Given the way film history is usually taught, to say nothing of the preponderance of films easily available to watch, you could be forgiven for thinking that women directing movies was a relatively recent historical development. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact quite a few women directed films in the early years of the industry. Lois Weber was one of those pioneers, working as an actress in the theater, then in the movies, before directing her first film in 1911. She went on to direct about 140 films, the last being White Heat (1934), which was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival.
Weber’s films haven’t been all that available, with the exception of some shorts on YouTube and in anthology collections, but this new release from Kino Lorber should help interest more people in her work. It includes two of Weber’s feature films, both silent with intertitles, on a single disc: A Chapter in Her Life (1923) and Sensation Seekers (1927).
A Chapter in Her Life is based on a popular novel Jewel: A Chapter in Her life by Clara Louis Burnham; Weber previously used the novel as source material for her 1915 short film Jewel. The story is pure melodrama, set in the rich but unhappy household headed by sour old Mr. Everingham (Claude Gillingwater), who long ago rejected his eldest son for marrying a widow with a daughter, and his youngest son for being a drunk who married a prostitute. Practical matters in the household are overseen by longtime servant Mrs. Forbes (Eva Thatcher), who has a good word for no one but her bibulous son Ezekiel (the British actor Ralph Yearsley).
But the prostitute proves to have the proverbial heart of gold, reforms the drunk, and they produce a beautiful little daughter, Jewel (Jane Mercer). The parents need to go abroad on business, so they deposit Jewel with her grandfather. She arrives with ribbons in her hair, clutching a large doll, and armed with a child’s innocence and imagination, and proceeds to work wonders on grumpy old grandpa and, eventually, the rest of the household.
A Chapter in Her Life has the visual strengths of many silent pictures, including beautiful sets and costumes and accomplished, if melodramatic, acting. Weber’s direction (and Benjamin H. Kline’s cinematography) is mostly straightforward: much of the film is shot indoors, and the preponderance of the scenes would be at home on the stage. However, Weber also has some flights of cinematic fancy, as when music causes one of the characters to imagine herself walking on a windswept beach in a billowing white robe.
Sensation Seekers, based on a story by Ernest Pascal, stars Billie Dove as Egypt, introduced as “the richest girl in Huntington Bay and the most pagan.” She’s a lively flapper who knows how to get into a bit of trouble, and proceeds to do so with her “fast” set of society friends. Despite her somewhat dissolute lifestyle, the virile Reverend Lodge (Raymond Bloomer), whom we see cavorting with Egypt on the beach in the opening scene, wants to marry her.
They both look great in their silly 1920s bathing suits, and you just know that they’d be good together. But, since the plot of Sensation Seekers follows the same formula made famous in screwball comedies of the sound era—the comedy of remarriage—first Egypt has to dally with a playboy named Ray Sturgis (Huntley Gordon), even though she clearly has her doubts about him. A dramatic series of scenes set on a storm-tossed sea get the story back on course and, well, you know how the formula works.
Weber and Kline are much more creative, visually speaking, in Sensation Seekers than they were in A Chapter in Her Life. In an early scene, absent church members are represented as ghostly double exposures. Much of the film is shot outside, and scenes feature a great variety of camera shots, from extreme closeups to panoramic long shots. A scene set in “The Black and Tan Club” features long-limbed, Josephine Baker-like performers, who perform in silhouette behind a curtain, and Egypt and her pals arrive there following a lively road race. The costumes of the fast set are absolutely amazing, and the acting is livelier and more modern as well, which just goes to show how much difference a few years can make. | Sarah Boslaugh
Sensation Seekers and A Chapter in Her Life: Two Films by Lois Weber is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Both films are presented in 2K restorations by Universal Pictures, and look reasonably good considering their age. Both also have musical soundtracks, and Sensation Seeker also comes with an audio commentary track by historian Shelley Stamp. A previous film directed by Weber, Hypocrites (1915), which runs a bit under an hour, is also available from Kino Lorber.