In her day, pioneering producer/director/screenwriter Lois Weber ranked alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecile B. DeMille as one of the most successful and influential filmmakers of any gender. As historian Cari Beauchamp writes, though little known today, Weber was the first American woman to direct a feature length film, the first woman member of the Motion Pictures Directors Association, and even the first woman, years before Mary Pickford, to own an eponymous studio. Weber, the subject of author Shelly
Stamp’s insightful book “Lois Weber in Early Hollywood,” explains how Weber was known for tackling social injustice in her films, addressing issues such as drug addiction, birth control, capital punishment, and women’s inequality. Weber also actively mentored and promoted other women in the early film industry. (You can learn more about Lois and other silent-era women directors in the latest Dream Factory episode of Nathan Master’s fascinating LOST LA history series for KCET television.)
While a far less notable accomplishment, as shown here, Weber was also the first to use key filming locations, years before Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and others would employ these settings in their later films.
Weber’s 1916 drama Where Are My Children? involves a married but childless District Attorney who prosecutes an abortionist, only to learn that his own wife and many of her society friends were among the doctor’s clientele. The concluding scene depicts the lonely DA and his wife staring into their fireplace over the years, visited symbolically by the ‘ghosts’ of the adult children they would never have.
The many scenes of the DA’s home were filmed at the mansion of noted architect Edwin Bergstrom, later home to theater magnate Alexander Pantages, before it was razed in 1951 to build a Jewish community center (now home to West Coast University). As shown above, Harry Houdini filmed his debut (non-serialized) feature The Grim Game (1919) at the same mansion, and Buster Keaton would later film the opening scenes from Cops (1922) at the north entrance gate (read more about The Grim Game HERE). But pioneer film-maker Lois Weber filmed here first, by several years.
Early in the film the DA, portrayed by Tyrone Power (father of the classic-era actor), prosecutes a physician on obscenity charges for distributing literature about birth control. In his defense, the doctor recounts tragic events from his practice that could have been prevented had the public been educated about contraception. In one story, directly below, the doctor explains how a single mother, abandoned by her lover, committed suicide along with her infant by leaping from a bridge. The bridge portrayed was the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, built in 1913, by then already notorious as a “suicide bridge” in real life. With more than 100 known suicides, the bridge is remodeled today with a modern suicide prevention fence. While I can’t say whether Weber directly influenced Chaplin, Charlie filmed a similar scene on the bridge with Edna Purviance portraying a despondent single mother in The Kid (1921) (decades later Chaplin decided to excise this scene). Again, Weber filmed here first.
The physician on trial for providing birth control information then describes the poverty and violence endured by poor families overwhelmed by having too many children. His account turns to a rowdy fight filmed in some dingy alleyway, below. Weber staged this scene just south of Hollywood Boulevard, in an alley parallel between Cahuenga and Cosmo – the earliest use (of which I am aware) of what would prove to be a very popular place to film. Here below are comparable scenes staged there from Chaplin’s The Kid – but again, Weber filmed here first.
Gale Henry filmed The Detectress (1919) beside the same iron posts and stairway used by Lois and Charlie – she beat Chaplin to the spot as well.
A full then and now view of the alley from The Kid (and Where Are My Children?) appears below.
As shown in this post, Buster Keaton would later film Cops, and Harold Lloyd would film Safety Last! (1923), at the same alley first used by Weber. The Chaplin – Keaton – Lloyd Hollywood Alley.
Above left, Where Are My Children? features this scene of the DA leaving what was the actual Los Angeles County Court House (1891 – 1935), later heavily damaged in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, once situated at the SW corner of Temple and Broadway. The movie view shows the main north entrance facing Broadway, and a similar view appearing in the Roscoe Arbuckle – Mabel Normand Keystone comedy That Little Band of Gold. Filmed in 1915, the Arbuckle directed comedy preceded Weber’s use of the location, but we should note that Mabel Normand, also pictured, was herself an accomplished director. For some reason, in my experience at least, the former court house rarely appears on camera in early film.
As a final example of Weber’s foremost use of locations, she filmed her 1921 drama The Blot at the campus settings employed by Buster Keaton years later in 1927. Again, Weber filmed here first.
To be fair to Charlie, he did appear in at least one location prior to Weber using it in a film – see matching views above of the Castle Sans Souci appearing both in Tillie’s Punctured Romance and Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici – although Chaplin wasn’t the director of that picture. You can read my full post about The Dumb Girl of Portici HERE.
You can learn more about Lois and other silent-era women directors in the latest Dream Factory episode of Nathan Master’s fascinating LOST LA history series for KCET television.
Another great post and very informative on several levels. I never heard of Lois Weber and will look to find Shelley Stamps’s book at the library. I recognized the Vermont Avenue address as the 1950s Jewish Federation Building and then Cleveland Chiropractic College before its current use as West Coast University. I didn’t know that the Bergstrom Mansion had occupied the site or its connection to Pantages. As you noted, many of the issues discussed a century ago are still relevant today. Just recently I read that Pasadena Heritage is part of a citywide task force on how to address suicide prevention on the Colorado Bridge while maintaining the historic landmark.
Thanks Gregg – there are so many layers to history – I love how the movies can help tie things together and make them live in the present.
What amazes me is how pretty L.A. used to be. Nice wide sidewalks with shade trees, beautiful homes with large gardens. Now it has vehicular traffic, but one sees few pedestrians around town, so it often seems to be desolate and overcrowded at the same time.
Was Bergstrom a fan of films? I would imagine having film crews around your house back then would be less of a pain than now, but still surprising that he let his home be used so often! Also, what time zone is your blog set to? It sure doesn’t seem to be PST …
Another wonderful film lesson from Master Bengston. Many thanks for this!
Thanks Fernando – and thank you once again for your amazing discoveries about The Blacksmith. What a treat to be able to see “new” Keaton footage after 90 years.
SHOES has some incredible LA location footage including the outside of WOOLWORTH’S as well as Pershing Square.
Thanks Dennis – I hope I can do another Lois post some day. There are so many historic images of lost LA buildings and streets that exist only in early movies.
That’s one of the things we love to research when we restore/digitize a film. There’s nothing like looking at frames over and over to question what’s actually in the frame! Right now, we’re trying to find the locations in a film shot in Italy!
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