Forgotten Women of Film History: Lois Weber

The third installment of Forgotten Women of Film History focuses the lens on socially conscious actress, writer, director and producer Lois Weber. Weber was the first American woman to direct a feature film, the first and only woman member of the Motion Pictures Directors Association and the first mayor of Universal City, Calif.

Born June 13, 1879 in Allegheny, Penn., Florence Lois Weber began her career as a stock performer in New York City. After marrying fellow actor W. Phillips Smalley in 1904, Weber joined the New York outpost of Paris’ Gaumont Company as an actress. Under the mentorship of Alice Guy, Weber explored behind-the-camera moviemaking, expanding her skill set beyond performance to include writing, directing and producing. Soon, Weber brought her husband into the fold and together, they contributed creatively to several short and feature films under the combined production billing “The Smalleys” (Weber retained sole writing credit) at Gaumont as well as the New York Motion Picture Co., Reliance Studio, Bosworth and the Rex Motion Picture Company. In 1912, Rex merged with Universal Film Manufacturing Company, moving production to Hollywood. Soon after, Weber and her husband relocated to Los Angeles and Weber’s filmmaking career really took off. In 1914, Weber became the first American woman to helm a full-length feature film, The Merchant of Venice.

Following the success of Merchant, Weber used her artistic clout to make Hypocrites, an allegory exploring sexual desire and hypocrisy in organized religion, which she wrote and directed. Hypocrites featured the first full-frontal female nudity on film, depicting a young, bare-bodied woman. Provocative and defiant, the film was outlawed in Ohio and incited riots in New York. It even prompted a plea from the mayor of Boston to paint over the nude film negatives! Weber, however, stood by her work, challenging the censorship called for by her critics. “Hypocrites is not a slap at any church or creed,” said Weber. “It is a slap at hypocrites, and its effectiveness is shown by the outcry amongst those it hits hardest to have the film stopped.”

With Hypocrites, Weber realized the power of narrative filmmaking as a means of exploring relevant and controversial issues of the time, including poverty, living wages and the working class, capital punishment and perhaps most controversially birth control and abortion. 1916’s Where Are My Children?, tells the story of a society woman and her friends who, unbeknownst to their husbands, used the services of a doctor on trial for performing abortions. Later, inspired by birth control activist Margaret Sanger‘s trial for distributing contraception information, Weber wrote, produced, directed and starred in 1917’s The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, which follows an activist husband-and-wife team as they campaign for sex education and family planning. The film been described by film scholar Shelley Stamp as “one of the most forceful films ever made in support of legalizing birth control.”

In 1917, Weber opened her own studio, Lois Weber Productions, in Hollywood, but like many independent production houses at that time, it did not survive the major studio-dominated, commercially driven moviemaking climate of the 1920s. Weber continued to work, but according to the Women Film Pioneers Project, her creative output decreased as the type of films she wanted to make—with a “focus on urban social problems rather than amusement, and on the complexities of marriage rather than romantic courtship”—lost favor in Hollywood circles. They were often dismissed as “outdated, overly didactic and dower.” Nonetheless, it is believed at the time of her death on Nov. 13, 1939, Weber had collected 138 film directing credits, 119 screenwriting credits, 103 on-camera appearances and 19 producer credits.

According to film historian Anthony Slide, Weber’s contribution to film history cannot be denied. “Few men,” says Slide, “before or since, have retained such absolute control over the films they have directed—and certainly no women directors have achieved the all-embracing, powerful status once held by Lois Weber.”

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and works at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She is also creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists. Follow her on Twitter!