- A Chapter in Her Life (1923):A "Chapter" on the History, Aesthetics, and Ethics of Lois Weber's Filmmaking
Lois Weber's filmmaking career emerged during an era of opportunities for aspiring women in a developing cinema industry, and Weber—director of such socially significant works as Suspense (1913), Hypocrites (1914), The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), Where Are My Children (1916) and the Blot (1921)—was, "without doubt, the most important woman director of the silent era."1 However, A Chapter in Her Life, Weber's 1923 film based on novelist Clara Louise Burnham's Jewel: A Chapter in Her Life (1903),2 has rarely been seriously examined by film historians. With the exception of Shelley Stamp's wide-ranging Lois Weber in Early Hollywood,3 critical literature has perpetuated the narrative of Weber's fall from her position as a dominant silent-era filmmaker by claiming that her films became out-of-date and hence forgotten. The director has been treated, historically, with condescension for "trying to improve the human race" through her "morality plays."4 Examining the relationship of A Chapter in Her Life to film history, social history, and women "reformers" in the second decade of the 20th century makes it possible to confront the film's poor reception and reflect on whether the film was indeed out of step with its times, a position some reviewers have attributed to Weber's "now anachronistic and preachy style."5
Rather than simply accept these assessments of Weber's personal and professional failure to keep up with the changing culture of 1920s Hollywood, one must expose her entry into another "chapter" of cinema history by probing her self-conscious and creative uses of fable, trope, and sensation. This chapter is defined by the problematic figure of Mary Baker Eddy and her unsettling connection to feminist and film history, as well as by the figure of youth as a counter-text to residual and emerging iconic sentiments of the cinematic child. Further, this film must also be explored in terms of its stylistic connections with European filmmakers such as Germaine Dulac, who articulated a form of filmmaking in which "the inner life [is] made perceptible by images."6
The object of this essay is not to redeem Weber or those who influenced her, but to examine the histories in her cinematic texts—histories involving feminism's unsettled relations to language, subjectivity, and unresolved conflicts between mind and body (especially characteristic of Dulac who, in the teens and early twenties, experimented with the moving image through style to create a cinema that feels and thinks7)—through the lens of individuals in an embattled culture. Through its portraits of the domestic trials of girls and women, A Chapter in Her Life digs beneath the surface narrative to create "an emotional agency in suggestion."8
A close analysis of the film reveals central stylistic and thematic features to be both discretely autobiographical and analytic of 1920s-1930s American cinema, for better or worse. Perhaps the most important influence on these features was that of the controversial Mary Baker Eddy on ideas of the child (in this case the female child)—specifically the idea that the child embodies aesthetic and ethical concerns that Weber struggled to articulate through intelligence and affect (rather than preaching, as is often claimed). A controversial feminist filmmaker, Weber would have been drawn to the contentious figure of Mary Baker Eddy despite the bias exhibited toward Eddy's life and work. In this film's use of tropes involving the importance of thinking by means of cinema, the film's treatment of the child becomes an alternative mode for imagining the evolution of a culture in transition from one of repressiveness to one of responsiveness and care for the other. [End Page 46]
Music, Disharmony and Interiority
A Chapter in Her Life takes place in the home of the wealthy and dysfunctional Everingham family, dubbed "Castle Discord" by the young Jewel (Jane Mercer) for good reason. The cast of bleak characters is headed by a bitter paternal figure, Grandfather Everingham (Claude Gillingwater), who is eternally disappointed in his offspring (with one son deceased and the other...