Lois Weber was Hollywood’s leading female director in the 1910s and 1920s. But also: she was one of the great directors of the silent era regardless of gender, a filmmaker of remarkable vision who exerted an exceptional degree of creative control. “She writes her own stories and continuity, selects her casts, directs the picture, plans to the minutest detail all the scenic effects, and, finally, titles, cuts, and assembles the film,” wrote Aline Carter in Motion Picture in 1921. “Few men have assumed such a responsibility.” Weber was unambiguously an auteur filmmaker, even though that title was not in use in her day. How else to interpret her own earlier statement: “A real director should be absolute”?
Weber joined the film industry in 1908. Before then she was an actor, working in the theater, which is where she met her husband and collaborator Phillips Smalley. One of the first studios where she found work writing scenarios was Gaumont in New Jersey, headed up by Alice Guy-Blaché. Encouraged by their boss, Weber and Smalley were soon writing and directing films for Gaumont and from 1910 onward for another east-coast studio, Rex, a subsidiary brand of Universal. Shortly after being given charge of Rex, they moved west to Los Angeles to shoot at the new Universal City. There, at the notably female-friendly Universal studio, Weber’s star soared, with the public support of Carl Laemmle. “The Smalleys” made more and more ambitious films, and it soon became one of Hollywood’s open secrets that Weber, not her husband, was calling the shots on set. In 1917, she set up her own Lois Weber Productions, supported by generous distribution contracts with Universal—she was the highest-paid director in Hollywood, and the first American woman to run her own studio.
From the perspective of 1921, the year that Weber released one of her greatest features, The Blot, Carter was convinced that the director was destined for “a unique position” in the annals of “the dramatic early development of motion pictures.” Sadly, Carter’s prophesy was delayed by many decades. Weber’s work has for a long time been far less well known than that of her male peers, D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. As a female director in 1910s Hollywood, Weber had a rarity value that was enough to be remarked upon. A decade later, her position was very lonely indeed. Famously, when she was asked in 1927 to offer words of advice to women attempting to follow in her footsteps, she replied with the voice of bitter experience: “Don’t try it. You’ll never get away with it.” A decade later still, she would find herself omitted from those very histories of the silent era.
Happily, though, we can say that recognition of Weber’s work is steadily growing, thanks to scholars such as Shelley Stamp and Anthony Slide, and the increased availability of her films. Weber made somewhere north of two hundred of them, but only a tenth survive. And until recently, even those were very hard to see. Weber’s films shared the same fate of many from the silent era, lost to nitrate deterioration or misplaced or neglected—perhaps more so, as by the end of the silent era, her own reputation had been diminished, her work deemed less worthy of preservation or exhibition. Now we are once again in a position to view and enjoy her work, to experience her directorial imagination, and also to wonder what we’re missing.