(June 13, 1879 – November 13, 1939)
“Lois Weber was the most successful of all the women directors in the first quarter of the 20th century and, at the time, was placed alongside the likes of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as the major innovative forces in filmmaking.”
With assistance from Beverly Atkins, great-grandniece of Lois Weber.
Her information is in italics.
Born Florence Lois Weber on June 13, 1879, in Allegheny City (annexed in 1907 officially as the North Side, Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, Lois Weber was the second daughter of George and Mary Matilda (née Snaman) Weber. George’s parents, Salesius Weber and Elizabeth Koch Weber arrived by 1854 from Germany.
George Weber was born 1 Jun 1855 in Pittsburgh. He married Mary Matilda Snaman. George was the second of five children of Salesius and Elizabeth Weber both from Germany and our immigrating parents here. He married Mary Matilda in 1876. He, his father and older brother, Philip, were upholsters, and for a time, George managed a carpet cleaning business. He became very ill the last 8 years of his life and was crippled. Their youngest daughter Ethel supported the family as a court reporter. He died on October 14, 1910, in O'Hara, Pennsylvania at the age of 55, and was buried in Pittsburgh next to his mother and father. His mother Elizabeth preceded his death by one year.
Mary Matelda Snaman was born in March 1854 in Allegany, PA. Her father, George, was 41 and her mother, Catherine, was 42. She was the 10th child. They had at least three children; my great grandmother, Elizabeth Snaman Weber Jay; Florence Lois Weber Smalley; and Mary Ethel Weber Howland. Per my grandmother, Marion Lois Jay, there was a son who died young, Herbert, who died about the age of 12, and a daughter, Lillian, who died as an infant. Mary Matilda survived her husband by 25 years. She delivered my great Aunt Dorothy Jay. She lived for a time in LA around the corner from Lois Weber for a time, but mostly lived in PA and FL. She died in 1935 in Miami, FL at the age of 81.
– Beverly Atkins
Lois had an older sister, Elizabeth Snaman Weber, born on April 9, 1877 and a younger sister Mary Ethel Weber, born on July 3, 1887.
My Great Grand Aunt Ethel Weber and her husband Lou Howland. Uncle Lou was an assistant director in LA and an only son from a well off RR Official out of Chicago. He married my Aunt Ethel who was an actress, scriptwriter and secretary for Aunt Lois in the silent era. They owned their home outright in LA and they traveled abroad.
– Beverly Atkins
The Weber family was made up of skilled craftsmen in the trade of furniture makers and upholsters.
George Weber, was an upholsterer and decorator at the Pittsburgh Opera House and his daughter Lois’s upbringing emphasized the arts; she had a love for singing in the choir. At the young age of 17 she joined a (church army) group that toured the city’s Tenderloin District with a street organ and hymnal to help change lives. The experience dramatically affected her as her later work reflected. Although her religious background is not known, Weber saw filmmaking as a mission to help people. It was her objective to improve the lives of both the audience and those working in her profession that drove Weber’s directing career.
Weber started on the stage as a concert pianist and light opera singer. At one point when her father grew ill, she had to come home to help out the family. She offered to sing in her church choir, but was refused by the deacons because she had appeared on stage and was now disreputable. On her return to New York City, Weber atoned by doing charity work at missions and entertaining at hospitals, prisons, and military barracks.
In 1903, she was touring through the south when a piano key came off. “I kept forgetting that the key was not there, and reaching for it. The incident broke my nerve. I could not finish and I never appeared on the concert stage again. It is my belief that when that key came off in my hand, a certain phase of my development came to an end.”
In 1904, Weber tried her hand at acting and was appearing in Why Girls Leave Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where she met her husband, Phillips Smalley. She was twenty-four and he was thirty-six. By his memory, he asked her to marry him the next day but the marriage took place four months later at her uncle David Weber’s home in Chicago on April 29, 1904.
Lois Weber gave up the stage while Smalley continued as an actor and producer, traveling with the same theater company where the young couple had met. Unaccustomed to sitting idle, Weber soon began a new career writing and directing scenarios in New Jersey for American Gaumont Chronophones, operated by French filmmaker Alice Guy. Weber started directing phonoscènes — talking films — and was later joined by Smalley.
In 1908, she fully entered the film world with her first production, Mum’s the Word. As film historian Shelley Stamp in her Lois Weber in Early Hollywood quotes her, “I grew up in a business when everybody was so busy learning their particular branch of the new industry, that no one had time to notice whether or not a woman was gaining a foothold.”
Beginning in 1910, Weber and Smalley worked with many film production companies, including: Reliance Motion Picture Company, New York Motion Picture Company, and Crystal Film Company. Weber and Smalley stayed for a longer duration at Rex in New York City, the production company started by the former Edison cinematographer and director, Edwin S. Porter. It was there they first received praise for their work and also learned from Porter an artisanal filmmaking style which included involvement in the entire production — from the script to the shooting and editing, even to the developing of the negatives and the tinting. (This became their practice over the course of their film careers, even though the studio system was developing as early as 1920.)
Lois and Phillips had a daughter born on October 29th of that year. According to her great-grandniece Beverly Atkins, “Lois was very close to her older sister Elizabeth (Bessie) Weber Jay. “Elizabeth’s first child and my grandmother, is Marion Lois Jay. When Bessie’s first son was born, she named him William Smalley Jay. And when Lois’ first child was born, she named her Phoebe Jay Smalley. I find it interesting they inserted the married name of their sibling as a middle name of their first child. A sweet sentiment.” She suspects that they were godparents for each other’s child. Tragically, the happiness did not last long for the Smalleys as their daughter died in infancy. They had no other children.
In 1912, The Smalleys were put in charge of the Rex brand. Weber wrote one scenario a week, directing many of them as well. In February of 1913, a Universal company, Variety, was formed. This creation of Variety was Universal’s way of acknowledging that Weber was important to the film world. Weber and Smalley were now allowed a longer period of time to work on projects and were even assigned a second director to help.
Weber used film to express her own ideas and philosophies, including her concerns for humanity and social justice. Often compared to D.W. Griffith, the “Inventor of Hollywood,” Weber was one of the first few genuine auteurs, a filmmaker involved in all aspects of production. Anthony Slide’s book, Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History, includes a “teaser” article that articulates what type of artist Lois Weber really was:
Weber writes her own photoplays, puts them in story form, chooses and contracts her own players, operates a Bell-Howell camera on many of her own scenes, and plans her own lighting effects. Sometimes she shoots with a still camera, plunges occasionally into chemicals in her developing laboratory, and writes her own titles, inserts, and prologues. Weber knows how to operate a film-printing machine, is her own film cutter, splicer and editor; plans her own publicity and advertising campaigns for her finished pictures. Weber is her own business manager and signs all checks."
Weber worked at almost every job in the film world. Few men, before or since, have had as much control, or even dared to assume all of those responsibilities.
In an interview, Weber stated, “In moving pictures I have found my life’s work. I find at once an outlet for my emotions and my ideals. I can preach to my heart’s content, and with the opportunity to write the play, act the leading role, and direct the entire production, if my message fails to reach someone, I can blame only myself.” In 1913 Weber described her use of film’s “voiceless language” to “carry out the idea of missionary pictures.”
Weber has been credited for a number of technological breakthroughs, including pioneering for the split screen technique to show simultaneous action, first featured in her 1913 film, Suspense. Weber was also the first woman elected to the Motion Pictures Directors Association. Weber was known to help budding actresses and to foster the career of other women at Universal. In her later years, Weber was one of the first in pioneering the notion to use film as an audiovisual aid in schools by creating films specifically for education.
After spending some time with Bosworth Company in 1914, Weber and Smalley went back to Universal in 1915, with the promise of being allowed to make feature-length films. In 1916, Weber made 10 feature-length films for release by Universal, nine of which she also wrote. Weber became Universal Studios’ highest-paid director. Under one contract she earned $5,000 a week, and a second contract awarded her $2,500 a week plus one third of the profits from her films. Universal also supported her efforts to fight the National Board of Censorship and other state censorship bodies.
In February 1916, Weber and Smalley were transferred to Universal’s Bluebird Photoplays brand, where they made a dozen features. The Weber-Smalley films were singled out for presentation under the most superior of the various brand names that Universal utilized to identify its features.
Finally in 1917, Weber created her own, independent film company, Lois Weber Productions, in order to be able to have even greater creative control. She focused more on intimate stories about marriage and domesticity and concentrated on the lives and experiences of women, especially working-class women.
To escape the feeling that she was mass producing films — something she felt while working for other production companies — she branched out and shot on location (as opposed to shooting on set) as much as possible, and experimented with different techniques and styles.
In 1922, Weber’s output slowed at the same time her marriage to Phillip Smalley ended. She lost her distribution contract with Paramount because of her controversial films and F.B. Warren, her next distributor, was quickly priced out of the market by studio conglomerates then rushing to buy up theater chains and control the market. It was about that time that she started having problems with gastric ulcers.
Weber re-marriage four years later to Captain Harry Gantz who also proved devastating as he strayed, took most of her fortune, and left her depressed, ill and alone. However, Weber still continued to produce work, creating five features over the decade, while Smalley never again worked in any creative filmmaking capacity other than acting — and even at that, did not get much work.
It can also be speculated that Weber’s films about social problems and the complexities of marriage were not a mix for the high-flying jazz age. Like D.W. Griffith, their out-of-fashion morality might have led to their decline in production.
Her last work was White Heat (1934), which was her only sound picture and shot on location in Hawaii.
In November 1939, Lois Weber was admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital in critical condition from a gastric hemorrhage. The family now considers that it was Crohn’s disease that afflicted her for years. Almost two weeks later, she died on November 13, 1939.
Beverly Atkins, great-grandniece of Lois Weber with Lois’ grandparents.
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