Lois Weber | Hypocrites
| Where Are My Children? | The Blot
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Lois Weber was an early Hollywood director. She was a major pioneer of
women making films.
Subjects in the films of Lois Weber:
- Social problems (religious allegory, rich don't want minister to preach truth: Hypocrites,
pro birth control, pro eugenics, anti-abortion: Where Are My Children?,
poor pay of professors, ministers: The Blot)
- Ministers (Hypocrites, The Blot)
- Two contrasting couples (Too Wise Wives,
husband and wife, sister and her husband: Where Are My Children?,
families next door: The Blot)
- Wives with secrets (abortion: Where Are My Children?,
attempted theft: The Blot)
- Envy of next door neighbors (children: Where Are My Children?,
food, prosperity: The Blot)
- Families with sick daughters at home (Home hypocrisy sequence: Hypocrites,
grown heroine and parents: The Blot)
- Seductive upper class young men (wife's brother as seducer of servant's daughter: Where Are My Children?,
rich student and professor's daughter: The Blot)
- Art, usually portraits of figures (allegorical painting of Truth: Hypocrites,
minister, wealthy young man as artists sketching people: The Blot)
- Historical costumes (tableaux of people in medieval costume: Hypocrites,
book on ancient costumes: The Blot)
- Rude audience members who read newspapers (in church: Hypocrites,
in college class: The Blot)
- Gates, often allegorical (gates of truth: Hypocrites,
gates of eternity for birth of children: Where Are My Children?)
- Books (books on Sex and Indulgence: Hypocrites,
Birth Control manual, wife's unread book, account book thrown: Where Are My Children?,
library book, historical book on costumes, sketch pads: The Blot)
- Poets quoted (Browning, Milton: Hypocrites,
Milton: The Blot)
- Food and social class (candy and rich women: Where Are My Children?,
hunger in the USA, food of rich, middle class and poor people: The Blot)
- Frivolous parties at long tables (monks feasting: Hypocrites,
country club: The Blot)
- Automobiles as morally dubious symbols of wealth
(rich woman arrives at porch party by car: Where Are My Children?,
shoemaker's family buys new car: The Blot)
- Opening lectures (sermon in church: Hypocrites,
college lecture: The Blot)
- Vignettes (Truth exposes social institutions with her mirror: Hypocrites,
doctor testifies in court: Where Are My Children?)
- Trick shots (split screen: Suspense,
time lapse shots, dissolves between different costumes, transparent appearance of Truth: Hypocrites,
spirit of coming child, phantom children at end: Where Are My Children?,
dissolve between sketch and woman, title cards with live action: The Blot)
- Camera movements that combine the vertical and horizontal
(medieval tableaux: Hypocrites)
- Shots in small mirrors (Suspense, Truth's mirror: Hypocrites)
Allegory and Non-Reality
Hypocrites (1915) is of a different genre from most
narrative movies. It is a religious allegory. The characters are
often moving through landscapes that represent spiritual states
and journeys. The film recalls such prose allegories as Dante's
The Divine Comedy and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress
(1678). It is especially close to the latter work. This is a book
that would have been extremely familiar to both Weber and other
American Protestants of her day. One suspects that it is Weber's
model, to a degree.
Most fiction films of all periods have purported to show us a
real world through which the characters are moving. This world
can be as genuinely real as a street corner or as imaginary as
another planet. But is always presented as a real geography and
experience, subject to the laws of physics. Weber's film is not
doing this. Her characters wander from one allegorical location
to another with no unified geography or story line. Events do
not have physical consequences; the action is based on spiritual
expression. The whole effect is extremely unusual. It recalls
such non-realistic plays of Strindberg as A Dream Play (1901)
or The Ghost Sonata (1907). There is a lack of any belief that
what we are seeing is real on some physical, literal level.
This is not all the effect of the allegorical genre. Even when
Weber is doing a drawing room comedy such as How Men Propose
(1912), we seem disconnected from reality. We never learn in that
short how the film's unusual situation arose, and the characters
behave in unusual ways that do not quite correspond to real life.
Everyone seems to be in an abstracted state, one in which their
interior emotions are the dominating factor.
There are other models for the allegorical aspects of Hypocrites,
that are explored right in the film. The minister sees a photograph
in a newspaper of a large allegorical painting of "Truth",
which has shocked Paris, according to the newspaper headline.
Such allegorical paintings have always been very common. The one
in the film rather resembles Eugène Delacroix's
Liberty Leading the People (1830), although the technique of the painting
in the film is far more realistic and academic than Delacroix's.
Both paintings feature a noble abstraction, Truth or Liberty,
personified as a nude woman, having an effect on a diverse mass
of ordinary French people.
Much of Hypocrites is presented as a dream or
vision. The minister is sitting in a chair in the church. We see
his spirit leaving his body; then his allegorical adventures begin.
This scene is very hard to interpret. Has he fallen asleep and
is dreaming? Is he daydreaming or imagining events? Is he having
a religious vision? One wonders how audiences in 1915 interpreted
this scene. Perhaps Weber is giving subtle clues to the scene's
interpretation on which I'm not picking up.
Hypocrites and Intolerance
D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) makes a good cross-reference
to Weber's film:
- It too is a deeply personal work, one that preaches
its author's point of view in every frame. Both are First Person
movies, in which the author's presence is revealed to the
viewing public. Later, Jean-Luc Godard will also make his presence
felt. By the 1960's, this will seem avant-garde.
- Both attack modern day hypocrites, contemporary equivalents of
- Both are quite direct about their creator's religious views.
- Both films show two different historical eras, a modern
one and a historical one between which they draw parallels. The
techniques are a little different. Weber's film mixes her
eras in a religious allegory; Griffith's cross cuts between eras.
Still, the resemblances are striking.
Weber's work has a pictorial quality. Many of the scenes are carefully
composed, to make visually beautiful patterns. Today we associate
such Pictorialism with Sternberg and
with John Ford, who would start directing
in 1917 for the same company that employed Weber, Universal. I
know too little about early film to know how common such a Pictorial
approach was in those early days.
Weber likes to pan. During the church scene, she will pan from
one member of the congregation to another. These pans are gentle,
and do not have a wide sweep.
The Tableaux - and Complex Camera Movement
Weber constructs a set of elaborate tableaux during the medieval
parts of the film. These show large groups of people assembled
for the festival, all in medieval dress. Weber moves her camera
along these groups, using long, horizontal tracking shots, combined with vertical moves.
The geometry of these movements are complex, even by today's standards.
These shots are parallel to the plane of the image. The shots are quite
long and striking. They seem partly designed to both include everyone
in the shot, and to get close enough to the characters to see
every detail of their costumes and appearances.
Weber had previously included two similar tableaux showing people
in modern dress. One is the opening sequence in the film, showing
the congregation in the church. Each member is individually characterized.
They each have their own style of dress, suggesting a different
financial station in life. They also have very differing personalities.
Through glances, small gestures, and photographs of them saying
a few words to a spouse, each develops a distinctive personality.
Weber must have put quite a lot of thought into this sequence.
We get a sort of reprise of this sequence on the mountain road,
where various members of the congregation react allegorically
in different ways to the urging to climb the steep mountain path.
Costumes aside, Weber's reconstruction of the past is nowhere
as elaborate as Griffith's in Intolerance. Many of the
shots take place outside, with a minimum of props, and mainly
natural scenery backing up the actors. This scenery is timeless,
and does not convey any historical era. This actually aids the
allegorical tone of the film. One is seeing a non-realistic representation
of moral truths here, not a full realistic reconstruction of the
Weber includes several trick shots in the film. These are time
lapse exposures. The camera records a scene from a fixed point
of view. It is stopped. Different actors are put in front of it,
then the shot is resumed. This sort of shot seems to be a common
part of film vocabulary of the era; D. W. Griffith does similar
things in Intolerance.
There is other trick photography in the film as well, notably
the half transparent photography of Truth, who usually looks like
a film ghost. One imagines such double exposures were common.
Where Are My Children?
Where Are My Children? (1916) is social commentary film.
It is loaded with opinions on controversial subjects dealing with reproduction:
pro birth control, pro eugenics, anti-abortion. It is one of the most ferocious
social commentary films ever made.
Much of Where Are My Children? actually centers on abortion.
It is an emotionally upsetting film to watch. So are later films on the subject:
the pro-abortion Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004),
the ambiguous 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007).
These must be three of the most depressing films ever made.
The Blot (1921) is a realistic drama. It looks at the financial problems of
college professors and ministers, two ill-paid groups often living in poverty in the 1920's.
Their families attempt to exist, but they are barely getting by - and often even lack food.
The Blot criticizes "income inequality": the gap between the rich, and the many poor people
who lack food. Films like this helped change American values, and usher in long periods of a
more egalitarian America with widespread middle class incomes. But since the 1980's, monstrous rich people
and their right wing, Libertarian allies have waged war on the middle class. The result:
in 2010, over one in eight Americans only survives on food stamps. It is a right wing war on the poor.
Conditions in the United States once more resemble The Blot.
As in Hypocrites, Weber is once more looking at Protestant America in general, and
a minister in particular.
Victor L. Whitechurch was an author of "clerical romances": popular,
gently comic novels about British Anglican clergymen. His novel The Robbery at Rudwick House (1929)
contains a similar protest as Weber's film: both show and criticize well-to-do people hiring
clergymen at salaries below a living wage. The clergyman in The Robbery at Rudwick House
and the professor in The Blot both come to similar partial solutions of their financial troubles:
they tutor well-to-do young college men in the evenings. So Weber was not alone in noticing
Louis Calhern is the leading man. He is a startlingly handsome hunk, in the good guy
tradition of Wallace Reid. Calhern and Reid both embodied the WASP ideals of their time.
Calhern is refined, basically decent but fun loving in a wholesome way.
The opening of The Blot recalls that of Hypocrites:
There are differences: The Blot is comic; we get to know individual audience members as characters,
unlike the social types in Hypocrites.
- Both begin with a sympathetic authority figure speaking to a group:
a minister addressing a congregation in Hypocrites,
a college professor lecturing his pupils in The Blot.
- The pupils in The Blot are seated on church pew-like benches, increasing the resemblance.
I've never seen such seats in a university.
- Members of the audience are bored and quietly negative in their attitudes.
- Rich audience members are especially negative. This is indicated by their expensive clothes
in Hypocrites; made explicit by title cards in The Blot.
- Both films have an incident, in which an audience member is caught sneaking a look at a
newspaper, prompting a rebuke by the speaker.
The Blot has a marvelously tactile sequence early on, showing the characters
coming home from work in the rain. Settings in The Blot are vividly done, full of
specific detail. After the rain, we see the wet, slightly muddy ground. The rain is not a deluge or big storm,
but is a steady shower. Like other aspects of The Blot, it is well shown but not over-dramatized.
Imagery: Art, Books, Food
Weber's interest in art continues: both the hero and the minister like to make portrait sketches.
The Blot is also full of Weber's book imagery. The heroine works in a public library,
and we see a trap she's laid for the hero in on of the books he's borrowed. We also see the minister's
love of old books. The book deals with historical costume, recalling the tableaux of
medieval costumes in Hypocrites.
In addition to looking at hunger in the USA, The Blot gives a full look at the food
and eating habits of the rich, middle class and poor. It also has the most vivid look at a
1920's grocery store I've seen. Either this is a very detailed set, or it was shot on location.
The Blot is a realist film, and less concerned with trick photography than Hypocrites.
Still, it contains a nice dissolve between a sketch of the heroine, and the heroine herself.
This recalls the dissolves between characters in modern and medieval clothes in Hypocrites.
Also unusual: the titles introducing some of the characters contain live-action views
of those characters. This logical approach doesn't seem that common in silent films,
for some reason.
Neither of the above kinds of shots are designed to introduce fantastic events into the plot.
They are instead devices intended to help narrate the film, or explore its content.