Saturday, April 25, 2015

Shelley Stamp's "Lois Weber in Early Hollywood"

Shelley Stamp is Professor of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. A leading expert on women and early film culture, she is author of Movie Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon and founding editor of Feminist Media Histories: An International Journal. Stamp also provides audio commentary for DVDs, curates film programs, and consults on film preservation projects.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, and reported the following:
Page 99 features a discussion of The People vs. John Doe, Lois Weber’s 1916 film on capital punishment. Released at the height of a national debate on the death penalty, the film dramatizes the plight of Charles Stielow, an innocent man accused of murder, in order to present an argument against state-sponsored execution. Though all mention of Stielow was removed from the film at the behest of the National Board of Censorship, contemporary reviewers immediately noted the connections between Weber’s anonymous protagonist and the real-life Stielow. Indeed, Universal rushed the film into release after Stielow’s death sentence was commuted and The People vs. John Doe became a rallying point for anti-death-penalty advocates across the country: screenings were presented by abolitionist groups like the Humanitarian Cult and the film was shown to Pennsylvania legislators at a hearing to abolish capital punishment there.

The People vs. John Doe was one of many popular, profitable films that Weber wrote and directed on issues compelling to Americans during the Progressive Era. She tackled poverty and women’s wage equity in Shoes (1916), opium addiction and narcotics trafficking in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), and the fight to legalize birth control in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917). She believed cinema was a "voiceless language" capable of presenting weighty topics for a mass audience, a new medium on par with a newspaper's editorial page. Weber, one contemporary observer remarked, fearlessly embraced contentious subjects that “other directors would not touch for fear of condemnation.” She endured her share of censorship battles as a result, but held firm in her commitment to her vision of socially-engaged, popular cinema.

Although she vowed to abandon such “heavy dinners” when she formed her own production company, Weber remained a trenchant critic of social norms. Films like Too Wise Wives (1921) and What Do Men Want? (1921) provoke fundamental questions about capitalism, changing sexual mores, traditional family structures, and a rising culture of consumption in the Jazz Age. The latter film, which features a spectacular scene of a pregnant, unmarried woman committing suicide in public, likely cost Weber her contract with Paramount Pictures. In the late 1920s, when it became increasingly difficult for her to find work, Weber made a trio of films critical of Hollywood’s star-driven glamour industry. She spoke openly of her desire to counter the flappers and vamps who increasingly clouded Hollywood’s imagination – she called them “cute little dolls dressed up in clothes that they do not know how to wear” – with “womanly” protagonists who possessed “brains and character.”

Throughout her career Weber remained a vocal advocate for women in Hollywood, demanding a place at the table when women were excluded from early professional guilds, mentoring many female screenwriters and actresses, decrying the limited roles available for women onscreen, and protesting the growing climate of hostility towards female directors in the 1920s. One of the first celebrity filmmakers, Weber used her renown as “The Greatest Woman Director,” to model female leadership in the fledgling movie business, to foster connections with female professionals and activist clubwomen outside the industry, and to embody an ideal of equality between men and women in the workplace.

Unjustly marginalized in film history, Weber remains a landmark figure, not only for the pioneering role she played as the first woman admitted to the Motion Picture Directors’ Association, but for her enduring commitment to making popular films on compelling, topical issues.
Learn more about Lois Weber in Early Hollywood at Shelley Stamp's webpage and the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue