When Christianity influences contemporary films, the result is often preachy dreck about the evils of secular society. However, in the early 20th century, the faith of the actress, director, and producer Lois Weber — whose work is being celebrated in the Film Forum series Lois Weber: First Auteur — yielded socially conscious movies championing the underprivileged.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1879, Weber’s entry into faith-based entertainment began at the age of 17, when she played piano for a church army group on the streets of the city’s poor neighborhoods. When a damaged nerve ended her career as a pianist, she departed for New York City in 1904 to become an actress. Shortly after meeting her first husband Wendell Phillips Smalley in the city’s theater scene, she took a job producing phonoscènes (records providing pre-recorded soundtracks to silent pictures) for Gaumont Studios in Flushing, Queens. In 1910, the couple pursued a career in motion pictures that landed them at the Rex Motion Picture Company, moving west to Los Angeles when Rex merged with five other companies to become the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1912.
Women behind the camera were rare at this time, but Weber was more of an anomaly in the fact that she scripted, shot, edited, and even developed film negatives on her own. To maintain a greater degree of creative control, she began producing pictures under Lois Weber Productions in 1917. At the time of her death in November 1939, Weber had over 130 feature and short directorial credits and 19 as a producer.
Film Forum is featuring three of Weber’s silent films. The Blot (1921) deals with income inequality as a rich student and a poor minister vie for the affections of the daughter of an impoverished college professor. Shoes (1916) — screening with the Weber-starring and directed short “Suspense” — follows a young, destitute woman working at a five-and-dime who’s desperate for a new pair of shoes. Finally, The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) is a historical epic set against the 17th-century Spanish occupation of Naples.
Underappreciated by modern cinephiles, Weber’s work is a true rarity. While depressingly few women of her time achieved her level of creative independence in cinema, Weber’s use of that work to promote social justice and equality is also unprecedented in the work of her peers. In the same year when D.W. Griffith used Intolerance as a counterstrike against critics of the previous year’s The Birth of a Nation, Weber directed two works showcasing the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich with Shoes and The Dumb Girl of Portici. While she might not be the first auteur as the series’ title suggests, her view of the film medium as a powerful tool for social justice — informed by her belief in Christian charity — certainly makes her one of the most fascinating.
Weber possesses a deft talent for tempering her solemn mission with the understanding that entertainment is necessary to convey that point. Despite exploring “the blot” on society caused by underpaying educators and clergy, The Blot finds time for humor, primarily through snarky intertitles. One character is introduced with the onscreen text, “Foreign-born Hans Olsen was an expert at making the high priced shoes that ruin the feet of women who wear them.” The shade only grows; when the rich student (played by a young Louis Calhern) attends a dinner party and grows disgusted with a fellow guest, we read, “Curious he had never noticed before that Juanita was — well — rather loud.” As the love triangle approaches its resolution, Weber’s sharp writing offers plenty of levity to keep the viewer amused and engaged regardless of their rooting interests.
Levity is sorely lacking in Shoes, a brutal reminder of the desperate lives of the needy as it follows a shopgirl named Eva who supports her unemployed parents and three sisters on her meager wages. While the girl’s suffering is relentlessly depressing to watch, Weber conveys her character’s misery in visually evocative ways. A shot tightly focused on her tired feet as they trudge through a rainstorm makes the audience feel her hardship and understand her motivation in desiring new footwear. The rain actually plays an interesting role in Weber’s visual language. Eva twice admires the footwear she hopes to purchase, and the same shot of the shoes behind a rain-soaked shop window is used each time, situating her in a hazy, dreamlike environment that keeps her sleepwalking along the path to the eventual compromise she makes to obtain the shoes. By making her decision to submit to the advances of a cad seem like an inevitability, Shoes portrays Eva’s degradation with a dignity and empathy.
Weber likewise instills The Dumb Girl of Portici with uncanny grace, which Anna Pavlova, who plays the eponymous girl, is equally responsible for fostering. Pavlova — a Russian dancer and choreographer stranded in the US after the outbreak of World War I — moves fluidly and expressively as Fenella, a mute peasant. The opening shot features a dancing Pavlova superimposed over an image of reeds, lending her an otherworldly air that reinforces the intertitles’ description of her as “an unusually romantic character at this period.” Dance is a close cousin of the pantomime necessary to silent film storytelling, and Pavlova uses her expertise at it to animate her performance and sell the tragedy of Fenella’s seduction and abandonment at the hands of a Spanish nobleman, a tragedy that inspires her brother to foment a revolution among the peasant class. The fluid spontaneity of Pavlova’s movement allows her to stand out against the opulent set design of courtyards and palaces that made Dumb Girl one of Universal’s most expensive productions at the time.
Weber utilized the immense resources at her disposal to prevent her work from forsaking watchability in favor of her message. Through clever writing, dreamy visual language, and fine-tuned attention to detail at every stage of production, Weber made films that remain compelling today in their skillful championing of the greater good.
Lois Weber: First Auteur continues at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, Greenwich Village) through September 16. A live piano score from Steve Sterner accompanies all screenings.