Lois Weber: Three Films

Registration is now closed. A Newberry Library Adult Education Seminar (3 sessions, April 13 to April 27). Registration begins January 18, 2023.

Lois Weber was one of silent film’s most accomplished and successful directors. In this class, we will discuss three of Weber’s most important films and consider her role in transforming Hollywood filmmaking. Films include the heartbreaking domestic drama Shoes (1916), the blockbuster historical romance The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916, starring prima ballerina Anna Pavlova), and the socially incisive The Blot (1921).

Materials List
No required books. Recommendations for accessing the feature films on streaming platforms will be made available each week, along with additional film clips, brief reading materials, and web links. In advance of the first session, please watch Shoes (1916, 36 mins.), available on dvd or streaming at Kino Now and the Criterion Channel.

Seminar Description
The seminar examines selected films from writer/directer Lois Weber’s career. One of early Hollywood’s most prolific and successful figures, Weber is know for her explicit treatment of social issues in her films, which have explored matters of poverty, birth control, abortion, capital punishment, and religion, as well as an adaptation of Shakespeare, and, in the case of The Dumb Girl of Portici, an adaptation of a French opera.

At the first session we will discuss and view clips from Shoes (1916), which participants will be asked to view ahead of the session. During the session we will also watch Weber’s 1913 short film, Suspense, in its entirety, pausing regularly to consider details of the film. Viewed in comparison, Suspense and Shoes showcase Weber’s distinctive skills as both an savvy editor of action cinema and a careful writer/director of domestic drama, here focusing on poverty’s effect on young women, in a film that is seen by film historians as a precursor to the neo-realist school of cinema of the 1950s.

The second session features The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), a sweeping, big-budget historical romance that solidified Weber’s place as the pre-eminent film director of her time. Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal Pictures once said that he “would trust Miss Weber with any sum of money that she needed to make any picture,” and this very successful film was, at the time, the studio’s most ambitious project. The invaluable 2016 restoration of The Dumb Girl of Portici, available for seminar participants to purchase or stream, will allow us to discuss the film’s blending of revolutionary uprising with personal betrayal. The film features a remarkable performance by the dancer Anna Pavlova, in her Hollywood film debut.

At the final session we will discuss The Blot (1921), which tells the story of an underpaid college professor and his family. This film is notable for its thoughtful treatment of the subtleties of circumstance and emotion, and the material details of family life. The themes and direction of The Blot will also help us explore some of Lois Weber’s other work and discuss the subsequent rejection of women directors in the Hollywood studio system of the 1920s.

For this seminar I will also provide other material (short films, as well as clips of feature films, documentaries, and commentaries) during the sessions themselves and at a password-protected webspace on Screencast. In this way, participants can preview and rewatch any clip that will be shown at a session.

Session One: 4/13/23
Shoes (1916) and short films (Kino Now, Criterion Channel)

Session Two: 4/20/23
The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) (Kino Now, Criterion Channel, Kanopy)

Session Three: 4/27/23
The Blot (1921) (Criterion Channel, Kanopy, Tubi)

Image: Mary MacLaren in Shoes (1916), directed by Lois Weber (cropped still image from the Milestone dvd).