Historical marker honors pioneer filmmaker, director and screenwriter Lois Weber
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.
Lois Weber works on a script for one of her films.