Badass Bitches In History: Director Lois Weber And The First Full-Frontal Nude Scene

Happy Women’s History Month! All this month we will be bringing you stories of lesser known lady badasses of note!

WHAT IF I TOLD YOU … that there was another silent film director as prolific and as innovative as D.W. Griffith, but not a crazy racist and also a woman? You would probably think I was making it up. Because obviously, if this woman existed, you would have heard of her in passing at least once in general conversation, on Jeopardy or at least in your Film 101 class in college.

But there was, and her name was Lois Weber.

I am a giant nerd for silent films. I can tell you everything you never wanted to know about Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Theda Bara, the Gish sisters, Alla Nazimova, Colleen Moore, Mabel Normand etc. etc. Would you like to hear all the reasons for why I simply do not care for Mary Pickford? Probably not, but I have them! I’ve been pretty obsessed with silent films for of my life, which is why it was a damn near shock to me when I first discovered Lois Weber last year, after stumbling upon her Wikipedia page. Somehow, even I had never managed to hear about her.

Check this shit out!

During her career, Weber directed 135 films, wrote 114, and acted in 100, the vast majority of which are considered to be “lost.” She was considered to be one of cinema’s first true auteurs, as she was involved in every aspect of production and delighted in using then-innovative filming techniques like multiple exposures and split screens in her work. A former street preacher, most of these films were centered on issues of social justice and morality such as poverty, birth control, alcoholism, drug abuse and prostitution. She believed in using film as a medium to affect political and social change, rather than merely as a form of entertainment.

First major point in badassery? Her film “Hypocrites” featured the first full-frontal nude scene!

hypocrites

In the film, a preacher tells his rich, hypocritical congregation the story of an ascetic monk who sought to paint “The Truth,” but was then murdered by all the townsfolk because “The Truth” turned out to be a naked woman. Then, the preacher has a dream in which “The Naked Truth” (a ghost-like naked woman) goes around exposing all the hypocrites in his congregation.

The multiple-exposure technique used to make the woman look like a ghost was a really big deal for it’s time, and rightly led to Weber being taken seriously as an auteur. However, the people of America were less than impressed with the naked lady, and there were actual riots over the films release. Hilariously, the mayor of Boston even tried to get them to paint clothes over her somehow.

As if that wasn’t cool enough, Weber also made a pro-birth control movie about Margaret Sanger called “Where Are My Children?” in 1916. Granted, the movie is also pretty anti-abortion and suggests birth control as a remedy for that–but you have to remember that the abortions in those days were horrifically unsafe because they were illegal, and women were often left without the ability to have future children or, well, dead from them. It also has some icky stuff in there about eugenics and “desirable” vs. “undesirable” children. But still! A fucking movie about birth control! In 1916! You get props for that, Lois Weber.

Also interesting? She refused to direct a cinematic version of “Topsy and Eva” because it was racist as hell and featured “such racist humor as a stork dropping a black baby into a trash can.” D.W. Griffith, of course, was more than happy to take over for her. It was after this that she left Universal and became the first woman to own her own cinematic production company–Lois Weber Productions. It was at this time that she became the highest paid director in Hollywood.

Certainly some of her work was, as they say, “problematic,” given that she was a white lady living in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t like, “Birth of a Nation” levels of “problematic.” Her views on many things (like eugenics) certainly don’t line up with our views today. But, uh, neither do D.W. Griffith’s and we all still have to watch his shit in Film 101. The fact that she has been all but forgotten is incredible given her body of work and contribution to film innovation is truly startling, and I hope she can soon get the recognition she so clearly deserves.

[Movie Review Warehouse]

[Wikipedia 1, 2]

[Weekly Standard]

[Women Film Pioneers Project]