His­tor­i­cal marker hon­ors pi­o­neer film­maker, direc­tor and screen­writer Lois Weber

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Magazine - By Mary­lynne Pitz

Lois Weber, a pi­o­neer direc­tor, screen­writer and pro­ducer of more than 200 films in the first quar­ter of the 20th cen­tury, was born on Pitts­burgh’s North Side in 1879 and grew up with re­li­gious par­ents who loved the arts.

Her work here as a street mis­sion­ary with an Angli­can “church army” showed her the grim side of the Gilded Age, a time of ex­trav­a­gant wealth and ex­treme poverty. The ex­pe­ri­ence forged her so­cial con­science, and her films dra­ma­tized cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, child la­bor, drug ad­dic­tion, wage in­equity and bat­tles to le­gal­ize birth con­trol and abor­tion.

“She was a film­maker who saw re­ally early on the po­ten­tial for cinema to be a pop­u­lar medium that could tell sto­ries about some of the most trou­bling is­sues of the day,” said Shel­ley Stamp, pro­fes­sor of film and dig­i­tal me­dia at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Santa Cruz.

At 2 p.m. Thurs­day, the 140th an­niver­sary of Weber’s birth, a his­tor­i­cal marker hon­or­ing her will be un­veiled in front of the Carnegie Li­brary branch at 1230 Fed­eral St., North Side. At 7 p.m., Stamp will join Turner Clas­sic Movies host Il­leana Dou­glas for a dis­cus­sion of Weber’s achieve­ments in the Sen. John Heinz His­tory Cen­ter in the Strip Dis­trict. Tick­ets, $20, are avail­able at www.heinzhis­to­rycen­ter.org/events/ or at the door Thurs­day.

In a tele­phone in­ter­view, Dou­glas called the Li­brary of Congress’ Film Pi­o­neers Project about Weber and oth­ers “a rev­e­la­tion.”

“I never heard of any of these fe­male di­rec­tors un­til the 2000s,” she said.

Since 2015, Dou­glas has hosted a pro­gram about women in film called “Trail­blaz­ing Women” on Turner Clas­sic Movies. She and

Stamp also cu­rated a DVD box set, “Pi­o­neers: First Fe­male Film­mak­ers.”

Re­view­ers have noted Weber’s abil­ity to cre­ate com­plex, three-di­men­sional fe­male char­ac­ters, Stamp said. The Li­brary of Congress has many of her movies in its ar­chive. “Suspicion,” a film she made in 1912, is avail­able for view­ing on the in­ter­net.

“It gives you a sense of her film­mak­ing ca­pac­ity. The cam­era an­gles are quite so­phis­ti­cated,” Stamp said.

Her film “Hypocrites” at­tracted both praise and cen­sor­ship be­cause it em­ployed a nude young woman to sym­bol­ize the truth, but it’s tame by to­day’s stan­dards. “Where Are My Chil­dren?” is about abor­tion and con­tra­cep­tion, and “The Blot” is about wage in­equal­ity.

Weber once told an in­ter­viewer that her fa­ther, Ge­orge, “in­stilled in her a love of the arts and a love of sto­ry­telling. She had this mem­ory of go­ing with him to the Pitts­burgh Opera House. He may have had a role in up­hol­ster­ing or dec­o­rat­ing that space,” Stamp said.

By age 21, Weber was liv­ing in New York City with hopes of launch­ing a ca­reer as a con­cert pi­anist. In­stead, she acted with a tour­ing theater com­pany, mar­ried Phillips Smal­ley and be­gan work­ing for Gau­mont, a French film com­pany.

Stamp re­searched Weber’s ca­reer at the Mar­garet Herrick Li­brary in Bev­erly Hills, Calif.

“That was where I saw her sig­na­ture and her hand­writ­ten notes on a script. She wrote her name in a big flour­ish, and I loved that. It sug­gested some­one that was dra­matic,” she said.

Sto­ries about the direc­tor in mag­a­zines from the early 1900s re­veal that she was a celebrity as well-known as Ce­cil B. DeMille and D.W. Grif­fith, Stamp said. By the early 1910s, movies had be­come “the na­tion’s No. 1 form of en­ter­tain­ment. Any­body who had am­bi­tion and creative vi­sion could get a foothold,” Stamp said.

In 1917, Weber formed her own pro­duc­tion com­pany in Los Angeles. In­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies thrived un­til 1921, when Para­mount and MGM con­sol­i­dated power by pur­chas­ing theaters and dis­tri­bu­tion com­pa­nies. That af­fected Weber’s ca­reer.

“She gets squeezed out. Ten years later, nobody re­mem­bers her,” Stamp said.

Weber was given a star on the Hol­ly­wood Walk of Fame in Fe­bru­ary 1960.

Stamp said early his­to­ries of Hol­ly­wood fo­cus only on movie stars such as Theda Bara, Mary Pick­ford and Gloria Swan­son.

“It’s not that his­tory wasn’t writ­ten. It was writ­ten to erase the con­tri­bu­tions of women,” she said.

Mile­stone Films

Lois Weber works on a script for one of her films.

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