2018 Film Essays

DVD/Blu-ray Review: Two Films by Lois Weber

In 1928, filmmaker Lois Weber told the San Diego Evening Tribune: “I grew up in the business when everybody was so busy learning their particular branch of the new industry… that no one had time to notice whether or not a woman was gaining a foothold.” This quote, repeated in Shelley Stamp’s indispensable book Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, highlights one way that women accessed the emerging film industry at the beginning of the 20th century. We now know that women worked behind the scenes in a variety of roles during the silent era as directors, screenwriters, editors, producers, distributors, title writers, film accompanists and more. And this was not confined to the United States; women worked in film production, exhibition and distribution across North America, Europe, Asia, South America, Australia,and Africa. (Full disclosure: I am the Project Manager of a digital resource, the Women Film Pioneers Project, that aims to advance research on women in early cinema.) What you cannot glean from Weber’s quote was that she was a brilliant and prolific filmmaker. She was a confident director and screenwriter, technical innovator and opinionated practitioner. She created stories that centralized women’s struggles and was interested in the social possibilities of cinema and the fostering of female talent. Like other silent-era female filmmakers, her name is unknown by many today, and her work, beyond a few accessible titles like Suspense (1913), is often difficult to see. However, thanks to Milestone Films, Shoes and The Dumb Girl of Portici — two important films that Weber made in 1916 — are now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Each release boasts a new restoration of the feature film, as well an array of engaging extras. The rich and tightly structured Shoes, restored in 2010 by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, is my personal favorite of the two, but that doesn’t mean you should skip The Dumb Girl of Portici, which was restored by the Library of Congress in 2015. Both releases offer something different for its viewers, while simultaneously giving us essential access to Weber’s cinematic skill.

Shoes tells the story of Eva Meyer (played with a deliberate somberness by Mary MacLaren, a Weber discovery). While her father lazes away his days unable to find a job, Eva is forced to work as a shop girl to provide for her impoverished family, which also includes three younger sisters and her mother. (Eva’s relationship with her mother is a compelling part of the film.) Her shoes, worn from standing behind a counter all day and walking to and from work in various weather conditions, are a crumbling excuse for footwear. Eva’s desire and practical need for new boots fuels this heartbreaking tale. Shoes is an incisive look at how a growing consumer economy, low wages, poverty and gendered power dynamics lead to one girl’s decision to “[sell] herself for a pair of shoes,” as an opening quote from reformer Jane Addams foreshadows. (Addams’ sociological work, along with a short story from Collier’s magazine were Weber’s source materials for her script.)

Weber powerfully brings Eva’s psyche to life, utilizing cinema-specific techniques like double exposure to visualize the hand of poverty’s mental and emotional hold over Eva. At one point, a low-to-the-ground tracking shot follows Eva as she walks to work in the pouring rain. This shot effectively highlights the sobering fact that Eva’s shoes, which she fixes with cardboard each night, are already falling apart before the work day has even started. Frequent close-ups and fantasy sequences give access to Eva’s embarrassment, anxiety, anger and desire. Ultimately, Shoes privileges the struggles of a young woman with deft realism and visual directness. This shouldn’t feel like the rarity that it does.

Perhaps Weber’s biggest legacy as a Progressive Era- filmmaker was her interest in tackling contemporary social issues, like poverty, drug addiction and contraception. Born into a religious family in Pennsylvania in 1879, Weber, who was involved in missionary work as a young woman, was a proponent of the educational value of movies. According to Stamp, Weber believed in the “egalitarian possibilities of cinema” and viewed the new medium as something akin to a newspaper, “capable of engaging popular audiences in debates about the most deeply provocative subjects.” This sort of engagement and education, Weber believed, would resonate with middle-class audiences, fuel discussion and perhaps intervene in a society in need of reform. Yet, as Stamp points out in an informative audio commentary that accompanies Milestone’s release, Shoes ultimately signals its “conservative tenor” by arguing for individual action over comprehensive wage reform. While this and the film’s moralizing stance are unmistakable while watching the film in 2018, Shoes perhaps showcases Weber at her best, as social critic and visual artist.

In addition to Stamp’s engaging commentary, the bonus features include an interesting, if sometimes digressive, audio interview about early Hollywood with MacLaren from 1971. There’s also a re-cut, 10-minute parody of Shoes called Unshod Maiden (1932), which was new to me, but was one of the three sources — the others being two nitrate prints from EYE Filmmuseum’s collection — used to reconstruct and restore the film. Film historian Richard Kozarski, who also conducted the interview with MacLaren, is on hand to contextualize Unshod Maiden, which uses footage from Shoes set to a new comedic soundtrack. After Shoes’ sobering narrative, I felt a pang of shame laughing at some of the lines here, but appreciated the chance to see Shoes’ later life. There are also two interesting videos from EYE Filmmuseum: a comparison of the image quality before and after restoration and a short look at the process of reconstructing and digitally restoring the film itself. A new musical score, composed and performed by Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson, captures and enhances Eva’s melancholy and weariness. Between the feature film and these assorted extras, the entire release is a celebration of the archival and intellectual labor involved in saving, resurrecting and contextualizing our early cinematic history.

The Dumb Girl of Portici DVD/Blu-ray, on the other hand, belongs to ballet legend Anna Pavlova. The Russian dancer is the magnetic center of this film and its accompanying extras. The feature opens with a title card that reads “Anna Pavlova, the Incomparable in The Dumb Girl of Portici.” Pavlova made her screen debut as Fenella, a mute peasant woman living under Spanish rule in 17th century Italy. Adapted from Daniel Auber’s 1828 opera, The Dumb Girl of Portici is a story about the oppressed fishing village that rises up in revolution after an aristocrat seduces Fenella. It was Universal’s most ambitious project to date. Weber, who scripted the film and directed it alongside her husband and frequent collaborator, Phillips Smalley, was put in charge of this spectacular project, which includes numerous extras, large-scale sets and extensive battle scenes. According to Stamp, the final budget of the film was estimated to be $300,000.

As the wordless Fenella, Pavlova is simultaneously radiant, sensual, graceful and frenetic. She infuses her highly theatrical performance with both a vibrancy and a melancholia that fits this drama of desire, and expressively communicates something with every gesture, large or small. With her wide, wild eyes, Pavlova is mesmerizing to watch — in what ended up being her only screen role — as she sashays and springs across the screen, accompanied by John Sweeney’s new score, which was composed after Auber’s original opera.

While the lengthy The Dumb Girl of Portici feels slow at times, there is no denying that Weber has staged a truly spectacular epic. The scenes of revolt and violence that dominate the end of the film are impressive in their scale and are captured by Weber and her cinematographers in a variety of tracking, panning and overhead shots. Yet, the film also contains moments of stillness, such as when Fenella, having escaped from prison, comes upon the fiery market square, empty save for the heads of the aristocracy’s army mounted on spikes. It’s a moment of savage yet quiet brutality. Similarly, scenes of Pavlova dancing book-end the film, lending a serene aura of cinematic experimentation in comparison to the more traditional melodrama that unfolds in between.

In terms of extras, the disc includes several 9.5mm home movies, newsreels and excerpts of filmed dances all featuring Pavlova. These fragmentary glimpses of Pavlova traveling the world and performing various roles seem aimed at viewers interested in dance history and Pavlova’s life rather than those coming to the disc looking to learn more about Weber the filmmaker. But even for the uninitiated like myself, it’s nice to see more of Pavlova on screen, especially given the ephemeral nature of her art. Alongside the archival footage is the 1935 British documentary The Immortal Swan, a somewhat heavy-handed idolization of the international star. Two standout moments in the documentary come at the end: when a dance by Pavlova is shown in slow motion and when viewers hear the only known recording of her voice. Ultimately, these bonus features offer an intimate look at the prima ballerina’s life and work. Her love of animals, and birds especially, is delightfully captured on film.

In 1916, Weber became the first woman to be inducted into the Motion Picture Directors Association. By that point, she had extensive acting, writing and directing experience under her belt and was considered one of Hollywood’s top directors. Although she often worked in collaboration with her husband, Weber ultimately was the one in charge. A year after the releases of Shoes and The Dumb Girl of Portici, she left Universal to form her own independent production company, Lois Weber Productions, where she ultimately made 14 films before it folded in 1921. Like her previous work, many of these films focused on the lives and struggles of women. (The Blot, from 1921, is already available on DVD via Milestone). Weber made her last film in 1934 and, by the time of her death in 1939, her pioneering work in the emerging motion picture industry was effectively forgotten.

Milestone’s two exciting releases are a part of a larger, necessary effort to bring visibility to Weber’s cinematic labor and influence, which can no longer be ignored. Shoes especially is a testament to the importance of reconsidering women’s involvement in cinema history. These two new releases also serve as a reminder of what’s at stake in our contemporary moment as we grapple with everything from industry-wide sexism to a lack of diversity in terms of stories by and about women and people of color. At the close of her book, Stamp, quoting Kozarski, highlights that “history has not been kind” to women like Weber. But thanks to everyone involved in releases like these two from Milestone, the future can be.

Shoes and The Dumb Girl of Portici can be purchased at Milestone Films.

Kate Saccone (@ks2956) is based in NYC. She’s the Project Manager of the Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University.