“Moguls and Movie Stars”: The Most Influential Woman of Her Time

November 9, 2010

I have never been as fascinated and utterly enthralled with a documentary series about Hollywood as I am with Turner Classic Movies’ 7 part series, “Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood.” As brilliant as Episode 1 was last week, episode 2 made me think of the great Al Jolson line from The Jazz Singer: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

Today’s blog will cover some of Episode 2 but there’s so much richness in each minute of the episode that it will take at least a couple of days of blogs to do it justice.

Episode 2 picks up where Epsiode 1 ended with the migration of the film business from its east coast roots to California, and ultimately Hollywood.

Again, even as a lover of films and the history of the business, this series constantly shows me how little I really knew about the early days of film and the people who had the honor, the thrill, and the fun of creating the new film business from the ground up.

When they started, the longest films lasted no more than 15 minutes! The new moguls and creators (D.W.Griifith, Cecil B. DeMille and Adolph Zukor primarily) had to actually invent feature length films. In fact, most observers at the time thought that audiences would never sit longer than 45 minutes for a movie.

Episode 2 gives us wonderfully rich stories about the early moguls such as Jesse Lasky, Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn), and Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal Studios and also Universal City in 1915, the world’s first community that was totally built around movies. It also introduces us to stars and pioneers such as “America’s first sweetheart” Mary Pickford (pictured at left), Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett (the screen’s first comedy impresario), Mabel Normand (the first madcap movie actress star), Tom Mix, John Ford, DeMille, Griffith, and many more.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of the early days of Hollywood was how powerful woman were in its ascendancy. When people talk of the founding of the business, it’s usually about the men, but women were as powerful and, in some cases, even more deeply influential than the men.

The episode focuses on Normand, Pickford, and other bankable stars but the revelations to me were Francis Marion, who wrote over 250 produced screenplays!, and most particularly Lois Weber, pictured at left, who was the first woman to direct a feature film and who also went on to become a powerful and influential film director for over 25 years. I am embarrassed to admit that I had not even heard of Lois Weber until I saw episode 2 and her story just blew me out of my chair.

Episode 2 only mentions Ms. Weber briefly so I did some research. With many thanks to Wikipedia:

“Lois Weber was the first woman to direct a full-length feature film when she directed The Merchant of Venice in 1914……“Hypocrites was a 1915 film that Weber wrote, directed, produced — and starred in — which addressed social themes and moral lessons considered daring for the time. These films (and themes) included abortion and birth control in Where Are My Children?, capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe, and alcoholism and drug addiction in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (all 1916). Because of their controversial nature, her films were often successful at the box office.[citation needed]

In 1916 she became Universal Studios‘ highest-paid director, and in 1917 she formed her own production company, Lois Weber Productions. Lois Weber was the only woman granted membership in the Motion Picture Directors Association. Film director John Ford worked with Weber as her assistant before making films on his own.[citation needed] One of Weber’s most successful films from this period was The Blot (1921) with Claire Windsor and Louis Calhern, one of five films of Weber’s released through Paramount Pictures.

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Lois Weber has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6518 Hollywood Blvd.”

What an incredible woman and filmmaker!

As those of you who have read Bringing Back The Old Hollywood have learned, Nancy Meyers was an old friend of mine and someone whom I hired and then, regrettably, fired. Nancy went on to become the most successful woman director in the history of film (What Women Want, It’s Complicated, The Holiday).

And now we know that Lois Weber paved the way.

(Much more tomorrow about  “Moguls and Movie Stars”.)

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: