Move over D.W. Griffith.
While the great majority of early 1900s cinema was dominated by men, it took a woman to become its first genuine auteur. Born to a middle class family and headed for homemaking after a failed career in piano and the stage, Lois Weber began writing scripts for the infant medium of motion pictures in 1908. In just three years she had climbed up the ranks of a production company and would go on to direct her first short film, A Heroine of ‘76, alongside the already legendary director Edwin S. Porter (The Great Train Robbery). Weber directed nearly 40 films in the following two years, leading up to her groundbreaking film Suspense.
Suspense, in many ways, revolutionized cinema. It pioneered the use of split screenshots in film with its famous triptych shot (pictured above), utilized a diverse amount of mirror shots, and even predated The Shining in a scene where an axe comes crashing through a door. Film critic Tom Gunning said, “No film made before WWI shows a stronger command of film style than Suspense which outdoes even Griffith for emotionally involved filmmaking.” Weber also directed, wrote, and acted in the film, continuing to establish herself as an auteur filmmaker. A year later she became the first woman to direct a feature-length film with The Merchant of Venice, and — more importantly — a year after that directed a film that contained the first film full-frontal female nudity: Hypocrites.
Hypocrites caused major outcries from public figures and even rioting when it was initially released. It was banned and edited in many states. However, at its official premiere it was praised as a “cultural, artistic, and moral landmark for the film industry” and went on to make ten times its budget, establishing Lois Weber as a household name. Weber went on to direct 200-400 films in her career — a prolific amount, especially when compared to the directors of today. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, and she also fostered the careers of burgeoning actresses employed at Universal, including Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, and Dorothy Davenport Reid, who would become directors or producers in their own right.
Lois Weber was not only an icon and pioneer of the early filmmaking generation, but also of women and their role in society. Accomplishing all that she did in filmmaking before women had gained the right to vote and most of it pre-WWI was an incredibly impressive feat, and certainly helped to shape the ideals of the woman in the formative days of first wave feminism through Hollywood’s influence. “Ideal picture entertainment” she once said, was “a well assorted shelf of books come to life.”
Alex Sennett is a second year film student at NYU.