Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Guest blogger: Linda Thornburg on a film pioneer

Still from The Blot
You have one minute to list all the women film directors you can. Go! Don’t mind me, I’ll just hum the theme song to Yentl.  “Papa, can you hear me?”
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 TruthVariety 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.

14 comments:

  1. WOW! Thanks for the history lesson:) I wish we still made such challenging and political films. Seems like a nearly abandoned goal in American Cinema...

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a great blog! I've never heard of Lois Weber until today. Wilhelm is right, it is a shame there aren't many political films anymore. Seems filmmakers are more about remaking films then thinking of new ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Off hand, I could only come up with Nora Ephron and Sophia Coppola; I'm a little embarrassed. I'd also never heard of Lois Weber before today - but wow, what an interesting lady! Thanks for the interesting post, Ms. Thornburg.

    ReplyDelete
  4. All I could think of was Sophia Coppola. I turned to Google to educate myself and who knew there are so many notable women directors in the game right now. In fact Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) was the first women to win Best Director just a couple years ago. Other notable movies (Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right) were also directed by women. Looks like Lois Weber paved the way for other women to make their mark in a profession dominated by men.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Female directors hmmm Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron, Kathryn Bigelow, Amy Heckerling (Fast Times and Clueless)!!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm dating myself but it's worth it to mention Ida Lupino.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely. You'd be dating yourself even more if you mentioned Dorothy Arzner or Germaine DuLac.

      Delete
  7. I haven't heard of Lois Weber until today either but she sounds like an inspiring woman. I appreciate that she directs films regarding what she believes in.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I was doing this with a friend, but we got Streisand, Julie Dash, Jane Campion, Ida Lupino, Heckerling, Rosa Guy, Lina Wertmuller, Mira Nair, Lee Grant, & the Thelma and Louise director.
    Winter's Bone was so fantastic!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ridley Scott (male) directed Thelma and Louise. Otherwise pretty good group.

      Delete
  9. ...& the Thelma and Louise director

    Ridley Scott might be surprised to find himself listed among the top female film directors.

    p.s. The only feature film I've ever been in (as a crowd scene extra), Pet Sematary, was directed by a woman, Mary Lambert. Others on the list might include Susan Seidelman, Jody Foster, and Jane Campion. And although she definitely worked for the wrong team, many people feel that the greatest female director of all was Leni Reifenstahl.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I knew I should have looked that one up; I guess the script for T&L was written by a woman. Leni Reifenstahl was pretty amazing; wish she could have done more.

      Delete
  10. Thanks for all the responses! Some of you came up with good names, Seidelman, Foster, Campion, Lupino, Reifenstahl, Dash, Wertmuller, Nair, Grant, Marshall, Heckerling and of course Bigelow! If you're interested in a few more, here's the Wikipedia list. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_Film_Directors

    ReplyDelete
  11. We've long been inspired by urban art and have finally created a collection that pays homage to this secret addiction of ours!

    ReplyDelete