The Exception Restoring Lois Weber

By Sasha Archibald

The director Lois Weber had a habit of signing her films, such that several end with a title card in florid script, “Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber.” The obvious analogue is a letter; in this case a letter misplaced for a very long time. Weber was a master of silent film, and for a time she was the highest-paid director in Hollywood. The only woman admitted to the Motion Pictures Directors Association, she was also the only female director among the 250 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Her notoriety, credentials and budgets rivaled those of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Yet while the birth of cinema can’t be discussed without reference to these names, Weber’s remains largely unknown. Film historian Richard Koszarski wrote in 1975 that she had been “forgotten with a vengeance,” as if the forgetting were aggressive, even calculated. Strategic forgetting is one of the most Machiavellian tactics of the dominant culture: in response to it, the task becomes not only to reanimate the dead but to puzzle out the motives and mechanics of their effacement.

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.

Trade publications and industry transactions establish that in early Hollywood Weber had great clout and a reputation for “intellectual athleticism.” But only a fraction of the output responsible for her stature survives. Of the 153 films she wrote and directed between 1913 and 1934, just sixteen have not crumbled to dust or disappeared, and they are scattered in archives from Tokyo to Wisconsin. I have managed to see eight. Some are short, like Suspense (1913), about a woman home with her baby when a burglar breaks into the house. Another, The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), starring ballerina Anna Pavlova, was the result of a studio assignment, and is stylistically unlike the other seven. Eight films could hardly be considered a strong sample size, and prudence checks the impulse to celebrate. Yet it’s enough to be convinced that Weber made a kind of film—principled, homely, honest—that was antithetical to what Hollywood has come to represent.

Weber’s 1916 film The Hypocrites, rereleased in November 2018 as part of Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” collection, made her a household name. It begins as an allegory. A priest sequestered at a medieval monastery is so ardently devoted to God that it irks his fellow priests. He is working intensely on something secret, which he plans to unveil at a grand fête. The camera pans slowly over gathering crowds, representatives of the Family, the Trades, the Monarchy, the Politicians, etc., all chattering in anticipation. A sheet falls away to reveal the priest’s creation: a life-size statue emblazoned at the base with the title “Naked Truth.” Naked Truth is in fact exactly what her name suggests—a naked woman standing on a pedestal.

“The people are shocked by the nakedness of truth,” states Weber’s intertitle. Some snicker and some hide their eyes, others pantomime dismay. The sculpture is quickly re-covered, the priest attacked by a mob. Stabbed in the heart, he dies as Weber cuts to the typewritten script of a sermon. A contemporary priest, played by the same actor, preaches to his congregation about hypocrisy. His parishioners yawn and glare and murmur about having him dismissed. Dejected, the priest dozes off after the service, returning in his dream to a search for Naked Truth. She is secluded on a mountaintop, but the parishioners refuse to follow the priest there. The trail is steep and their clothing unsuitable; one man is carrying bags of gold and refuses to set them down.

When the priest, alone, reaches the summit, he entreats Naked Truth to come to his parish. She consents, and the two begin making visitations. Naked Truth carries a mirror, which after each meeting cleverly reveals the hidden truth of the encounter. A politician stumps with a sign, “My Platform Is Honesty,” but the mirror shows him receiving bribes. A man sweetly romances his date, but the mirror reveals his other life as a philanderer and gambler.

Naked Truth is a coquettish phantom. Superimposed on the scene via double exposure, she holds her forearm to her breast to gently hide her nipples. It is sometimes claimed that the actress wore a flesh-colored leotard, but the defined nubs of her backbone—which cloth would have muted—say otherwise. The film ends with one final scene of hypocrisy. The evening after his sermon, the contemporary priest suddenly dies. He is found slumped in a chair at the chapel, clutching a newspaper confiscated from a choirboy. His hostile congregation uses the newspaper to besmirch his reputation. (Reading the Sunday paper broke the Sabbath.) “After preaching a sermon on Hypocrisy,” a local paper reports, “it was unfortunate that he should be found with a Sunday newspaper in his hand. The congregation was much shocked.”

In terms of career strategy, Hypocrites comes off like an arcane chess opening. Weber combines scenes guaranteed to attract censors with a narrative that insults their intentions. I imagine her with a gleam in her eye, wielding the title as a dare. If a painter or sculptor could use full-frontal female nudity for high-minded purposes, so would she.

Weber professed annoyance when the film did face censorship, indignantly arguing that the nudity was “too delicately carried through” to be anything besides “a moral force.” The debut was delayed, and Hypocrites was ultimately banned in Chicago, Minneapolis and the state of Ohio. The police in San Jose seized prints, but a court decision eventually allowed them to be screened; in Tacoma, the police captain took a private viewing and declared it acceptable. In Boston, authorities protested they would not allow the film to be screened unless clothes were drawn on Naked Truth frame by frame. Most viewers, though not all, seemed to agree with Weber, and despite the scuffles Hypocrites sold out theaters across the nation. There were extended runs and return bookings. In New York City, the most expensive tickets moved most quickly, suggesting that Weber had attracted the upper-class audience that was early cinema’s holy grail. Hypocrites broke records for highest-grossing film in Los Angeles, Detroit and New Orleans; the year it was released it was reputed to be the “most productive money-getting box-office attraction ever shown in the South.”

Cinema was originally thought to have a special relationship with femininity, and women thrived in the industry’s early days. “In no line of endeavor has woman made so emphatic an impression than in the amazing film industry,” noted a journalist in 1915. Studios prized “female” dexterity for the nimble-fingered work of coloring, gluing, splicing, polishing and editing. In addition, their reputed emotional intuition was often considered a boon for screenwriting and directing.

It’s estimated that women wrote at least half of all silent films, while narrative film—film that tells a made-up story—is arguably the invention of Alice Guy-Blaché. Bored by the Lumière Brothers’ footage of workers leaving a factory, she made La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages) in 1896. There are actors, costumes, props, sets and a whimsical story; in the surviving clip, newborn babies emerge from giant heads of cabbage with the help of a fairy-midwife. The birth metaphor seems deliberate; the first narrative film may also be the first film about film. Between 1918 and 1922 there were upwards of twenty production companies with women at the helm. At the behemoth that was Universal, eleven women directed an estimated 170 films between 1912 and 1919. Women in film earned some of the highest salaries of any women, in any field, in the world.

Women were also symbolically useful as totem gatekeepers of middle-class legitimacy. Considered the weaker sex, but also the more virtuous, they lent their supposed moral superiority to a business with a rough-and-tumble reputation. Hollywood welcomed them. An industry staffed with women like Weber—white, educated, married, Christian—assured middle- and upper-class audiences that cinema was good clean fun. On Hollywood’s path from sketchy nickelodeon theaters to grand cinema palaces, it was women who played the ushers.

The name Weber was associated with religion in Pennsylvania long before Lois was born in 1879, outside Pittsburgh in the town of Allegheny. Her father was an upholsterer, but her grandfather and great-grandfather were preachers, and another relative had established the city’s first church in 1782. After a brief stint as a concert pianist, Weber began volunteering with the Church Army Workers, a group very much like the Salvation Army, where she proselytized and sang hymns on street corners. (The Church Army still exists; it was recently headed by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu.) As part of the work, she visited brothels, offering prostitutes jobs with the organization. She spent one Christmas with thirteen women she’d enticed to leave sex work, and found it a very satisfying holiday.

Weber turned to filmmaking after her father died, as a means to help support the family. She represented the career shift not as a rupture but as a continuation of her religious work, insisting that her films were an elaborate form of proselytizing. “In moving pictures,” she said, “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.”

Weber understood preaching to be an elastic term, one with little relationship to an actual pulpit. The Church Army, like the Salvation Army, embraced unorthodox forms of proselytizing. Services were held in public parks to attract working-class passersby, and converted former criminals often served a special role in exhorting crowds. Both groups were better known for their service than their doctrines. During World War I, the Salvation Army became famous for their “doughnut lassies,” women who fried doughnuts for soldiers in combat helmets. The organization’s unofficial motto was “First, soup; second, soap; and finally, salvation.” Like doughnuts or a warm bath, film seemed to Weber a tool in the conversion toolbox.

Weber wasn’t the only woman to envision an evangelism informed by cinema. Long before megachurches, the twenties and thirties preacher Aimee Semple McPherson mesmerized crowds at the largest auditoriums in Los Angeles. Known as Sister Aimee, she performed miracles under colored spotlights while seated on a throne of roses. Her sermons were accompanied by brass bands and her velvet robes trailed the stage. (“I sat under Aimee yesterday, and had 2 1/2 spells of tumescence,” confessed H. L. Mencken to a friend. “Her Sex Appeal is tremendous.” His profile of Sister Aimee for the Baltimore Evening Sun was less forthright.) Sister Aimee grew up in a Protestant religious family much like Weber’s. As a teenager she began exploring other churches; she was especially attracted to the performative aspects of conversion at Pentecostal revivals, and earned an early reputation for the way in which the spirit of God left her convulsing on the ground.

Sister Aimee advised her followers not to go to movies but was herself a master of costume and staging. She occasionally preached in a police uniform, incorporating skits and props into her sermons. She took the stage by running, often with bouquets in her arms. The effect was full-blown spectacle, which Sister Aimee appealingly tempered with humility: “I’m just a little woman, God’s handmaiden, the least of all saints,” she liked to say. The crowds went wild.

Weber likely would have judged Aimee’s doctrine as too fast and loose, but she might have appreciated her populist touch. The new evangelism offered both women opportunities to hold crowds in the palm of their hand, and to do good works even as they earned fortunes.

In spring of 2018, the saviors of almost-lost cinema at Milestone Films released Weber’s 1916 production Shoes on DVD. The film had been unseen and practically unknown for nearly a century, but following a revival screening late last year, the New York Times critic Manohla Dargis deemed it “brilliant.” Weber’s inspiration for the film had been a report by Jane Addams about how easily shop girls fell into prostitution. Shoes begins with a subtitle—“She sold herself for a pair of shoes”—and then backtracks through the chain of events that led Eva, the young protagonist, to exchange sex for footwear. It’s a Pretty Woman story turned inside out.

Eva works long hours in a five-and-dime store, and her job is the sole support of her father, mother and three younger sisters. Her wages go straight into a pouch pinned to her mother’s bra. Week after week, her mother promises there’ll be enough money to buy Eva a new pair of shoes, but there never is.

The particulars of Weber’s plot are drawn from the report. At that time, according to Addams, shop girls made about $6,000 a year, barely a living wage, while prostitutes earned more than four times that amount. Activists argued that stores cultivated a desire for luxury goods far beyond the means of working girls, whose ten-hour days behind the counter left them standing prey for would-be pimps. It was apparently easy to slide into lunch-hour prostitution, and Weber was horrified that so many young women did.

Shoes doesn’t stray far from its title; Weber attends almost obsessively to Eva’s disintegrating boots. The camera addresses them as a character, lingering over their poignant creases, and following along as they walk gingerly in the rain, stand on rough wood floors or sit abjectly next to Eva’s chair. Every morning, Eva traces and cuts out inserts from cardboard to protect her soles; in the evening, she shakes out these fragments, now dirty and crumbled, and soaks her feet in steaming water. Her hope for redemption seems to hinge on the state of her footwear; if Weber can convey how tattered the boots and sore the feet, we will forgive Eva her prostitution. At the end of the film, passed over by her mother one more time, Eva finds her own solution. She comes home one day wearing a gleaming pair of boots, and tearfully collapses in her mother’s lap.

Footwear is important in many Weber films, to such a degree that her biographer Anthony Slide puzzles over her “fetish.” Fetish is not the right word, but Weber does treat footwear with special care, as another director might treat a locket, or cigarettes, or a cross. Shoes seemed to have been part of her personal symbology, a shortcut to a feeling of loss. She was furious when censors removed a shot of a dead baby’s shoes from Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916). The film is about a mother so devastated by the death of her child that she becomes addicted to opium. Her husband, a customs inspector, is responsible for confiscating opium shipments from China; one day, he finds his wife huddled among the addicts in an opium den. The shot of the baby shoes was pivotal, Weber argued, to establishing the mother’s suffering and furnishing an explanation for her addiction, but this was precisely the censor’s problem: Weber was treating addiction not as a failure of self-control, but as a consequence of grief.

The state of the shoes in Shoes seems to refer to the loss of Eva’s virginity, but there’s also a more basic reading: Weber is outraged that a functional necessity has become too expensive for a working girl’s income. Another Weber film juxtaposes the poverty of a theologian’s family with their neighbors’ wealth. Weber treats the neighbors with disdain, taking pains to show the ostentation of their car and the excess of their meals. It’s no surprise when she explains that they got rich by selling shoes, priced, she reports, at “$18 a pair!”

Critics treated Weber’s attention to detail as a feminine quirk. They would marvel at her dedication to representing the texture of real life, but it was a cursory wonder, the kind that emphasizes the hours spent. Her approach was sometimes used to imply that she was a filmmaker of small ambition: “obsessed with little things”; her films “infected with the disease of detail.” A review of The Blot (1921) likewise accused Weber of smothering her subject matter “under a mass of plausible but unnecessary detail,” while another sniffed that there was something improper in Weber’s fixation on domestic life, akin to airing dirty laundry. “Many of the scenes are exceedingly painful,” this critic wrote, “and a few seem to invade the privacy of domestic life with unnecessary frankness.”

It is true that affection for domestic objects is Weber’s hallmark. Her films usually take place in homes, with many scenes set in the kitchen. She lingers on frayed rugs, buttons, wooden stools and tea service. Mushrooms are served in folded-parchment paper packets, and potatoes spooned onto chipped enamel plates. Her pacing is slow enough that the mood of a room registers as a presence. A critic observed in 1919, “When [Weber] shows a boudoir scene it is not an accumulation of papier-mâché props … she pictures the place as it actually is.”

Weber liked to call her independent studio—so unlike any other in Hollywood—“My Old Homestead.” It was situated in a Southern-style mansion on Santa Monica Boulevard near Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. Studios were moving to lots during the late Teens and early Twenties, but Weber insisted on shooting domestic scenes in actual domestic interiors, with the assistance of enormous portable batteries and special lights. A visitor to Lois Weber Productions remembered it as a studio like no other, outfitted with rockers, pillows and wide couches. There was a tennis court for staff, and the surrounding acres were landscaped with lemon and loquat trees, jasmine shrubs, and birds of paradise. “Nothing suggests business,” noted the visitor with pleasure. Weber’s habit was to keep the front door ajar.

Helped by the critic André Bazin, cinematic realism would eventually acquire a respected reputation. Writing in 1948, Bazin praised the Italian neorealists of the 1940s for their “revolutionary humanism.” “They never forget that the world is,” he wrote admiringly. Films with a documentary quality—“a perfect and natural adherence to actuality”—left Bazin refreshed, feeling the “urge to change the order of things.” Realism became a celebrated aesthetic, and even a political mode of filmmaking.

Bazin, however, was too late for Weber. He never referred to her work, as much of it had already been long forgotten. As for Weber’s contemporary critics, they noticed her fidelity to domestic detail, but failed to connect it to her true-to-life characters and their true-to-life dilemmas. Insightful criticism might have provided Weber with support and cover for a still more ambitious cinematic vision; without it, she simply insisted that she made the kind of films that people wanted to see: “The time can’t be far off,” she predicted, “when the man or woman who comes to a picture is going to look about and realize that no such perfect creature as the time-honored hero exists either on this earth below or the heaven above. And they are going to even more willingly pay their nickels and their dimes to see a flesh-and-blood person whom they can recognize out of their own experience.” Her forecast turned out wrong; Weber and Hollywood were parting ways.

Weber’s obituary remembered her not as a director, but as “Lois Weber, Movie Star-Maker.” By the end of her life, her reputation as a talent scout had eclipsed her work as a filmmaker. She truly did help many women, and some men, to stardom—Mary MacLaren, Lenore Coffee, Marion Orth, Jeanie Macpherson, John Ford, Henry Hathaway—but she was not a “star finder” in the conventional sense. By dint of time and energy, she nurtured a system of patronage that brought women into the industry and moved them up the ranks. The invisible gears behind career advancement are mentor relationships, as people in power help their likenesses ascend. Rarely do these networks favor women, and even more rarely does a woman become powerful enough to anchor her own. Weber did.

On Friday nights she often had drinks with Hollywood’s female elites. These soirées—the press called them “hen parties”—took place at Frances Marion’s house. Marion was a prolific screenwriter who transitioned from silents to sound without a bump and saw well over one hundred of her screenplays produced. In the Thirties, she was making some $17,000 per week. Screenwriters were writers for hire, paid by the week or day, and rarely informed of the destiny of their work. Marion, on the other hand, was allowed to shepherd her projects through production and often presided on set. Her first job, however, was as a jack-of-all-trades for Lois Weber. When the two women met, Weber told Marion, “I have a broad wing, would you like to come under its protection?”

Marion was one of many women under Weber’s wing. Weber helped found the Girls’ Studio Club, also known as the Home of Young Ladies Who Make Moving Pictures in Hollywood, where she served on the board, gave talks and arranged tours. In 1918, she realized how frequently female extras were exploited on the casting couch and began advocating unionization. (It was a forward-thinking cause; the Screen Extras Guild wasn’t chartered until 1946.) She served on the advisory board of a correspondence school for aspiring screenwriters whose student body was overwhelmingly female, and took a protective interest in the flood of naïve young women arriving daily to look for movie work in Los Angeles. In 1913, well before women’s suffrage, she served for a year as mayor of Universal City. When she occasionally purchased screenplays, she bought from women writers, and when she adapted material from newspapers and magazines, the journalists were women as well. She endlessly hosted lunches and dinners in recognition of other women’s accomplishments.

When Weber is called a “star finder,” the story often cited is her discovery of Claire Windsor. The tale goes like this: Weber’s lead for her first film with Paramount fell through at the last minute, and in an effort to avoid production delays she cast about for a replacement on the Paramount campus. Ola Cronk, spotted in line at the cafeteria, seemed promising. Cronk was 27, a single mother, and had no acting experience. She’d decided to go to Hollywood after being named “empress” of an Orientalist festival in Seattle called Jappyland, and was working as an extra. Weber changed Ola’s name to Claire Windsor, which vaguely exuded British silk stocking, and invented a sympathetic backstory of an opera career. She orchestrated sightings of Windsor with the most eligible bachelor in town, Charlie Chaplin, and may have had a hand in a media coup that involved faking Windsor’s disappearance and near-death rescue in the Hollywood Hills. (“Lost Starlet!” screamed newspaper headlines.) All this happened during the eighteen months that Weber and Windsor made five films together; by 1922, the transformation was complete. Windsor was a bona fide star.

An alternate telling of Windsor’s stardom would emphasize the films that she and Weber made together. All were domestic dramas that focused on marriage. The action is psychological, tracing the shifting perspectives of female characters. In What’s Worth While? (1921), for instance, Windsor plays a wife who is embarrassed by her husband’s rough ways. He travels abroad and acquires some culture, but when he returns she is dismayed to realize that she liked him better before. In another film, Windsor plays a young woman so determined to be the perfect wife that her obsessive housekeeping leaves her husband lonely.

The plots are subtle, the stakes modest and the actresses’ roles meaty. Perhaps the key to Windsor’s success was not Weber’s bionic ability to pick out a starlet in the cafeteria line, but to hold her actresses to high expectations. It’s said that when a woman caught Weber’s eye, she wouldn’t ask, “Are you an actress?” but rather, “Are you looking for work?” The women she worked with remained devoted; she seems to have been the best kind of boss.

There is a reason this starlet story has eclipsed the substance of Windsor’s work with Weber. While women reviewers heaped praise on the marriage films, men did the opposite. The reviews were so obviously gendered that Weber incorporated the dissonance into a special advertising campaign, setting quotes by male and female critics side by side. It was a way of winking at her audience: I’m making films about relationships. Men don’t like them, but you will.

Weber’s mentoring, her lucrative contracts, her brilliant career all reversed course in the early Twenties. In an interview in 1927, the lodestar of women in Hollywood had changed her tune. “Don’t try it!” she ominously advised. “You’ll never get away with it.”

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 diminishment of Weber’s career began when Paramount refused to release What Do Men Want? in 1921. The film is about a woman made pregnant by her lover; when he refuses to support her and the unborn child, she commits suicide. The story line was provocative enough, but there were also scenes that directly addressed sexism. A man ogles a woman on the street, and Weber uses double exposures—the same technique as in Hypocrites—to show him mentally undressing the woman, one piece of clothing at a time. (When her producer judged this “lewd,” she replied, “But men do it … I have seen them do it numberless times!”) In another scene, a paramour graphically describes his “system” for entrapping woman. When Paramount took a pass on What Do Men Want? Weber was upset but not altogether surprised. Riffing on the title, she told an interviewer, “What men want is flattery. What they need is to be told the truth about themselves.”

Paramount’s pass anticipated larger changes afoot. Hollywood was beginning to fret about the possibility of federal censorship, electing in 1930 to preempt government regulation with the self-imposed Hays Code. (The 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.) The Hays Code wasn’t formalized until 1934, but even in the early Twenties, content began to trend lighter; Weber spoke of cinema becoming “frothy.” One of the most popular films of 1921 was Passion, starring Pola Negri. Based on the life of Louis XV’s mistress, Madame DuBarry, the film shows the smoldering Negri as a seductress who so enjoys her amorous games that she cries out at her execution: “One moment more! Life is so sweet!” The theme of Passion—emancipation through pleasure—was suited to the 1920s flapper, who blithely cast off the mantle of moral authority that Weber had so sincerely worn.

Weber didn’t instantly lose her standing, but it became increasingly precarious. She was often described in terms that stressed her deviance from the norm, as the only woman with stamina and brains enough for directing. “Lois Weber is an exception,” said Cecil B. DeMille. “Most other women would crumple under the strain.” 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.” Sometimes the criticism leveled at Weber was only thinly veiled misogyny, as in complaints about “dull-brained weeping women” and their “stupid infatuations.”

Sometime in the mid-Twenties, Weber is said to have spent three years barricaded in her house, trying to starve herself to death. She might have been mourning her career, or her recent divorce, or both; a gossipy Hollywood columnist who seems to have spoken with her said, “She lost faith in herself, and so she lost interest in herself.” I remembered that a character in one of Weber’s films also goes on a hunger strike. I couldn’t recall which, but then I found it: The Hand That Rocked the Cradle, based on Margaret Sanger’s life, from 1917. The film’s original title was “Is a Woman a Person?” As if daring the audience to answer the question, Weber ends the film with a pointed intertitle: “What do you think?”

When Weber died of a bleeding ulcer in 1939, she left behind an unpublished autobiography, The End of the Circle, and the few 35-mm prints she’d retained of her work. Her sister donated the prints to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; the manuscript, she reported later, was stolen. The Academy ignored the reels until the Seventies, at which point it was discovered that five of the original eight films had disintegrated. Disintegration of a nitrate film begins with the gelatin base turning amber and brittle, and then sticky. Eventually, the silver image corrodes and the reels smell like dirty laundry. If no one intervenes, the film crumbles into a toxic brown powder.

Weber’s oeuvre is not exceptional in this respect. Frank Thompson’s book, Lost Films, argues that between 80 and 90 percent of films made before 1930 are permanently missing. Cinephiles have long mourned Orson Welles’s original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons and recoiled at the French Army melting four hundred of Georges Méliès’ prints for silver and celluloid. But if the legacy of Welles and Méliès has survived these losses, even been reinforced by them, Weber’s remains uncertain.

In 2008, there were just two copies of Shoes in existence, both nitrate prints stored in a North Holland bunker owned by the EYE Film Institute Netherlands. Bacteria had eaten away at so much of the film emulsion that the image flickered with white dots, rendering some scenes illegible. Digital restoration would have been impossible except that in the Thirties Universal had used Shoes to cut a new film, a comedic parody titled Unshod Maiden. Universal edited Weber’s footage to a quicker tempo and gave it a flippant voice-over. “She needed new booties for her tootsies,” the remake begins. To Weber, Unshod Maiden must have felt like a slap in the face, but a hundred years later it proved a gift. A copy at the Library of Congress was in good enough condition for EYE’s archivists to splice in scenes and mend the original film. Shoes survived only because it was mocked. Milestone Films includes Unshod Maiden on the Shoes DVD, and rightly so; it exposes the vengeance behind the forgetting.

In thinking about Weber, I’ve returned a dozen times to one critic writing in response to Shoes. He agrees with the critical consensus that the film’s realism is excessive, but unlike other reviewers, he references two particular scenes: “Miss Weber has gone a step too far,” he writes, “in showing a close-up of [Eva] extracting splinters from the sole of her foot. She has gone too far in showing the girl scraping mud from her feet with a pair of scissors. There is such a thing as being too realistic.” The particular offense of extracting a sliver and scraping mud is obscure to me, though the critic seems to think it obvious. My reaction was the opposite. I was spellbound by Eva’s clumsy way with the scissors, and grateful that Weber had reminded me how mud is both labile and stubborn. Perhaps the critic was turned off by the smallness of the gestures, or their link with poverty and dirt, or their corporeality, but these were precisely the associations that spoke to me. Bazin once argued that characters who seem “overwhelmingly real” are difficult to ignore because of such moments, moments that ask viewers to “leap the hurdle of their humanity.” Indeed, I found myself yoked to Eva, weighted by the shame of her poverty and the shame of her solution. Lois Weber’s proselytizing, I realized, had made me a convert.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This essay appears in issue 18 of The Point.
To get this issue delivered straight to your
mailbox, subscribe or order today.

The Point is a magazine founded on
the suspicion that modern life is worth examining.