The particulars of Weber’s plot are drawn from the report. At that time, according to Addams, shop girls made about $6,000 a year, barely a living wage, while prostitutes earned more than four times that amount. Activists argued that stores cultivated a desire for luxury goods far beyond the means of working girls, whose ten-hour days behind the counter left them standing prey for would-be pimps. It was apparently easy to slide into lunch-hour prostitution, and Weber was horrified that so many young women did.
Shoes doesn’t stray far from its title; Weber attends almost obsessively to Eva’s disintegrating boots. The camera addresses them as a character, lingering over their poignant creases, and following along as they walk gingerly in the rain, stand on rough wood floors or sit abjectly next to Eva’s chair. Every morning, Eva traces and cuts out inserts from cardboard to protect her soles; in the evening, she shakes out these fragments, now dirty and crumbled, and soaks her feet in steaming water. Her hope for redemption seems to hinge on the state of her footwear; if Weber can convey how tattered the boots and sore the feet, we will forgive Eva her prostitution. At the end of the film, passed over by her mother one more time, Eva finds her own solution. She comes home one day wearing a gleaming pair of boots, and tearfully collapses in her mother’s lap.
Footwear is important in many Weber films, to such a degree that her biographer Anthony Slide puzzles over her “fetish.” Fetish is not the right word, but Weber does treat footwear with special care, as another director might treat a locket, or cigarettes, or a cross. Shoes seemed to have been part of her personal symbology, a shortcut to a feeling of loss. She was furious when censors removed a shot of a dead baby’s shoes from Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916). The film is about a mother so devastated by the death of her child that she becomes addicted to opium. Her husband, a customs inspector, is responsible for confiscating opium shipments from China; one day, he finds his wife huddled among the addicts in an opium den. The shot of the baby shoes was pivotal, Weber argued, to establishing the mother’s suffering and furnishing an explanation for her addiction, but this was precisely the censor’s problem: Weber was treating addiction not as a failure of self-control, but as a consequence of grief.
The state of the shoes in Shoes seems to refer to the loss of Eva’s virginity, but there’s also a more basic reading: Weber is outraged that a functional necessity has become too expensive for a working girl’s income. Another Weber film juxtaposes the poverty of a theologian’s family with their neighbors’ wealth. Weber treats the neighbors with disdain, taking pains to show the ostentation of their car and the excess of their meals. It’s no surprise when she explains that they got rich by selling shoes, priced, she reports, at “$18 a pair!”
Critics treated Weber’s attention to detail as a feminine quirk. They would marvel at her dedication to representing the texture of real life, but it was a cursory wonder, the kind that emphasizes the hours spent. Her approach was sometimes used to imply that she was a filmmaker of small ambition: “obsessed with little things”; her films “infected with the disease of detail.” A review of The Blot (1921) likewise accused Weber of smothering her subject matter “under a mass of plausible but unnecessary detail,” while another sniffed that there was something improper in Weber’s fixation on domestic life, akin to airing dirty laundry. “Many of the scenes are exceedingly painful,” this critic wrote, “and a few seem to invade the privacy of domestic life with unnecessary frankness.”
It is true that affection for domestic objects is Weber’s hallmark. Her films usually take place in homes, with many scenes set in the kitchen. She lingers on frayed rugs, buttons, wooden stools and tea service. Mushrooms are served in folded-parchment paper packets, and potatoes spooned onto chipped enamel plates. Her pacing is slow enough that the mood of a room registers as a presence. A critic observed in 1919, “When [Weber] shows a boudoir scene it is not an accumulation of papier-mâché props … she pictures the place as it actually is.”
Weber liked to call her independent studio—so unlike any other in Hollywood—“My Old Homestead.” It was situated in a Southern-style mansion on Santa Monica Boulevard near Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. Studios were moving to lots during the late Teens and early Twenties, but Weber insisted on shooting domestic scenes in actual domestic interiors, with the assistance of enormous portable batteries and special lights. A visitor to Lois Weber Productions remembered it as a studio like no other, outfitted with rockers, pillows and wide couches. There was a tennis court for staff, and the surrounding acres were landscaped with lemon and loquat trees, jasmine shrubs, and birds of paradise. “Nothing suggests business,” noted the visitor with pleasure. Weber’s habit was to keep the front door ajar.
Helped by the critic André Bazin, cinematic realism would eventually acquire a respected reputation. Writing in 1948, Bazin praised the Italian neorealists of the 1940s for their “revolutionary humanism.” “They never forget that the world is,” he wrote admiringly. Films with a documentary quality—“a perfect and natural adherence to actuality”—left Bazin refreshed, feeling the “urge to change the order of things.” Realism became a celebrated aesthetic, and even a political mode of filmmaking.
Bazin, however, was too late for Weber. He never referred to her work, as much of it had already been long forgotten. As for Weber’s contemporary critics, they noticed her fidelity to domestic detail, but failed to connect it to her true-to-life characters and their true-to-life dilemmas. Insightful criticism might have provided Weber with support and cover for a still more ambitious cinematic vision; without it, she simply insisted that she made the kind of films that people wanted to see: “The time can’t be far off,” she predicted, “when the man or woman who comes to a picture is going to look about and realize that no such perfect creature as the time-honored hero exists either on this earth below or the heaven above. And they are going to even more willingly pay their nickels and their dimes to see a flesh-and-blood person whom they can recognize out of their own experience.” Her forecast turned out wrong; Weber and Hollywood were parting ways.
Weber’s obituary remembered her not as a director, but as “Lois Weber, Movie Star-Maker.” By the end of her life, her reputation as a talent scout had eclipsed her work as a filmmaker. She truly did help many women, and some men, to stardom—Mary MacLaren, Lenore Coffee, Marion Orth, Jeanie Macpherson, John Ford, Henry Hathaway—but she was not a “star finder” in the conventional sense. By dint of time and energy, she nurtured a system of patronage that brought women into the industry and moved them up the ranks. The invisible gears behind career advancement are mentor relationships, as people in power help their likenesses ascend. Rarely do these networks favor women, and even more rarely does a woman become powerful enough to anchor her own. Weber did.
On Friday nights she often had drinks with Hollywood’s female elites. These soirées—the press called them “hen parties”—took place at Frances Marion’s house. Marion was a prolific screenwriter who transitioned from silents to sound without a bump and saw well over one hundred of her screenplays produced. In the Thirties, she was making some $17,000 per week. Screenwriters were writers for hire, paid by the week or day, and rarely informed of the destiny of their work. Marion, on the other hand, was allowed to shepherd her projects through production and often presided on set. Her first job, however, was as a jack-of-all-trades for Lois Weber. When the two women met, Weber told Marion, “I have a broad wing, would you like to come under its protection?”
Marion was one of many women under Weber’s wing. Weber helped found the Girls’ Studio Club, also known as the Home of Young Ladies Who Make Moving Pictures in Hollywood, where she served on the board, gave talks and arranged tours. In 1918, she realized how frequently female extras were exploited on the casting couch and began advocating unionization. (It was a forward-thinking cause; the Screen Extras Guild wasn’t chartered until 1946.) She served on the advisory board of a correspondence school for aspiring screenwriters whose student body was overwhelmingly female, and took a protective interest in the flood of naïve young women arriving daily to look for movie work in Los Angeles. In 1913, well before women’s suffrage, she served for a year as mayor of Universal City. When she occasionally purchased screenplays, she bought from women writers, and when she adapted material from newspapers and magazines, the journalists were women as well. She endlessly hosted lunches and dinners in recognition of other women’s accomplishments.
When Weber is called a “star finder,” the story often cited is her discovery of Claire Windsor. The tale goes like this: Weber’s lead for her first film with Paramount fell through at the last minute, and in an effort to avoid production delays she cast about for a replacement on the Paramount campus. Ola Cronk, spotted in line at the cafeteria, seemed promising. Cronk was 27, a single mother, and had no acting experience. She’d decided to go to Hollywood after being named “empress” of an Orientalist festival in Seattle called Jappyland, and was working as an extra. Weber changed Ola’s name to Claire Windsor, which vaguely exuded British silk stocking, and invented a sympathetic backstory of an opera career. She orchestrated sightings of Windsor with the most eligible bachelor in town, Charlie Chaplin, and may have had a hand in a media coup that involved faking Windsor’s disappearance and near-death rescue in the Hollywood Hills. (“Lost Starlet!” screamed newspaper headlines.) All this happened during the eighteen months that Weber and Windsor made five films together; by 1922, the transformation was complete. Windsor was a bona fide star.
An alternate telling of Windsor’s stardom would emphasize the films that she and Weber made together. All were domestic dramas that focused on marriage. The action is psychological, tracing the shifting perspectives of female characters. In What’s Worth While? (1921), for instance, Windsor plays a wife who is embarrassed by her husband’s rough ways. He travels abroad and acquires some culture, but when he returns she is dismayed to realize that she liked him better before. In another film, Windsor plays a young woman so determined to be the perfect wife that her obsessive housekeeping leaves her husband lonely.
The plots are subtle, the stakes modest and the actresses’ roles meaty. Perhaps the key to Windsor’s success was not Weber’s bionic ability to pick out a starlet in the cafeteria line, but to hold her actresses to high expectations. It’s said that when a woman caught Weber’s eye, she wouldn’t ask, “Are you an actress?” but rather, “Are you looking for work?” The women she worked with remained devoted; she seems to have been the best kind of boss.
There is a reason this starlet story has eclipsed the substance of Windsor’s work with Weber. While women reviewers heaped praise on the marriage films, men did the opposite. The reviews were so obviously gendered that Weber incorporated the dissonance into a special advertising campaign, setting quotes by male and female critics side by side. It was a way of winking at her audience: I’m making films about relationships. Men don’t like them, but you will.
Weber’s mentoring, her lucrative contracts, her brilliant career all reversed course in the early Twenties. In an interview in 1927, the lodestar of women in Hollywood had changed her tune. “Don’t try it!” she ominously advised. “You’ll never get away with it.”
Weber’s career spanned a historical shift that since has been termed Hollywood’s “masculinization.” The conditions that favored women gave way to conditions that disfavored women. Studio employment became more stratified and networks of small independent studios merged into large conglomerates. The heterogeneity of early experiments solidified into the patterns of a “Hollywood film.” The cost of making a typical movie quadrupled after 1915, and gambling with high financial stakes didn’t seem suitable for women. Neither was women’s moralizing influence still necessary. By 1928, 65 million Americans, half the country’s population, were going to the movies every week. Universal went from eleven women directors to zero, and stayed that way for sixty years. When Weber told young women “don’t try it,” her intention, writes historian Shelley Stamp, was to save women the anguish of trying to succeed in a system that guaranteed their failure.