Lois Weber, who kept that simple name all of her life, was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania to a very religious family. Many of her relatives were preachers, and at a young age, she played the piano at church and sang in the choir.
In 1897, she left home to take voice lessons in New York with the goal of becoming an opera singer. She toured with a singing group, where she met Wendell Phillips Smalley, the company stage manager. He was a descendant of Wendell Phillips, a human rights pioneer who had supported Lucy Stone and other suffragists, and it therefore is not surprising that Smalley encouraged Weber to keep her maiden name. His influence on her clearly was powerful, and she never returned to the religiosity of her roots.
They married in 1904 and soon were involved with the pioneer motion picture industry. She first worked for the Gaumont Company, where she was fortunate to be mentored by the world’s first female director, Frenchwoman Alice Guy Blaché. In 1911, the couple moved on to the Rex division of Universal Pictures. As part of Universal, Weber managed all the roles basic to production: she directed, wrote stories and subtitles, designed sets, gathered props, and edited film.
For a brief period in 1914-1915, Lois Weber and her husband left Universal to work for Bosworth Company. It was there that she made the first of the full-length, social-message films for which she became known. Weber’s realization that moral messages could be conveyed through film resulted in her most famous film, Hypocrites (1914) -- which was especially controversial because she posed naked to represent “the naked truth.”
Weber wrote a 1915 article for Paramount Magazine titled “How I Became a Motion Picture Director,” and she returned to Universal that same year. By then she was seen as a prominent director, and Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, allowed her to produce feature-length films -- a privilege he had denied her prior to her Bosworth experience. While at Universal, she made Shoes (1916), which some critics consider her best film. The best known, however, was Where Are My Children? (1916). A plea for birth control, it was akin to The Hypocrites in bringing both controversy and censorship.
Motion Picture Magazine featured her in its issue for July 1916, emphasizing the technically difficult aspects of her job with “Lois the Wizard.” By 1917, she was sufficiently established to start her own studio, Lois Weber Productions. Among the movies she made during this period were The Price of a Good Time (1917), For Husbands Only (1918), and What Do Men Want? (1921).
The last title may have hinted at personal problems: when her 18-year marriage ended in a 1922 divorce, Weber suffered a nervous breakdown. She recovered enough to make A Chapter in My Life (1923), and a burst of energy after a 1926 marriage to Harry Gantz led to The Marriage Clause (1926), Sensation Seekers (1926), and The Angel of Broadway (1927).
In a May 14, 1927 article for the then-popular mass magazine Liberty, Universal’s Laemmle said of Weber: “She knows the motion-picture business as few people know it, and can drive as hard as anyone I’ve ever known.” That work ethic may have been the cause of both a second divorce and of her long-term gastric ulcer. She made her last film, White Heat, in 1934, and died of a gastric hemorrhage in 1939, when she was age 58.
Lois Weber was the most consistently successful female director in the early movie industry. She had her own personal style, and as film history and criticism have evolved during the past few decades, she has regained her proper place as a pioneer.