Over the weekend, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman broke the all-time opening weekend record for a film directed by a woman. But as recent studies show, studios still hire vanishingly few female directors. For some thoughts as to why the industry is so hostile to female talent, here’s pioneering filmmaker Lois Weber discussing sexism in Hollywood with journalist Emma-Lindsay Squier in 1921. Although the article shows its age in places—it’s unlikely a modern interviewer would call her subject “a white crusader bearing on her shield the flaming cross of her convictions,” for one thing—Squier and Weber’s frank, funny discussion of male fragility in the film business and beyond is still all too relevant in 2017. Weber, one of the best-known directors of the teens, made hundreds of movies over the course of her career; fewer than 50 survive. The interview originally ran in the Atlanta Constitution on April 17, 1921, shortly after Weber’s distribution deal with Paramount was canceled by executives scandalized at an advance screening of her film What Do Men Want? —Matthew Dessem
“What men need,” said Lois Weber, “is to see themselves as they really are. What they need is to face the truth about themselves—but they won’t do it. It is too bitter a pill.”
If you are a man, you will smile cynically at this statement made by the famous woman director. If you are a woman, you will smile sadly, perhaps grimly. But, however you smile, you will agree with her. Being a woman, I agreed; not because of a blasted romance or a trusting heart deceived, but just as a matter of principle. We women have to stick together.
Lois Weber, as you, perhaps, may know, has been called the “yellow journalist” of the screen. The photo stories which she has written and directed are consistently daring in their nature. They are generally about sex.
Until I met Lois Weber I thought her daring was of the box-office variety. I thought she skated on thin ice because there is a certain type of public which will pay more for thin ice than for solid ground. But now it is my honest belief that Lois Weber makes the pictures she does because she wants to tell the truth about life as she sees it; because she believes that people should not hesitate to look facts in the face, and because she rebels at man-made morals being thrust upon womankind through the medium of man-made pictures.
Lois Weber must be seen to be appreciated. None of her photographs do her justice, nor do the word sketches drawn by typewriter artists. Many of the pictures she has made bear the stamp of the yellow journalist. But to know Lois Weber is to know that she is a white crusader bearing on her shield the flaming cross of her convictions.
It was to learn the inside facts concerning the much-mooted picture What Do Men Want? that I went out to interview her.
I had heard upon good authority—masculine authority, I might add—that the picture was too utterly risqué for even the most hardened exhibitor to take a chance on. I heard that it had traveled from west to east and from east to west half a dozen times, arousing exclamations of horror each time from the director general producer down to the director general producer’s assistant secretary’s office boy. On each trip the shears of the cutter snipped virtuously and now that the lily-minded powers that be have sufficiently safe-guarded the young and innocent picturegoing generation—the same generation that sits spellbound through such naïve little screen stories as Sex, Don’t Change Your Wife, and The Thunderstorm—the moral lesson contained will have all the punch of a warm-milk cocktail.
I went, as I have said before, to get Lois Weber’s version of the much-traveled picture. I thought to find a woman belligerent, tearfully resentful, sternly masculine in her conviction that she had been bitterly wronged. I found a woman who radiated charm, not only from her own personality, but who managed to surround the whole studio with a homelike and feminine style. She is of medium height, and her dark hair lies in graceful waves around her face. Her eyes are green and turn up at the corners ever so slightly. Her mouth is firm and humorous and her handshake is as steady as a man’s. But she is intensely feminine. So is the studio. It is an old house converted into a screen-craft shop with a tennis court at one side and a green lawn in front. There is a fireplace in the outer office, which is furnished with rocking chairs like a living room and in Mrs. Weber’s own sanctum there is another fireplace with a huge couch before it, piled with pillows. She told me that she made practically all her scenes away from the studio. If she wanted to film a kitchen, she rented one in somebody’s house; if she wanted a drawing room, a jail, or a church, she didn’t build the sets on the stage behind the studio, she went where they really were, taking her lights, electricians, and actors along.
“Then what do you use the stage for?” I asked.
“To give dances on,” she replied quickly.
She was not the least bit vindictive about the way her pet brainchild had been manhandled. It seems to me that she stands outside of herself looking on at life, not as a participant, but as a spectator. She does not believe that anything is worth grieving terribly for; she thinks that loss of poise destroys one’s sense of values.
“They said to me after seeing the picture,”—she always refers to it as “the” picture—“It shows that a woman made this.”
“I said to them: ‘Yes, it does show that a woman made it. And it also shows that men are afraid to see themselves as they really are.’ ”
The story in brief concerns a young man who marries his high school sweetheart. He tells her he loves her; but what he really loves is her mouth, her long lashes, her creamy skin. He wants her, and he gets her. But married life palls, although children come to bless the union. What does he want? Perhaps it is money and power. Through a fortunate deal in stocks he achieves wealth, and later, the power he has sought. But after a while life again takes on a dusty look and a musty taste. What does he want now? He meets a fascinating woman, a drug addict, whose conversation is racy, and whose attentions are flattering. Ah! That’s what a man wants! The companionship of a woman who “understands” him. He goes to her again and again. His wife and children are neglected, his conscience goes vagabonding. Then somehow the woman’s charm fails. He discovers that her voice is high-pitched, that to maintain her vivacity she must have drugs, that she is ready to give her favors to the highest bidder. He leaves her, disgusted with everything in life, and with the thought of his quiet fireside soothing his fevered mind. But grief has done its work with the lovely girl he married. When he comes to plead forgiveness, her mind is so dulled by pain that she no longer cares whether he goes or stays. She accepts him again, dutifully, but without pleasure. “Do you know what men want?” he asks her, as they sit before the fire.
“What they haven’t got,” she says quietly.
“No,” he replies, “they want the intelligence to understand that a home, honorable responsibility, and the companionship of a true woman are the greatest blessings of life.”
I have left out the touches that make—or rather made—the picture such a widely discussed feature. There was a scene, for instance, where a poolroom hanger-on ogled a girl on the street corner, and mentally disrobed her. The outlines of her body were made to show through her clothes—in a double exposure, of course—and the powers-that-be fairly stuttered in an effort to express their horror.
“But men do it,” Miss Weber told me. “I have seen them do it numberless times! It struck home, that’s all.”
There was another scene where the “other woman” is using her seductive powers to entrap the man she wants. She undressed—behind a curtain—and donned a black chiffon negligee. It was handled delicately, but it was bold. The cutters’ shears haven’t left a remnant of that episode.
But aside from the bits—which, I frankly think should be left unscreened—are pictured fragments taken from life that are so gripping, so analytical, and so real, that one is amazed at the caliber of the intelligence which would censure them. For instance, Miss Weber heard an actor on the lot telling of his “system” for winning the hearts of women. She eavesdropped without shame—and gave his “system” into the hands of the pool room character. The powers-that-be thought it “dangerous.”
After she had read the script to the assembled cast—including the electricians and carpenters, for it is her custom to have everyone who works with her familiar with the story she is making—one of the young men came to her in private, and told her with worried amazement, that she had him in the story. If she had taken scenes from his own life, he maintained, she could not have hit more squarely upon the truth.
Then another came in and told her with awe in his voice that in that story she had things from his own life, and after that one of the carpenters wanted to know how much she knew about him, because there were things in that story—et cetera.
This really happened. It simply goes to show that whatever objectionable features Lois Weber had in What Do Men Want?, she at least had several grains of universal masculine truth—and the truth hurts.
“When I delivered the picture to the producer who had contracted for it,” said Miss Weber, “I waited expectantly for the praise I was sure I would receive. Then one day a phone call came. It was the producer. He said in a slow voice, weighted with portent, ‘Mrs. Smalley,’ ”—she is Mrs. Phillip Smalley in private life—“ ‘I have just seen your picture.’ ”
“ ‘Yes,’ I said eagerly. ”
“ ‘And I want to tell you that I am shocked; I have never been so shocked in my life. It is lewd; it is disgraceful! It is altogether impossible.’ ”
“And so,” said Lois Weber to me with her humorous, understanding smile, “I say that what men want is flattery. What they need is to be told the truth about themselves.”