Lois Weber: Filmmaking Pioneer and Revolutionary Storyteller

WIFTV’s 2015 Martini Madness honours creative women working in the silent movie era. Today: meet revolutionary storyteller Lois Weber (1879-1939).

Lois Weber with megaphone (seated behind DP)

Lois Weber with megaphone (seated next to DP)

Director. Screenwriter. Actress. Often referred to as “America’s first female filmmaker,” Lois Weber was a true pioneer in the early days of Hollywood. Besides being the first woman to direct an American feature film, The Merchant of Venice, in 1914, she was also the first woman elected to the Motion Pictures Directors Association. Back in the day her name was recognized alongside DW Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille as one of the top talents in the industry.One of Weber’s lasting legacies was recognizing the critical and cultural importance of using film to convey social issues of the time. This civil approach to filmmaking can be seen in some of her controversial films like The People vs. John Doe (1916, Capital Punishment), Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916, Drug Abuse), Shoes (1916, Poverty & Wage Equality), and Where Are My Children? (1916, Contraception).

loisweber

Her silent thriller Suspense (1913), co-directed with husband Phillip Smalley, best displays her complex filmmaking bravura through its use of visual narrative devices like the triptych, a revolutionary split-screen sequence which told the story of an unaware housewife phoning her husband at work while a burglar breaks into the home (see photo above). All three characters simultaneously bring the tension and plot to a stunning climax, in a sequence of actions that had never seen by an audience before.

Weber’s skill with a camera for compelling storytelling is in full display with her masterly use of eyelines and dramatic pauses to increase the tension. Just as a frantic husband races home in a stolen car, the burglar is spotted below by the housewife, as he menacingly stares straight up at her, directly into the camera and into the eyes of a frightened audience.

Lois Weber died in 1939, regarded at the time as a groundbreaking director and “star maker” who fostered the careers of many young actors. Why then has history not been kind to Weber? It is time to rewrite history and place her legacy where it belongs as a true filmmaking pioneer.

By Ana Carrizales

WIFTV and Cineworks member Ana Carrizales is a Vancouver-based actress, filmmaker & media creator. She is passionate about female-driven storytelling and is currently developing a global platform for women to share their stories.

Photos courtesy of BFI.

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