The director Lois Weber had a habit of signing her films, such that several end with a title card in florid script, “Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber.” The obvious analogue is a letter; in this case a letter misplaced for a very long time. Weber was a master of silent film, and for a time she was the highest-paid director in Hollywood. The only woman admitted to the Motion Pictures Directors Association, she was also the only female director among the 250 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Her notoriety, credentials and budgets rivaled those of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Yet while the birth of cinema can’t be discussed without reference to these names, Weber’s remains largely unknown. Film historian Richard Koszarski wrote in 1975 that she had been “forgotten with a vengeance,” as if the forgetting were aggressive, even calculated. Strategic forgetting is one of the most Machiavellian tactics of the dominant culture: in response to it, the task becomes not only to reanimate the dead but to puzzle out the motives and mechanics of their effacement.
Weber’s films are primarily domestic dramas, stories about family ecosystems and the financial and emotional obligations that bind people together. Behind these narratives are the social and political issues that divided Weber’s audience: abortion, drug addiction, capital punishment, prostitution, anti-Semitism and birth control. Emboldened by a medium without traditions or conventions, Weber saw no reason why film should aim to merely amuse when it was possible to change the world.
Weber was called a “propagandist,” but she resisted the word. Propaganda, she said, was too simpleminded. A man would shift his thinking on birth control, for instance, not because Weber advised it, but because he came to feel obligated to remedy the distress of a specific young woman who worked as a laundress and wore her hair pinned at the nape of her neck. Weber understood social change to be the sum of tenderness meted out to individuals. Her films were a concerted experiment to coax this tenderness from viewers reluctant to extend it.
Trade publications and industry transactions establish that in early Hollywood Weber had great clout and a reputation for “intellectual athleticism.” But only a fraction of the output responsible for her stature survives. Of the 153 films she wrote and directed between 1913 and 1934, just sixteen have not crumbled to dust or disappeared, and they are scattered in archives from Tokyo to Wisconsin. I have managed to see eight. Some are short, like Suspense (1913), about a woman home with her baby when a burglar breaks into the house. Another, The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), starring ballerina Anna Pavlova, was the result of a studio assignment, and is stylistically unlike the other seven. Eight films could hardly be considered a strong sample size, and prudence checks the impulse to celebrate. Yet it’s enough to be convinced that Weber made a kind of film—principled, homely, honest—that was antithetical to what Hollywood has come to represent.
Weber’s 1916 film The Hypocrites, rereleased in November 2018 as part of Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” collection, made her a household name. It begins as an allegory. A priest sequestered at a medieval monastery is so ardently devoted to God that it irks his fellow priests. He is working intensely on something secret, which he plans to unveil at a grand fête. The camera pans slowly over gathering crowds, representatives of the Family, the Trades, the Monarchy, the Politicians, etc., all chattering in anticipation. A sheet falls away to reveal the priest’s creation: a life-size statue emblazoned at the base with the title “Naked Truth.” Naked Truth is in fact exactly what her name suggests—a naked woman standing on a pedestal.