Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

She was an American Cinema Pioneer

Premiere: 4/29/2020 | 00:12:12 |

Lois Weber was an early film pioneer as the first American woman to direct a full-length feature film in 1913, and one of the first directors to own her own film studio. Infused with the conviction that film could change culture, she directed over 135 films about controversial subject matters such as capital punishment, police violence, birth control, and poverty.

About the Episode

Lois Weber (1879-1939), born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, began her career in entertainment touring the U.S. as a singer and concert pianist, after working with the Church Army, ministering to prostitutes and prisoners. In 1908, she was hired by American Gaumont, where she first acted in, and later directed, silent films at a studio in Flushing, New York. Weber wrote film scripts, designed sets and costumes, developed negatives, and edited films. In collaboration with her first husband, actor Phillips Smalley, Weber was one of the first film directors to experiment with sound, and was the first American woman to direct a full-length feature film, The Merchant of Venice, in 1913. In 1917, she became one of the first women to own her own film studio, and the first and only female member of the Motion Pictures Directors Association. Infused with the conviction that film could change culture, she directed over 135 films about controversial subject matters such as capital punishment, police violence, birth control, and poverty.

Interviewees: biographer Shelley Stamp, Assistant Professor of Film and Digital Media at the University of California-Santa Cruz and author of Lois Weber in Early Hollywood; and playwright and director Radha Blank, who won the 2020 Best Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

To learn more about Lois Weber, visit PBSLearningMedia’s resource here.


She really is a film pioneer.

Her legacy is that the most powerful filmmaker in Hollywood was a woman.

1908, Flushing, New York.

29-year-old Lois Weber was hired at Gaumont Studios to act in short films.

Gaumont was one of the premier French motion picture companies, and they started a branch in the U.S., American Gaumont, run by Herbert Blach and Alice Guy Blach . Under their mentorship, Weber soon expanded from acting to writing and directing her own films.

The very first films are incredibly brief- thirty seconds long, usually taken with a static camera. There is no sound.

But very quickly, it becomes understood as a vehicle for stories, as an entertainment medium.

'I grew up in a business when everybody was so busy learning a new industry, that no one had time to notice whether or not a woman was gaining a foothold.'

Lois Weber was born in 1879 near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to a middle-class Christian family of German descent.

Weber had a very devout upbringing. She worked with the Church Army, ministering to prostitutes and prisoners and people living in poverty.

She carried that mission of social justice with her into the film industry.

After touring the U.S. as a singer and concert pianist, Weber joined the theater in New York in 1904.

While Weber is acting on stage, she meets Phillips Smalley, a fellow actor and stage manager, and the two of them are married and work together.

Weber and Smalley were part of that redefining relationships between men and women, a new idea about 'companionate marriage,' where marriage is about equality and companionship.

'My husband gave me every encouragement and we worked in perfect harmony.

I was fortunate in being associated with broad-minded men.'

By 1911, Weber and Smally became a leading filmmaking team with Weber as the driving force behind their productions.

They wrote and acted and co-directed a ten-minute film every single week.

It's astonishing.

The fact that Lois made a film a week makes my spine shake, knowing what it takes to make a film, even a short film.

What a fierce visionary.

My name is Radha Blank and I am a film director.

I tried to be an actor, and when I wasn't getting cast in anything, I just decided to write my own one woman show. I was a playwright for 20 years.

I started writing for 'The Get Down' and then 'Empire' and 'She's Gotta Have It.' I just directed my first feature film called 'The 40-Year-Old Version,' of which I am the writer, director, producer and star.

And we premiered it at Sundance, where they were crazy enough to give me the best directing award.

And we made a little bit of black history because I am only the second black woman to win that award.

People have been conditioned to see filmmakers in one light and a lot of times it doesn't include someone who looks like me.

It's important that we support each other in these endeavors because we know, given the chance, how seriously we take it.

In 1912, Weber and Smalley moved to Los Angeles, California to work for the new Universal Films studio.

Early films were not made in studios, they were made outdoors.

And so they needed good weather.

So the film industry begins to center in and around Los Angeles.

And movie theaters in the early days were showing short 10 or 20-minute films, multiple times a day.

So they needed a lot of films to keep their audiences coming back.

In 1913, Weber was elected as the first mayor of Universal City.

She ran on an all-female ticket, shortly after women's suffrage was granted in California.

Women did not have the vote nationally, and this campaign was mocked in the press. Universal, to its credit, embraced female leadership and said, 'we have both beauty and brains.'

Weber's 1914 adaptation of Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' made her the first American woman to direct a feature length film.

Weber worked on every stage of her films.

She wrote the scripts, she acted in her productions, she directed, and she usually sat in the editing room.

A director who is in total control.

'I cannot be happy to direct someone else's story.

That would be only half a creation.'

Her films are full of really extraordinary compositions, sometimes using mirrors in the frame, multiple planes of action, moving cameras, split screen.

In the 1910s, Weber's films tackled controversial social issues of her day.

Many were huge box office hits. Others were censored and banned.

She made two films about the campaign to legalize birth control.

She made a film about capital punishment and police violence, drug addiction.

She made a film about poverty and women's wage equity . She compared her films to sermons and to a newspaper editorial, to spread her message of social justice on a very mass scale.

Virtually all of Weber's films feature female protagonists who take risks, who are the agents of social change.

'I think the young women of this country today want to be individuals and to have freedom of thought and action.

That is the kind of girl I am going to show in my story.'

She's also a very important mentor to and advocate for other women.

Almost all of her other collaborators, apart from her husband, are women.

In my first writing room, I was one of two women, so I couldn't just be a writer pitching ideas.

I had to be the black writer or the female writer.

To make the industry more representative, we have to have more people representative of our world in positions of power, from studio heads to development executives, to It starts with the leadership. If they are more inclusive and diverse, then more inclusive and diverse stories will get greenlit. I guarantee you.

A story that is forgotten today is that there were many women active in the early film industry.

The top screenwriters in the silent era were women.

Can you imagine a world in which the top screenwriters are women?

Weber became one of the first women to run her own movie studio when she founded Lois Weber Productions in 1917. She was also the first woman director admitted to both the Directors Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

She negotiates very lucrative distribution deals, first with Universal and then with Paramount, that make her the highest paid director in the industry.

'I have been fortunate in having my own little place in film land with few other directors even attempting to give the public my kind of story.'

But the opportunities that women had in the early years of filmmaking close off in the 1920s.

The film industry really embraces glamour and commodification of female bodies and female celebrities.

And so Weber's kind of filmmaking is out of step with the time.

Weber created a film for Paramount in 1921 titled 'What Do Men Want?'

It's about what we would now call toxic masculinity and about the connections between capitalism and the drive for profit.

Paramount refused to distribute the film.

'They said to me, 'It shows that a woman made this.' And I said to them, 'Yes, and it also shows that men are afraid to see themselves as they really are.' It is too bitter a pill.'

That's the beginning of the end of her production company.

Lois Weber Productions shut down in 1921.

Weber divorced her husband and retired from public life for two years.

Larger changes were afoot in the film industry.

Film becomes very profitable very fast, and a few studios start to take control of the industry.

They buy up the theater chains and control the market and that shuts out women.

'I am hampered with too many conditions. The producers select the stories, select the cast, tell you how much you can pay for a picture and how in. When they tell you that they also will cut your picture. That is too much.'

In 1927, Weber directed her last silent film, 'The Angel of Broadway.' Following the advent of sound technology, she directed her only talking picture, the interracial romance 'White Heat.' Released in 1934, it performed badly at the box office.

That last decade of her life, she becomes involved in the visual education movement to use films in schools and teaching.

'Ideas can be absorbed with more facility from motion picture screens than from books or lectures. My job now is to supplant the blackboard with the screen.'

Weber died in 1939 at the age of 60.

She was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

Of the nearly 200 films Lois Weber wrote and directed in her 30 year career, only a fraction remain.

Only 4% of Hollywood films were directed by women in the past decade.

That's not an acceptable number.

Clearly, there still is a fight on our hands, but the difference now is that the army of soldiers, 'cinema sisters,' as I call them, has grown exponentially to keep pushing things forward.

'I must continue to pioneer. So many women have done that in times gone by.'


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.