Anna Pavlova in The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) (Milestone)

Lois Weber’s Legacy Rises in These Troubled Times, As It Should

Silent films The Dumb Girl of Portici and Shoes reveal two sides of the early Hollywood director: the filmmaker who wanted to tell epic stories on a grand scale, and the social activist who wanted her films to spark discussion and prompt change.

Milestone Films

At 6518 Hollywood Boulevard there’s a star dedicated to Lois Weber, and it’s safe to say that a fair number of movie pilgrims may see it and wonder, “Who’s she?”

Only the first American woman to direct a feature film, is all. And the first American female director to mount a lavish, big-scale costumed epic that also happened to be the only film to feature legendary prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. What’s more, according to Ephraim Katz, author of The Film Encyclopedia, (7th ed., HarperCollins, 2010) —a comprehensive volume that’s as close to a bible as the industry has—Weber was also “the highest salaried woman director in the world” during the silent era.

Yet, as film scholar Shelley Stamp writes in her 2015 study, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood (University of California Press, 2015), though Weber was “considered one of the era’s ‘three great minds’ alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, her career has been marginalized or ignored in almost every study of silent cinema and Hollywood history, while her contemporaries have long enjoyed privileged positions as ‘fathers’ of American film. Of all the women active in the first decades of moviemaking, Weber produced the most sustained and substantial body of work,” Stamp writes.

The Women Film Pioneers Project of Columbia University Libraries lists Weber’s first directed film as The Colonel’s Daughter (1911), which she co-directed with her husband, the actor Phillips Smalley. Weber and Smalley had first worked together in the theater before they began acting in early motion picture dramas around 1907, and their partnership quickly shifted to behind the camera. The couple was so successful that in 1912, the Women Film Pioneers Project reports, they “were placed in charge of the Rex brand at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, where they produced one or two one-reel films each week with a stock company of actors, quickly turning the brand into one of the studio’s most sophisticated.” According to Stamp, the second Rex release, A Heroine of ’76 (1911), was the Weber-Smalley film that gave the studio its instant credibility, after which “Rex titles were immediately celebrated for their artistic achievements” featuring “strongly written and carefully constructed narratives focused on a few well-defined characters.”

Though Weber was the sole director on many of her 100+ films (both features and shorts, of which, sadly, only 35 still exist), she and her husband also frequently co-directed films, among them The Merchant of Venice (1914)—the film that made Weber the first American woman to direct a full-length feature. But it wasn’t an equal partnership. According to the Women Film Pioneers Project, Weber was the “sole author of scripts the couple adapted for the screen”, and visitors to the set “found Smalley repeatedly turning to his wife for important decisions.”

Just two years after the couple began directing films for Universal, “Weber had emerged as the dominant member of the husband and wife partnership and, indeed, as one of the top directors on the lot,” says the Project. Stamp notes as well that Weber supervised “every detail of her own productions” and often was involved in the editing process, making her one of the first auteurs in Hollywood. As the one in the husband-wife partnership who did all the writing, Weber took it upon herself to use film as a way to advocate for social change, tackling such dicey subjects as drug abuse, wage inequities, contraception, women’s equality, religious hypocrisy, and capital punishment.

So that’s who Lois Weber is, and Milestone Films has done a great service by releasing two of Weber’s 1916 films on Blu-ray: The Dumb Girl of Portici, starring Anna Pavlova and Rupert Julian, and Shoes, which Weber also produced, starring Mary MacLaren, Harry Griffith, and Mattie Witting. The films are sold separately in DVD and Blu-ray, with bonus features included for each. Together, they reveal two sides of Weber—the filmmaker who wanted to use the new medium to tell stories as epic and grand as her male peers were attempting, and the social activist who wanted her films to spark discussion and prompt change.

Grand and big-budget as it is, there’s even a social, Marxist message to be found in The Dumb Girl of Portici, which Weber adapted from an 1829 opera Pavlova was dancing at the time in Boston: D.F.E. Auber’s La Muette de Portici. The most famous ballerina of her time, Pavlova had been traveling the world to perform, serving as an unofficial ambassador for ballet. The charismatic grace that accompanied her every performance is on full display in The Dumb Girl of Portici—”dumb”, of course, meaning unable to speak.

Pavlova only dances briefly in The Dumb Girl of Portici, in the sand and also bookended en pointe in ethereal title and end sequences that were inserted, no doubt, to satisfy audiences who may have been drawn to the theater just to see the great Pavlova dance. What surprises is that, such token dancing aside, Pavlova is easily the best actor on the set, offering as good of a performance as I’ve seen on the silent screen. Ballet depends upon a graceful pantomime of both slightly and grandly exaggerated gestures and expressions, and that, of course, was the aesthetic currency of silent films. Pavlova’s acting and facial expressions in particular are so mesmerizing and evocative that she is fully able to communicate without words—essential, for someone playing a “dumb” girl.

As Fenella, an Italian peasant girl living in a small fishing village at the time of the Spanish occupation in the mid-1600s, Pavlova is so captivating that it’s easy to see why the Viceroy’s son, Alphonso (Douglas Gerrard), would be enchanted enough by her that he would consider breaking off his engagement to a noblewoman named Elvira (Edna Maison). The film is two-pronged in its exploration of dichotomies: rich/poor, occupier/native, vocal/mute. It’s two-pronged as well in its narrative structure. Balancing the star-crossed romance is the more overtly political depiction of the unrest that led to the Peasant Revolution of 1647, with the brother Fenella lives with, Masaniello (Rupert Julian), leading the people.

With lavish palace sets offset by simple sand-floor windowless structures by the sea, The Dumb Girl of Portici offered, for Weber, the best of both worlds: a grand and tragic romance on the visually epic scale of Romeo and Juliet, and a peasant revolt that aligned with her own highly developed sense of social justice. It’s a striking film for it’s grand scale, grand story, and grand performance by Pavlova. Though overall it’s more masterful than masterpiece, The Dumb Girl of Portici provides an eye-opening look into what women in Hollywood were doing in the early years of cinema—which makes you wonder all the more why their roles and importance have been diminished, or dismissed.

Mary MacLaren in Shoes (1916) Still from Eye Film Institute trailer

That feeling surfaces as well in Shoes, which was one of Universal’s most successful films prior to 1916. While O. Henry was writing about the plight of poorly paid overworked “shop girls” in his magazine fiction, Weber was advocating for their better treatment in Shoes. In this film, which was well known enough in 1932 to be parodied in a rerelease with “wiseguy” voiceover poking fun of the film—a spoof that’s included as a bonus feature—Weber makes a powerful statement about patriarchy and the scant options that women had then in a world of men. The gist of the film is ostensibly simple:a shop girl who is on her feet all day desperately needs a new pair of shoes, as the soles have holes that expose her flesh to the pavement and elements. She becomes more and more frail, and, pushed to the brink of physical exhaustion, has to decide whether to submit to the advances of a good-time fellow who would buy her gifts, like the shoes, but at a price.

In Shoes, which she adapted from a Jane Addams novel, Weber coached her discovery, 16-year-old Mary MacLaren, in the role of Eva Meyer, a young teenager who had to work for $5 per week at a five-and-ten cent store in order to support her family. After food and rent, there is nothing left. The father (Griffith), who claims he cannot find work, spends his days reading in his bed, leaving Eva’s mother (Witting) to tend to their large brood of children. It was a pretty bold statement to make, attacking the father for slothfulness, and bolder still to imply that because he would not look for work Eva was forced into the film’s moral dilemma—one we’re led to believe her mother may know all too well.

As much as any history book or documentary, Shoes provides a fascinating look at life as it was lived in a tenement apartment, on the streets, and inside the five-and-tens of Los Angeles in the lean years on the home front during WWI. With its emphasis on realism, Weber filmed in front of a Woolworth’s on Broadway and in one classic scene shot in Pershing Square she employs a stationary camera to capture a thoughtful Eva on a foreground bench, but also renders so much more of period life in the middle distance and background. People often think of Citizen Kane when they think of deep-focus shots, but Weber employs them to great effect in Shoes, and also arranges her interiors so that little touches—like every picture hanging slightly crooked on the walls—reflect the mood of the film. And lingering close-ups on McLaren, along with an occasional extreme close-up, reinforce her tragic-heroic status—all for want of a pair of shoes.

Milestone has provided some excellent bonus features for each title. People who feel cheated that Pavlova doesn’t dance much in The Dumb Girl of Portici will delight in a parcel of extras that feature mostly dance. A 48-minute short, “The Immortal Swan”, is a 1935 documentary tribute filmed not long after Pavlova’s death that depicts the star dancing, including her most famous solo, “The Dying Swan”. More dancing is featured in a 13-minute short filmed at the Douglas Fairbanks Studio, and there are up-close-and-personal glimpses of Pavlova in a 13-minute compilation of home movies and a two-minute newsreel, all filmed in the ’20s and all incredibly interesting to watch.

Shoes provides “The Unshod Maiden”, that parodic, condensed version of Shoes, as well as a rewarding commentary track from film and Weber scholar Stamp. MacLaren even turns up in a 1971 audio interview in which she is full of energy and enthusiasm for the film, even many years later. Rounding out the bonus features is one of Smalley and Weber’s short films from 1911 (“The Price”) and a curiosity: an Eye Film Institute Nederland before-and-after restoration video and original Dutch intro to Shoes.

Is one film recommended over the other? Not at all. But together, along with Stamp’s recent book, they provide a pretty compelling argument for reinstating Weber as one of the premier directors in the early years of Hollywood.