as equal to, if not a little better than that of most male directors. Her films were making money for Universal in 1910s ("studio's most important director during the war years," Richard Koszarski said), though she was not afraid to make features with risqué subject matter such as Christian Science (Jewel and A Chapter in Her Life), birth control (Where Are My Children), and capital punishment (The People vs. John Doe). Among her films, according to Anthony Slide, Hypocrites (1915, clip below) was another indictment of hypocrisy and corruption in big business, politics, and religion. The Weber films, however, did run into censorship problems and the director was the subject of a vicious attack in a 1918 issue of Theatre Magazine over the "indecent and suggestive" nature of her titles.



She was an innovative director in many aspects. For instance, in Suspense (1913) she found a new solution for depicting a phone conversation by dividing the screen into three triangles, with a woman speaking on the telephone at the top right, a tramp at the top left who is outside the woman's house and trying to break in, and the husband at his office, at the other end of the phone, in the center. Of course, now all these incredible efforts seem insignificant, but from a historical point of view, they are more important that Avatar, and as far as narrative is concerned, it's more beneficial than many 1940s classic women pictures, paradoxically all made by men. In 1915, the camera movements she used for Sunshine Mollie, were much ahead of its time. Film starts with a very high-angle view of oil fields, full of countless derricks pushing upward as far as the eye can see, and a very slow, circular panorama that ends up with the small figure of Lois Weber standing in the road with her
suitcase.

She was an imaginative filmmaker, with a poetic touch, much quite close to masters of her age like Maurice Tourneur. It's more challenging if we consider that a woman contemporary of Griffith, and when everybody was mad about Griffith's discoveries, takes a slightly different route. Her cinema, again an argument based on accessible fragments of her oeuvre, had a European touch. It is full of attention to detail, and gestures that are crossing the theatrical presentation and getting close to a more cinematic experience. Yet she wasn't completely detached of the literary tradition, especially in her way of using titles as a direct narrative device. She was juxtaposing the text and image in some of her film, or even sometimes she quoted poets in them.

Weber in the middle


In the early 1920s she released a series of personal, intimate dramas  like Too Wise Wives and The Blot (watch a clip here), dealing with married life and the types of problems which beset ordinary people. None of these films were particularly well received by the critics, who unanimously declared them dull, while the public displayed an equal lack of enthusiasm. Nonetheless, these features  demonstrate Weber at her directorial best.

on the set of her last film, White Heat (1934)
In her last years as a director, she lost her company, obtained a divorce from her abusive, alcoholic husband (who had a close professional association with her), and had a nervous breakdown. She remarried in 1926, and divorced in 1935. Her position in studio descended to a script doctor. Finally she died at the age of 58, without children, and apparently penniless. Her funeral expenses were paid by friends who remembered her devotion to an impossibly high ideal of screen art. A sad ending. But whose ending is happy?

Sources:
  • Richard Koszarski, An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of The Silent Feature Picture 1915 - 1928, Macmillan, pp. 223-225.
  • Anthony Slide, International dictionary of films and filmmakers, Macmillan, pp. 1055-1057
  • Wikipedia

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