Lois Weber

Lois Weber

“A real director should be absolute.”
~Lois Weber 1916 (Slide 38)

In the readings for this week we, as the readers, watched as movements, production companies and many brilliant capable women directors rose and fell. Through Mahar’s book in particular we read along as the early Nickelodeon days gave way to the ‘uplift’ movement. This movement catered even further to the sensibilities ‘inherently feminine,’ continued the trend toward distinguished and longer films and was Lois Weber’s true entrance into prominent cinema. But even this movement was relatively short lived. Sharing its limelight with serials and comedies, these three rather different movements all ushered in the era of the ‘new woman,’ however soon (in the late teens, early twenties) the audience realized it was done being preached to and simply wanted to relax and escape into respectable cinema.

Through Mahar’s text (and an off hand comment from Weber herself) it became evident that the motion picture industry was becoming a commodity. Through Weber’s ‘hay day,’ the ‘uplift’ movement (which was initially brought on by the preliminary prospect of state sponsored censorship), the industry realized that there was an audience to be capitalized on in the middle class reform movement. However as tastes change and wars were entered/fought the prospect of going to a theater to be ‘preached to’ became less attractive to the everyday movie going citizen. This coupled with the entrance of new censorship threats, spearheaded by the Supreme Court decision that films, as a marketable commodity, didn’t ‘fall under protection of the first amendment,’ was the beginning of the end for often ‘crude’ comedy, ‘dangerous’ serials and the stark moral and social commentary of unflinching filmmakers such as Lois Weber.

However the time leading up to these events, which seemed to be the initial blow in the decline of prominent women directors of the time, was a rather productive, innovative and harrowing time for women practicing the ‘art’ of the cinema. From women like Weber (discussed in all of our texts Acker, Mahar and Slide) to Mary Pickford to Mabel Normand to Lillian Gish to Ruth Roland to Dorothy Davenport Reid, women seemed to be rising all over in the industry. As stars, directors, writers, editors and producers women were on the rise. And with the entrance of the ‘new woman’ the representations of the female sex was no longer the same. Often times the women were the heroines of the films, whether moral sermon films serials or comedies, and the women acting in the dangerous and physically taxing comedies and serials were often known for doing their own elaborate and treacherous stunts.

It was clear that this ‘new woman’ was a rising power. Women were now not merely glorified ‘mantle pieces,’ they were speaking out about what they saw as moral injustices. They were also chewing gum and smoking, in public. This ‘new woman’ was breaking out into the public sphere and doing so with a vengeance. In extreme examples as stated prior women were now willingly and happily doing outrageous stunts, placing themselves in danger, basically starting to break down the gender barriers, showing that they were capable of doing most anything a man could do.

However as stated in the previous essay (while there certainly are exceptions such as Lillian Gish to name one) these women were often paired with a male, who was often times their husband, a fact, which often resulted in a seemingly inevitable downfall or down playing of the career of the woman. This in addition to a growing industry in constant flux, with studios and production companies, often started (but obviously not only) by talented female stars and promising women directors, opening and closing their doors left and right (production companies much more than studios) created an environment where that eventually led to the silencing of the female voice that the industry had relied so heavily upon to get to the place it was.

However I digress, in order to pay specific, more in depth, attentions to the director in focus for this week, Lois Weber. Anthony Slide, in The Silent Feminists referring to Weber states “Along with D. W. Griffith, Lois Weber was the American cinema’s first genuine auteur, a filmmaker involved in all aspects of production and one who utilized the motion picture to put across her own ideas and philosophies.” (Slide 29). I personally found this statement to be rather intriguing, for I have, for a long time now, had an affinity for the auteur theory (first made popular and prominent by the writers at Cashiers du Cinema and the French Nouvelle Vague movement), and upon reading about the life and films of Weber, as well as seeing a selection of her films for myself, I would have to agree with Slide’s rather grand statement.

Lois Weber, whose background was heavily entrenched in religion and stage performance (musical as well as theatrical), certainly had a vision that she wished to impart upon the world through the utilization of the cinema. She even went so far as to title her pictures “missionary pictures” in one interview. In spite of this, she also tended to have artistic intent. In her own inadvertent, and ahead of her time, statement of directorial authorship (or auteurist theory), started at the heading of this paper she went on to say “He (or she in this case) alone knows the effects he wants to produce, and he alone should have authority in the arrangement, cutting, titling or anything else that may seem necessary to do to the finished product. What other artist has his work interfered with by someone else?… We ought to realize that the work of a picture director, worthy of a name, is creative.” (Slide 38, italics and underlines are my emphasis) Through this statement as well as the breadth of Weber’s work seems to go along with the statement made in my prior essay that, along side Alice Guy-Blaché, she saw the artistic potential of the cinema.

However the differences between the two lie in a couple of important disparities. First of all Weber was as prior stated a moralist, secondly she pushed much more blatant borders further than Guy-Blaché, and thirdly she seemed to be more aware of the audience as a sort of ‘lamb’ as well as a commercial public. While Lois Weber produced many interesting films, had a tremendous influence on directors of the time as well as the future and succeeded in being the highest paid and most trusted director of her time, she, as stated in her own words would “never be convinced that the general public does not want serious entertainment rather than frivolous.” (Acker 15) and this in the end was what led to her fade out of the spotlight.

Still from The Blot (1921)

Still from The Blot (1921)

The readings are however simply there to enhance and educate our readings of the actual films, of which we viewed snap shots of two, Hypocrites (1915) and Where are my children? (1916), the entirety of one feature, The Blot (1921) and one short, How Men Propose (1913). Through the viewings of these films the legend of Lois Weber told through the text came to life. Weber’s vision was no only resolute in its moral message, but it was also artfully and skillfully done.

In the two snap shots that we initially viewed, I found myself glued to the screen, wanting to see more. Regardless of the validity of the moral messages of the films in relation to my own personal beliefs, the techniques utilized as well as the ways in which she weaved her moralist realism with somewhat surrealist filmic techniques was mesmerizing.

In the first of the two, Hypocrites, she proposes to enlighten the general public about their own hypocrisies by ‘holding the mirror.’ In this film, which may very well have had an effect upon Vera Chytilova’s Fruit of Paradise (1970) in it’s imagery, the viewer is presented with the provocative metaphorical vision of ‘the naked truth.’ This ‘character’ who is superimposed and hence a mere ghostly figure dancing on top of and around her surroundings provided not only an extremely intriguing cinematic technique but also a brilliant visual metaphor.
Though the clips of the film we saw Weber’s ‘elusive’ truth figure, dances through allegorical scenes of the past and present, in essence shining a reflective light upon the hypocrisies of past and current societies, concurrently making the point that truths elusiveness is nothing new. In the film, which comes full circle, both the modern and past clerical seekers of ‘truth’ (who enlighten people and their loved ones to their own hypocrisies through her mirror) end up ‘martyrs’ when their respective congregations refuse to acknowledge truth in its raw form. In this film Weber utilized many different filmic techniques in order to create a complex and beautiful argument for her own moralist point that society hides from, ignores and is often mortified by ‘the naked truth,’ which often points to their own moral pitfalls.

In the second film that we viewed clips from, Where are my Children? Weber’s moral realism shines it’s divine light upon the quandary of readily available birth control as prevention of abortion. In this film, which opens with a beautifully (multiple) super imposed vision of heaven and the hierarchy of the unborn, Weber makes quite clear her moral objection to abortion. The titular line refers to the sadly ironic statement from the district attorney as he questions his wife about her secretive abortions. It is at this moment, when both of the characters realize the gravity of their situation that the emotion read on their faces and body language pulls at the heartstrings of the viewer. Through this as well as the bulk of the rest of the film Weber is in earnest trying to put forth what would have been considered a compelling argument against abortion, and through this and the comparison with birth control attempts to propose the latter as the morally just alternative.

In addition to this being entertaining and intriguing morally propagandistic film, it also masterfully utilized many different innovative filmic techniques. Aside from the aforementioned use of multiple superimpositions in the opening scenes, as well as a masterful utilization of natural light and deep space (as Weber was oft to use), the concluding scene, which we viewed in class, blew me away. In the viewings of clips from this film and the film prior, I’m like to believe that Weber was simply a master of utilizing superimposition in an effective way. In the melodramatic conclusion to this film the viewer watches as the children they would have had fade in and out as they (the couple) and their ‘lost’ children gracefully age. Having the couple sitting in the same spot subtly aging and having the children and prospective adult children wafting through the surroundings created an undeniably emotionally evocative as well as proving an impressive narrative technique.

Following the viewing of clips from Where are my Children? We viewed one of Weber’s masterpieces, The Blot, in full. This film which initially proposed itself to be about the immoral deficiencies in pay for those that “clothe the mind and soul” (i.e. the educators and the clergy) ended up much more an investigation of socioeconomic class, and the gendered roles involved in the aforementioned classes. Brilliantly Weber not only comments upon the chasm between the pay of educators and clergymen and those of the skilled workforce and inherently rich, she does so though a melodramatic story focused upon the difficult decisions and almost allegorical moral representations of greed and pride, as well as her somewhat characteristic focus upon the functional material possession of shoes (also the metaphorical and allegorical focus of Shoes (1916)).

The most intriguing aspect of this film is the way in which Weber stunningly intercuts between four completely separate cultural and socioeconomic representative groups. With the beginning of the film we are introduced to the academic family (in the introduction to the much parodied father) as well that of the bourgeois student. Brilliantly Weber immediately identifies her sympathies with the academic through perspective as the camera looks up at him and down at his pupils. These are two of the most contrasting groups, because while the academic is fit to impart knowledge upon these brat children of the rich, he himself is immediately shown in despair, unfulfilled by his job and unjustly compensated (as will become further evident as we follow him home.
As the Professor (prof Griggs played by Philip Hubbard) returns home to his family, a wife (Margaret McWade) and child Amelia (Claire Windsor) he brings with him a representative of one of the other ‘classes,’ the local minister. This minister (whose name and the actor who played him I couldn’t find) has ambitions to marry the angelic Amelia, however, has little more to offer her than her own father. With this introduction of the ‘clergyman’ of the story Weber has fulfilled her initial purpose of shining her moral projection light upon the desperate circumstances of those who ‘clothe the mind and soul.’ However there is yet one more group that she wishes to introduce, that of the skilled laborer.
For this the viewer only has to voyeuristically gaze next door at the Olsen family, who has recently become rich due to their father’s hard work as a shoe maker (yet another reference to Weber’s favorite class symbol, the shoe). The Olsen family is large, boisterous and pompous, absorbed in their own wealth. While the majority of their children are selfish oblivious brats and the mother is a despicable symbol of greed and self-righteous consumerism, the father and ‘model’ son are both firmly grounded. This is the middle ground. On many aspects the clergyman and the professor are seen on the same level and the bourgeois rich ‘jazz’ meets ‘country club’ representatives are seen on a completely different level, the Olsen’s are seen as the middle.

Through the contrast and the voyeuristic ways in which it is shown to us, we become blatantly aware of the mindsets of the different levels of wealth. On top we have the ‘students’ (and the representative thoughts of their parents) as the oblivious rich. They don’t even think about the plights of the lower classes. Then on the next level we have the self-righteous greedy middle class fully aware of all of the class separations and glad to be where they are. And at the bottom of the spectrum, we have the enlightened and the educated, who not without fault are prideful. While we are presented with a few example of atypical characters (Father Olsen, his son, and in a way Phil West, high class suitor of Amelia, played by Louis Calhern as he comes out of his own haze of oblivious indifference) the pedestal character of the film is the ever angelically lit Amelia, who judges no one, merely exists as an almost allegorical ideal of how a pious, polite, beautiful and kind young woman (no wonder everyone’s in love with her).

In the end this film, which is filled with subtle and interesting filmic techniques, such as the use of voyeurism (in all facets of the word, viewer and character) and interesting composition most notably that of the hierarchal representations through composition (Phil above the clergyman as the both court Amelia), is a luminous example of Lois Weber’s ‘uplift’ moral realist melodrama. And, upon conclusion (and throughout, with the transformation of Phil West), she makes a point of showing that everyone is capable of change.

As a quick conclusion to our study of Lois Weber we were presented with an example of a short slapstick comedy of hers, How Men Propose (1913). While The Blot at times seemed to be a bit of an indictment of the ‘new woman,’ this short film whole-heartedly embraced it and invited the viewer to laugh at the humorous and absurd situation, which the central ‘new woman’ figure orchestrated. Satisfying its purpose, this film was entirely ridiculous and amusing, as well as an intriguing bit of commentary on the conventions of gender relations.