Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Awards: Hollywood Walk of Fame
Lois Weber, born June 13, 1879, became the first known American woman to direct a feature length film,The Merchant of Venice (1914). Growing up at the height of Pittsburgh’s industrial age, Weber experienced firsthand social and economic inequalities that influenced her professional work. She produced over two hundred films throughout her career, working first with Universal Film Manufacturing Company (Universal) before starting her own production company. Alongside filmmaking, Weber fought for women’s suffrage in the political arena and women’s rights in the entertainment industry. Her illustrious career places her at the forefront of directors in the Silent Era of film. Weber died on November 13, 1939, in Los Angeles, California.
Florence Lois Weber was born on June 13, 1879, in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (today Pittsburgh’s North Side) to Mary Matilda “Tillie” and George Weber. The middle of three daughters, Weber grew up in a family that fostered artistic and creative curiosity. Her early artistic pursuits and missionary work in and around Pittsburgh profoundly influenced her later professional work, her activism, and her persistent challenging of traditional societal gender norms, as she became the first woman to direct a feature-length film in Hollywood. As a child, Weber fell in love with piano, singing, and writing. She attributed her passions for performing and writing to her father, who worked for the Pittsburgh Opera Company as a decorator and upholsterer. Honing her talents for the stage and storytelling, Weber began singing in her church choir and acting in dramatic historical recitations in school.
At age sixteen, Weber joined the acclaimed Pittsburgh composer and mandolinist Valentine Abt for a performance tour of the East Coast and drew praise for her singing and musical talent. Wishing to further her career, Weber moved briefly to New York City to study singing and found work as a classroom accompanist. Soon after, however, her father fell ill, and her family beckoned her to return to Pittsburgh to help with her younger sister’s education.
Back in Pittsburgh, Weber joined the Church Army, an evangelical organization that sought to combat poverty and vice in the city. As a member of the Church Army, she combined her passions for music and service. She intimately witnessed the plight of working-class communities in one of the country’s leading industrial cities. Weber’s interactions with people experiencing homelessness, poverty, incarceration, and substance abuse inspired her film writing as it drew public attention to social and economic inequality.
Seeking more experience in the performing arts, Weber joined the Zig Zag Company in 1903 and toured Pennsylvania and the Northeast for six months. The next year, Vance & Sullivan Company hired her as a singer, actor, and dancer in the touring production of What Happens When Girls Leave Home. While traveling with the production, Weber met Wendell Phillips Smalley, and the two married on April 29, 1904. They had one daughter, Phoebe Jay Smalley, who died in infancy.
After Weber and Smalley left Vance & Sullivan Company, she focused on scenario-writing—the script writing for silent films—in addition to her onscreen and onstage performances. In 1908, she moved to New York and worked for the American Gaumont Chronophone Company as an actor and singer. In 1910, she and her husband joined Rex Motion Picture Company, also in New York, where they produced over two hundred pictures in just four years. Gradually, media outlets, including Moving Picture World, started to recognize Weber for her scenario writing and directing rather than her acting roles and attributed primary credit to her in the Weber-Smalley partnership. After Rex Motion Picture Company merged with Universal, they moved to Universal City, just outside of Los Angeles. There, Weber continued to carve out a role for herself as writer and director in the burgeoning silent film industry.
While at Universal, Weber wrote, directed, and acted in films while actively speaking out for women’s rights in the film industry and the suffrage movement. Universal City appointed her mayor (an honorary position) in 1913. She assumed the role while continuing creative work with the company. Weber’s completion of The Merchant of Venice in 1914 made her the first woman in the United States to direct a feature-length film. She also wrote, directed, and starred in the film.
Weber wished to provoke audiences to think critically about some of the most controversial social issues of the era, including birth control, abortion, incarceration, and substance use. Her film The People vs. John Doe (1916) tackles drug abuse; Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916) thematically centers around poverty and wage inequality; and Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1917) and Where Are My Children (1916) emphasize birth control and abortion. Through these works, Weber’s celebrity and her reputation as a director and writer grew in popular media and in critical circles. Media coverage embraced Weber as a leading figure in the film industry, and the Motion Picture Directors Association elected her as a member in 1916, making her the first and only woman to serve in the association.
In 1917, Weber broke from Universal to start her own film production company, Lois Weber Productions. While managing the company, she traveled the country advocating women’s rights. She returned to Pennsylvania to speak before crowds in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Her career captured the attention of Pittsburgh newspapers including The Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh Daily, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which traced her activities and highlighted her Pittsburgh roots.
In 1922, amid a centralizing film industry increasingly controlled by male voices, Weber divorced Smalley. The end of her marriage negatively affected her mental health. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Weber produced fewer films due to the replacement of silent films with “talkies” (motion pictures with sound) and the increasing marginalization of women to off-screen positions. Despite a decline in the number of films she made, Weber remained an active participant in the film industry, empowering young women by speaking to organizations including the Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She released her last film and only “talkie,” in 1934.
Weber died in Los Angeles on November 13, 1939, at the age of sixty. Many of her films have been lost, but a few, including Shoes (1916), The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), and The Blot (1921), have been restored successfully. On June 13, 2019, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission unveiled the Lois Weber historical marker to commemorate her 140th birthday. The marker stands at Federal and Pankhurst Streets in Pittsburgh’s North Side. In the twenty-first century, Weber is remembered as a pioneer in the silent film industry during a period in which women received little recognition for their talents. Throughout her career, Weber acted in, wrote, directed, and produced films that served as commentaries on pertinent social issues of her time. She attributed her unique artistic perspective and successful career to her early years in Pittsburgh.