Lois Weber was the leading female director-screenwriter in early Hollywood. She began her career alongside her husband, Phillips Smalley, after the two had worked together in the theatre. They began working in motion pictures around 1907, often billed under the collective title “The Smalleys.” In their early years at studios like Gaumont and Reliance, they acted alongside one another on-screen and codirected scripts written by Weber. Indeed, their status as a married, middle-class couple was often used to enhance their reputation for highbrow, quality pictures. In 1912, they were placed in charge of the Rex brand at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, where they produced one or two one-reel films each week with a stock company of actors, quickly turning the brand into one of the studio’s most sophisticated. The couple increasingly turned their attention to multireel films, completing a four-reel production of The Merchant of Venice in 1914, the first American feature directed by a woman. Later that year they moved from Universal to Hobart Bosworth Productions where they were given more freedom to make feature-length films, among them Hypocrites (1915).
Portrait, Lois Weber. Private Collection.
Hypocrites (1915). Private Collection.
Where Are My Children? (1916). Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Lois Weber with Cecil B. DeMille. Courtesy of Brigham Young University.
Lois Weber at work with secretary. Private Collection.
The Blot (1921). Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
Production still, The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) Lois Weber, Anna Pavlova, Phillips Smalley. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Lois Weber with crew, The Angel of Broadway (1927). Courtesy of the Bison Archives.
Letter from Lois Weber to Cecil B. DeMille, 1939. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library.
By the time the couple arrived back at Universal in 1916, Weber had emerged as the dominant member of the husband and wife partnership and, indeed, as one of the top directors on the lot. She was the sole author of scripts the couple adapted for the screen, and marketing materials and reviews singled out her work on the productions. Reporters visiting the couple on set found Smalley repeatedly turning to his wife for important decisions (Stamp 2006, 124–125). During these years Weber made a series of high profile and often deeply controversial films on social issues of the day, including capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), drug abuse in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), poverty and wage equity in Shoes (1916), and contraception in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917).
At a time when many remained wary of cinema’s cultural impact, Weber believed in the medium’s narrative and dramatic power. Among the first to produce complex feature-length narrative in the early teens, she sought to bring the same quality of artistry to the screen as flourished in other media. Her “ideal picture entertainment,” she once said, was “a well assorted shelf of books come to life” (“Lois Weber on Scripts”). But for Weber, bringing refinement to the cinema went beyond highbrow subject matter to include films of social conscience. She often talked of using motion pictures as a means of achieving political change, aspiring to produce work “that will have an influence for good on the public mind” (Photoplay 1913, 73).
Weber achieved the height of her renown during these years: her name was routinely mentioned alongside that of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades. While at Universal it is also likely that she helped to foster the careers of other actresses employed at the studio, many of whom she had directed, including Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, and Dorothy Davenport Reid, who would become directors or producers in their own right.
Weber’s prominence was solidified in 1917 when she left Universal to form her own company, Lois Weber Productions, setting up shop on the grounds of a former residential estate in Los Angeles, where she erected a 12,000-square-foot outdoor shooting stage and converted the original home into the company’s administrative offices. Weber negotiated extremely lucrative distribution contracts with Universal, making her, for a time, the highest paid director in Hollywood according to Photoplay (York 87).
At her own production company, Weber began to move away from what she called the “heavy dinners” she had produced at Universal, side-stepping the censorship troubles she had endured in favor of more intimate productions focused on marriage and domesticity, concentrating her creative energies more than ever on the lives and experiences of women in films such as What Do Men Want? (1921), Too Wise Wives (1921), and The Blot (1921). In an attempt to transcend the factory-like mass production techniques employed at the major studios, Weber also experimented with different working methods, shooting on location as much as possible and often in narrative sequence (Weber 1917, 417).
While Weber was one of the few female screenwriters to make a sustained career out of directing, like most other female pioneers, her output slowed down considerably after 1922. The end of Weber’s marriage that same year is often cited for the abrupt shift in her career and has led some to argue that Smalley played a more central role in her filmmaking activities than had been assumed. Anthony Slide, for instance, speculates that Weber could not function “without the strong masculine presence” of her husband (1996, 131). However, it is worth noting that while Weber’s career did decline sharply following the couple’s divorce, she wrote and directed five features over the next decade: A Chapter in Her Life (1923), The Marriage Clause (1926), Sensation Seekers (1927), The Angel of Broadway (1927), and White Heat (1934). Smalley, in contrast, never again worked in any creative filmmaking capacity other than acting—and did not get much work even at that. More than likely, the downturn in Weber’s career was related to larger circumstances at play in Hollywood during the early 1920s, circumstances that compromised the fate of many independently run production companies, especially those headed by women. Plus, Weber’s focus on urban social problems, rather than amusement, and on the complexities of marriage, rather than romantic courtship, was increasingly perceived as outdated, overly didactic, and dower. “Why does Miss Weber dedicate herself, her time and her equipment to the construction of simple sermons?” one reviewer complained in 1921 (“The Screen”).
The Rosary (1912). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
By the time Weber died in 1939, at the age of sixty, she was eulogized chiefly as a “star-maker,” a director notable only for fostering the talent of young starlets. Weber herself was “rediscovered” in the 1970s by historians like Anthony Slide, who dubbed her “the director who lost her way in history” (1996) and Richard Koszarski, who remarked that “the years have not been kind to Lois Weber” (1977). It is now time to ask what a history rewritten with Weber’s legacy in mind might look like.
Chic, Mlle.“Greatest Woman Director in the World.” Moving Picture Weekly (20 May 1916): 24-25.
Cooper, Mark Garrett. Universal Women: A Case of Institutional Change. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
Koszarski, Richard.“The Years Have Not Been Kind to Lois Weber.” In Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary, eds. Women and the Cinema. New York: Dutton, 1977.
“Lois Weber on Scripts.” Moving Picture World (19 Oct. 1912): 241.
Peltret, Elizabeth. “On the Lot with Lois Weber.” Photoplay. (Oct. 1917): 89-91.
Photoplay (Sept. 1913): 73.
Remont, Fritzi. “The Lady Behind the Lens.” Motion Picture Magazine (May 1918): 59-61, 126.
Rudman, Lisa L. “Marriage: The Ideal and the Reel, or The Cinematic Marriage Manual.” Film History vol. 1, no. 4(1987): 327-40.
“The Screen.” New York Times. (14 Nov. 1921): 22.
Slater, Thomas. “Transcending Boundaries: Lois Weber and the Discourse over Women’s Roles in the Teens and Twenties.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video vol. 18, no. 3 (July 2001): 257-71.
Slide, Anthony. Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Sloan, Kay. “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: An Introduction.” Film History vol. 1, no. 4 (1987): 341-366.
Stamp, Shelley.Lois Weber in Early Hollywood.Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.
------.“Lois Weber and the Celebrity of Matronly Respectability.” In Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin, eds., Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in AmericanFilm History and Method. Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 2007, 89-116.
------. “Lois Weber, Progressive Cinema and the Fate of ‘The Work-A-Day Girl.'” Camera Obscura 56 (2004): 140-69.
------. “Lois Weber, Star Maker.” Vicki Callahan, ed., Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010.
------. “Presenting the Smalleys, ‘Collaborators in Authorship and Direction.” Film History vol. 18, no. 2(2006): 119-28.
------. “Taking Precautions, or Regulating Early Birth Control Films.” In Jennifer Bean and Diane Negra, eds., The Feminist Reader in Early Cinema. Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2002, 270-97.
Van Loan, H.H. “Lois the Wizard.” Motion Picture Magazine (Jul. 1916): 41-44.
Weber, Lois. “A Dream in Realization.” Interview with Arthur Denison. Moving Picture World (21 Jul. 1917); Rpt. in Richard Koszarski, ed., Hollywood Directors, 1914-1940 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976, 50-53
------.“How I Became a Motion Picture Director.” Static Flashes (24 Apr. 1915); Rpt. in Antonia Lant, ed., Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema. London and New York: Verso, 2006, 658-60.
York, Cal. “Plays and Players.” Photoplay (March 1917): 87.
Sunshine Molly. Dir.: Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley, sc. Lois Weber, st.: Alice von Saxmar, cost.: Lucy Duff-Gordon (Bosworth US 1915) cas.: Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley, Adele Farrington, Margaret Edwards, Herbert Standing, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress.
Where Are My Children? Dir.: Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley, sc.: Lois Weber (Universal US 1916) cas.: Tyrone Power, Marie Walcamp, Helen Riaume, Mary MacLaren, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress.
Saving the Family Name. Dir.: Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley, sc.: Lois Weber (Bluebird Photoplays, Inc. US 1916) cas.: Mary MacLaren, Girrard Alexander, Carl von Schiller, Jack Holt, Phillips Smalley, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress.
What Do Men Want? Prod./dir./sc.: Lois Weber (Lois Weber Productions/Wid Gunning, US 1921) cas.: Claire Windsor, J. Frank Glendon, George Jackathorne, Hallam Cooley, Edith Kessler, si. b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress.
What’s Worth While? Prod./dir./sc.: Lois Weber (Lois Weber Productions US 1921) cas.: Claire Windsor, Arthur Stuart Hull, Mona Lisa, Louis Calhern, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress.
The Mysterious Mrs. M. Dir./sc.: Lois Weber (Bluebird Photoplays, Inc. US 1917) cas.: Harrison Ford, Mary MacLaren, Evelyn Selbie, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress.
Mary Regan. Prod. Louis B. Mayer, Anita Stewart, dir./sc.: Lois Weber (Anita Stewart Productions US 1919) cas.: Anita Stewart, Frank Mayo, Carl Miller, si, b&w, 35mm., 7 reels. Archive: Cinémathèque Française.
A Midnight Romance. Dir./sc.: Lois Weber (Anita Stewart Productions, Inc. US 1919) cas: Anita Stewart, Jack Holt, Edward Tilton, si, b&w, 35mm, 6 reels. Archive: Library of Congress
1. Lois Weber as Producer, Director, Co-Director, Screenwriter, and/or Actor
A Breach of Faith, 1911; The Heiress, 1911; A Heroine of ’76, 1911; On the Brink, 1911; The Martyr, 1911; The Realization, 1911; Angels Unaware, 1912; The Bargain, 1912; Eyes That See Not, 1912; Faraway Fields, 1912; The Final Pardon, 1912; The Greater Christian, 1912; The Greater Love, 1912; The Hidden Light, 1912; An Old-Fashioned Girl, 1912; The Power of Thought, 1912; The Price of Peace, 1912; The Troubadour’s Triumph, 1912; The Angelus, 1913; The Blood Brotherhood,1913; Bobby’s Baby, 1913; A Book of Verses, 1913; The Cap of Destiny, 1913; The Call, 1913; The Clue,1913; The Dragon’s Breath, 1913; An Empty Box, 1913; Fallen Angel, 1913; Genesis IV: 9, 1913; His Brand, 1913; His Sister, 1913; The Haunted Bride, 1913; In the Blood, 1913; James Lee’s Wife, 1913; A Jew’s Christmas, 1913; Just in Time, 1913; The King Can Do No Wrong, 1913; The Light Woman, 1913; The Mask, 1913; Memories, 1913; The Peacemaker, 1913; The Pretender, 1913; Shadows of Life, 1913; Through Strife, 1913; Thieves and the Cross,1913; The Thumb Print,1913; Troubled Waters, 1913; Two Thieves, 1913; Until Death, 1913; A Wife’s Deceit, 1913; Avenged, 1914; The Babies’ Doll, 1914; Behind the Veil, 1914; The Career of Waterloo Peterson, 1914; Closed Gates, 1914; The Coward Hater, 1914; Daisies, 1914; An Episode, 1914; The Female of the Species, 1914; Helping Mother, 1914; In the Days of His Youth, 1914; The Leper’s Coat, 1914; The Man Who Slept, 1914; The Merchant of Venice,1914; A Modern Fairly Tale, 1914; An Old Locket, 1914; On Suspicion, 1914; The Opened Shutters, 1914; Plain Jane, 1914; The Pursuit of Hate, 1914; The Spider and Her Web, 1914; The Stone in the Road, 1914; The Traitors, 1914; The Triumph of Mind, 1914; The Weaker Sister, 1914; Woman’s Burden, 1914; Betty in Search of a Thrill, 1915; Captain Courtesy, 1915; Jewel, 1915; The Children Shall Pay, 1916; The Dance of Love, 1916; The Eye of God, 1916; The Face Downstairs, 1917; The Flirt, 1916; The Gilded Life, 1916; Hop, the Devil’s Brew, 1916; John Needham’s Double, 1916; Lena Baskette, 1916; The People vs. John Doe, 1916; The Rock of Riches, 1916; There is No Place Like Home, 1916; Under the Spell, 1916; Wanted – A Home, 1916; The Boyhood He Forgot, 1917; Even as You and I, 1917; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1917; The Price of a Good Time, 1917; Borrowed Clothes, 1918; The Doctor and the Woman, 1918; For Husband Only, 1918; Forbidden, 1919; Home, 1919; A Midnight Romance, 1919; When a Girl Loves, 1919; To Please One Woman, 1920; The Angel of Broadway, 1927.
C. DVD Sources:
The Blot. DVD. (Image Entertainment US 2004).
A Chapter in Her Life. (Nostalgia Family Video) DVD.
How Men Propose. DVD. (Image Entertainment US 2001).
Where Are My Children? In Treasures from the American Film Archives III: Social Issues in American Film. DVD. (Image Entertainment US 2001).
American Film. DVD. (Image Entertainment US 2007).
Too Wise Wives on Origins of Film: America's First Women Filmmakers. DVD. (Image Entertainment US 2001).
Suspense. DVD. (Image Entertainment US 2005)
Hypocrites. DVD. (Kino Video US 2008)
Shoes. DVD/Blu-ray. (Milestone Films US 2018)
The Dumb Girl of Portici. DVD/Blu-ray. (Milestone Films US 2018)
Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology. DVD. (Flicker Alley US 2017) - contains Suspense (1913), Discontent (1916), and The Blot (1921).
Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers. DVD/Blu-ray. (Kino Lorber US 2018) - contains On the Brink (1911), From Death to Life (1912), Fine Feathers (1912), The Rosary (1913), Suspense(1913), Lost By a Hair (1914), Hypocrites (1915), Sunshine Molly (1915), Idle Wives (1916), Where Are My Children? (1916), Scandal (Scandal Mongers) (1916), Too Wise Wives (1921), What Do Men Want? (1921), and other special features.
Les Pionnières du Cinéma. DVD/Blu-ray. (Lobster Films France 2018) - contains Suspense (1913), Discontent (1916), and The Blot (1921)
Early Women Filmmakers 1911-1940. DVD/Blu-ray. (BFI UK 2019) - contains Suspense (1913), Discontent (1916), and The Blot (1921)
D. Streamed Media:
The Price(1911) is streaming online via the EYE Filmmuseum (Dutch intertitles)
Idle Wives (1916) via the National Film Preservation Foundation
Trailer for EYE Filmmuseum's recent restoration of Shoes (1916)
Clip from The Blot (1921)
Lois Weber’s filmography was compiled using information from film trade journals, as well as existing filmographies by Richard Braff and Anthony Slide and the AFI catalogue. FIAF does not always credit her on their database. While many examples of Lois Weber’s directing style are extant, a large percentage exist only as incomplete prints, including: The Little Major, False Colors (while the Library of Congress and UCLA own different material, reels 2 and 5 appear to be lost), It’s No Laughing Matter, Shoes, Sunshine Molly, Idle Wives, Saving the Family Name, What Do Men Want?, Mysterious Mrs. M, A Midnight Romance, A Chapter in Her Life, The Marriage Clause, and What’s Worth While. Both Scandal and Shoes exist only in re-edited and reissued versions. Much of the material is also unpreserved and/or with foreign intertitles, such as: The Little Major (German) and Shoes (Dutch). A number of films have conflicting reports to authorship. How Men Propose is sometimes credited to Weber, however, there is no clear indication that she worked with Smalley during his brief tenure at Crystal. FIAF credits her, but Spher and Braffs do not. And industry reports suggest Weber was initially hired to the direct Topsy and Eva, but was later replaced by Del Lord.
November 2022: Additional bibliographic resources
Norden, Martin F., ed. Lois Weber: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2019.
Stamp, Shelley. "Lois Weber." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-zsv8-nf69>