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The number of women working behind the camera in Hollywood today remains small. And that makes the career of Lois Weber all the more remarkable. She directed at least 138 movies, either shorts or feature length, in the silent film era. Most are lost, but two of her most important films have been restored. KUNC's Howie Movshovitz reports.
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: Lois Weber became the first American woman to direct a feature-length dramatic film with "The Merchant Of Venice" in 1914.
SHELLEY STAMP: In her day, she was considered one of the three great minds of the early film industry, alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.
MOVSHOVITZ: Shelley Stamp, who wrote the notes for the Weber DVDs, says the filmmaker often took a different tack from her contemporaries.
STAMP: She was a very vocal advocate for cinema's ability to portray complex social issues in a popular narrative form. She considered cinema what she called a voiceless language. And by that, I think she meant cinema had an ability to convey ideas to anybody, regardless of their educational level, regardless of their command of English - right? - at a period when there were many immigrants to the U.S. who did not speak English as a first language.
MOVSHOVITZ: She was born in 1879 outside Pittsburgh to a religious middle-class family. She was a child prodigy pianist who spent two years playing organ and evangelizing around the city. Dennis Doros and his wife Amy Heller co-founded and run Milestone Films, which is releasing the restored versions of Weber's movies.
DENNIS DOROS: She started preaching on shop corners. And when she went to New York, she started working at these Salvation Army-type places to help people. She was never really a preacher. But she was always an activist for the poor.
AMY HELLER: This is what she said. She said, in moving pictures, I have found my life's work. I find at once an outlet for my emotions and my ideals.
MOVSHOVITZ: Before she became a filmmaker, Weber left evangelizing to tour the country as a concert pianist, until one night a key broke and shattered her nerve. She then left the concert stage for the theater stage and eventually, in 1911, directed her first short film. Historian Shelley Stamp says that early on, Weber advocated for complex roles for women and for serious engagement with social issues.
STAMP: She made films about the fight to abolish capital punishment, about drug addiction, about urban poverty, about the campaign to legalize contraception.
MOVSHOVITZ: Weber took up the cause of young women going to work in her 1916 film "Shoes," which has been released by Milestone with a new score.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHOES")
STAMP: She takes on an issue which many social reformers of the day were interested in. That is, the plight of young women who had entered the paid labor force were working in the retail sphere - either in department stores or five-and-dime stores - and were woefully underpaid. Many of them were supporting themselves or the primary wage earners in their family as the heroine of "Shoes" is.
MOVSHOVITZ: Forced to support her family by a layabout father, the heroine, Eva, prostitutes herself so she can replace her only pair of shoes, which are literally falling apart.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHOES")
MOVSHOVITZ: The same year that Weber wrote and directed "Shoes," she was entrusted with Universal Pictures' anchor film, "The Dumb Girl Of Portici" - dumb as in mute. It stars internationally famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in a sweeping historical epic. But Milestones' Dennis Doros says it was not easy to restore the antiquated scraps of surviving film stock.
DOROS: Universal had a major nitrate fire in the 1940s, so most of their master material went up in flames. About five years ago, the Library of Congress decided that they would do it. And they got the 16 millimeter from the New York Public Library, the 35 millimeter nitrate material at the British Film Institute, as well as 35 millimeter material they had. And these were various different versions from different eras. And it took them two years to edit together what is most likely the version that showed in 1916.
MOVSHOVITZ: The fact that most of Lois Weber's films are lost is just one reason she's been written out of film history. Shelley Stamp says that the men who controlled Hollywood financing did not respect the notion of women filmmakers. And both the film industry and its audiences turned to entertainment over social commentary. Lois Weber died penniless in 1939. Friends paid for her funeral.
STAMP: History failed her. She has been forgotten in a way that does not do service to really an extraordinary pioneer of American filmmaking. Had we remembered her career early on, we would have had decades and decades of female filmmakers' work to look at. We don't, and that's the consequence of forgetting her.
MOVSHOVITZ: The films of Lois Weber are not simply museum pieces. She actually did what many young women filmmakers now say they want to do - bring a woman's perspective to American studio filmmaking. For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.