|Still from The Blot|
Time’s up. If you didn’t get Barbra Streisand, you’re as bad as most of my students. If you did get Streisand, give yourself half a point for listening. Give yourself one point each for all the other women directors you named (without researching) on your own.
Anyone get 10 points? (My point, exactly.) Anyone list Lois Weber? Ah well, this is a sophisticated art, film, and literature crowd. Of course you did. For those of you who may have missed Ms. Weber, here’s a quick review.
Lois Weber was a cinema pioneer, prolific film director, and highest paid director in Hollywood in 1916–17. A social realist, Weber brought a missionary zeal to cinema—making films about issues of the day. In Hypocrites (1914) a minister is stoned to death for unveiling a statue of The Naked Truth. Variety said “After seeing it, you can’t forget the name of Lois Weber.”
As well as hypocrisy, Weber’s films condemned child labor (Shoes, 1916); capital punishment (The People vs John Doe, 1916); and advocated birth control. Where Are My Children? (1916) was banned in Philadelphia and spawned censorship trials around the country. Audiences flocked to the cinema in the wake of the publicity and the film grossed $3 million. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) was a tribute to birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Moving Picture Stories hailed Weber as “the greatest woman director.”
By the mid-20s, audiences no longer wanted films about tough topics. The Angel of Broadway (1927), the story of an innocent prostitute, fared poorly at the box office. In 1934, Weber pushed the boundaries too far with White Heat, a film about miscegenation and racism on a sugar plantation in Hawaii. White Heat was attacked by critics and never distributed. It was her last film.
Weber died penniless in 1939 at the age of 58. Most of her films were lost. Fortunately, filmmaker Kevin Brown and film historian David Gill restored The Blot, one of Weber’s best, about the adverse effects of poverty on a schoolteacher’s family. It’s available right now at Daedalus.
Filmmaker and writer Linda Thornburg wrote and directed the award-winning feature adaptation of May Sarton’s novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. She has taught courses in film and television at The Ohio State University, The Evergreen State College, and Columbus College of Art and Design.