Lois Weber, the First American Woman to Direct a Feature Film

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Lois Weber may be the most important filmmaker you’ve never heard of. The first American woman to direct a feature film, the first woman admitted to the Motion Picture Directors Association, and the first female mayor of Universal City, California (the unincorporated area where, to this day, Universal Studios is located), Weber was dubbed “The Greatest Woman Director In The World” by Universal Weekly in 1916. In a 1975 Village Voice article entitled “The Years Have Not Been Kind To Lois Weber,” the paper noted that she had been “forgotten with a vengeance.”

In her time, Weber wasn’t just Hollywood’s most famous female director—she was one of the most famous directors, period. She was also a politically active filmmaker who used her films as a forum for the discussion of issues like birth control, capital punishment, and labor reform. At a time when it was illegal to spread information about birth control, Weber released two feature length-films about the need for contraception education: Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1917).

Born in Pennsylvania in 1879, Weber was involved in the arts from a young age. In Lois Weber In Early Hollywood, film historian Shelley Stamp explains that Weber began touring as a concert pianist by age 16, and soon afterward moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. But the young Weber struggled to balance her love of performance with the expectations of her family and community, who saw the performing arts as disreputable. To prove the respectability of her career choices, Weber worked as a missionary in her free time, performing in prisons and hospitals, and working with poor women in New York City’s tenements—experiences that would deeply impact her future filmmaking. By 1904, Weber had fallen in love, and married fellow actor Phillips Smalley.

While touring with Smalley and his theater company, Weber began began writing and selling screenplays in her spare time. Though she stumbled into film almost accidentally, she quickly became a prolific screenwriter. By 1911, she and Smalley were working in the New York City film industry full-time, not only writing scenarios, but directing and acting in short films.

By 1914, the husband-wife team had made over 100 short films and had moved to Los Angeles. There, Universal Studios co-founder Carl Laemmle hired them to co-direct a feature-length adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. The production made Weber the first American woman to direct a feature film. Around the same time, and only shortly after California granted women the right to vote, Weber was appointed mayor of Universal City, California. According to Stamp, Weber ran on an all-female, suffragist ticket. When she won, the film trade journal Motography celebrated her accomplishment, writing “Hurrah for Lois Weber and woman’s suffrage!”

But though Weber had already made history, she didn’t stop there. Between 1915 and 1917, she released a series of socially conscious films that were applauded by audiences and critics but drew ire from censorship boards around America. In her 1915 film on religious hypocrisy, Hypocrites, Weber stirred up controversy when she had a seemingly naked actress play the personification of Truth—the first instance of full-frontal nudity in a major motion picture—a decision that prompted censors to ban the film in some areas, and prompted Weber to reply: “Hypocrites is not a slap at any church or creed. It is a slap at hypocrites, and its effectiveness is shown by the outcry amongst those it hits hardest to have the film stopped.”

Soon after, Weber began making what Stamp calls her “living newspaper” films for Universal Studios—movies that addressed contentious contemporary issues. She took on capital punishment in the 1916 anti-death penalty film The People Vs. John Doe (about the trial of Charles Stielow), poverty and prostitution in Shoes (1916), and most controversially, abortion and contraception in Where Are My Children? and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.

Stamp writes, “At a time when disseminating contraceptive advice remained a felony and when motion pictures were no longer protected by guarantees of free speech, Where Are My Children? encountered significant problems with censorship and regulation.” In fact, the National Board of Review unanimously rejected the film, which portrayed the fictional prosecution of a doctor accused of distributing birth control literature as well as a group of society women having abortions. The film was accused of communicating a confusing message with regard to contraception and abortion (a "delicate and dangerous" topic according to the Board), in part because they were portrayed as necessary for the poor and immigrants but less so for rich whites. Fortunately for Weber, Universal stood by the controversial film, and decided to screen it in select theaters despite the Board’s censorship. In New York City, the film was such a massive hit moviegoers were turned away from sold-out showings weeks into its run.

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Next, inspired by Margaret Sanger’s work promoting contraceptive education, Weber wrote Is a Woman A Person?, later retitled The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Weber’s protagonist Louise Broome, a character based on Sanger, is indicted for distributing family planning information. This time, Weber seems to imply that access to birth control should be universal: In the film, Broome tells her husband, “If the law makers had to bear the children, they would change the laws quickly enough.”

But though The Hand That Rocks The Cradle was radical, Weber was becoming frustrated not only with the National Board of Review, but with the timidity of Universal. At the premiere of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Weber complained that Universal had forced her to tone down the film. “It’s too tame,” she said. “Hardly a jolt in it. I wanted to make it talk right out, only fear of the censors made my managers hold me down and divest it of ‘ginger.’”

So, seeking more creative independence, she founded Lois Weber Productions in 1917. For the next four years, she continued to direct films, launching the careers of some of the most well-known actresses of the silent era, including that of Mildred Harris, the future first wife of Charlie Chaplin.

But, by 1921, Lois Weber productions collapsed. Hollywood was changing and Lois Weber’s brand of activist filmmaking was no longer in demand. Increasingly, according to Stamp, her films were seen as didactic instead of revolutionary, “preachy” instead of radical. At the same time, as major studios began to form, independent filmmakers were struggling to keep their footing in the film industry. Hollywood was also becoming an increasingly masculine industry: During the silent era, according to Stamp, approximately half of the screenwriters in Hollywood were women. But by the time sound came in the late 1920s, the number of women working behind the camera began to decrease. Weber made her last film (and only sound film), White Heat, in 1934, and by the time she passed away in 1939, she was largely forgotten.

Although Weber’s career didn’t survive the sound era, during her heyday she was an incredibly influential figure. In fact, in 1918, film trade journal Wid’s Daily exclaimed, “If you can’t get money today by announcing a Lois Weber production, there is something wrong with your method of exploitation.” And, in a 1921 profile in Motion Picture, one journalist wrote of Weber, “She is doing a lion’s share toward broadening the horizon of women’s endeavors, and her brilliant accomplishments should act as a spur for the ambitious but halting ones who long for the freedom of self-expression found in a vocation of their own.”

For more information on Lois Weber, see Shelley Stamp’s excellent history, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood.