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When the Highest Paid Hollywood Director Was a Woman

You might never have heard the name of prolific film director Lois Weber. She got in on the ground floor of cinema before the studio system and investors solidified the ground rules, and therefore made her own rules. Weber ran her own film studio that produced 153 films, and by the 1930s, she was making $17,000 a week. She also brought a number of other women into cinema as both actresses and filmmakers.   

Weber’s films are primarily domestic dramas, stories about family ecosystems and the financial and emotional obligations that bind people together. Behind these narratives are the social and political issues that divided Weber’s audience: abortion, drug addiction, capital punishment, prostitution, anti-Semitism and birth control. emboldened by a medium without traditions or conventions, Weber saw no reason why film should aim to merely amuse when it was possible to change the world.

Weber was called a “propagandist,” but she resisted the word. Propaganda, she said, was too simpleminded. A man would shift his thinking on birth control, for instance, not because Weber advised it, but because he came to feel obligated to remedy the distress of a specific young woman who worked as a laundress and wore her hair pinned at the nape of her neck. Weber understood social change to be the sum of tenderness meted out to individuals. Her films were a concerted experiment to coax this tenderness from viewers reluctant to extend it.

Weber's obscurity today lies in the fact that her films were silent, and only 16 of her movies survive today. In addition, while she sold a lot of tickets, her films spoke to women, and film critics and journalists (who were men) didn't understand. For example, her dedication to realistic details and focusing on repeating motifs as analogies was seen as overblown and unnecessary until a couple of decades later when a male filmmaker did the same and was lauded as a genius. Read about Lois Weber's groundbreaking movies at Lithub.  -via Digg

Some of Weber's work is on YouTube, mostly in short clips, but Where Are My Children (about birth control) and The Hypocrites (which is detailed in the article) have been uploaded in their entirety.


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The article describes the circumstances thusly: Weber’s career spanned a historical shift that since has been termed Hollywood’s “masculinization.” The conditions that favored women gave way to conditions that disfavored women. Studio employment became more stratified and networks of small independent studios merged into large conglomerates. The heterogeneity of early experiments solidified into the patterns of a “Hollywood film.” The cost of making a typical movie quadrupled after 1915, and gambling with high financial stakes didn’t seem suitable for women. Neither was women’s moralizing influence still necessary. By 1928, 65 million Americans, half the country’s population, were going to the movies every week. Universal went from eleven women directors to zero, and stayed that way for sixty years. When Weber told young women “don’t try it,” her intention, writes historian Shelley Stamp, was to save women the anguish of trying to succeed in a system that guaranteed their failure. .. The [Hays] code forbade subjects like drug trafficking and prostitution, and prohibited actresses from appearing in “compromising situations,” which effectively excluded women from both serious and comedic roles. ... She was often described in terms that stressed her deviance from the norm, as the only woman with stamina and brains enough for directing. ... It was a backhanded compliment: emphasizing Weber’s gender worked in tandem with designating her films the equivalent of chick flicks. Her audience was demarcated in smaller strokes, as when a new release was reviewed as suitable for “matinee children and women.”
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