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Allegheny City and the Silent Film Era

on Thu, 03/14/2013 - 00:00

Lois Weber
From 1840 until 1907, the North Side of Pittsburgh was an independent municipality known as Allegheny City, and the present-day Allegheny City Society currently serves as an historical remembrance of those days gone by as well as a celebration of the present. In addition to numerous events geared towards the uniqueness of the region, the Allegheny City Society also sponsors a Winter Film Series each year that likewise pays tribute to the North Side’s roots, and in both 2012 and 2013, the films chosen included a pair of silent movies whose ties to the former Allegheny City are historically significant.

On March 12, 2013, for instance, the Allegheny City Society screened Cecil B. DeMille’s Manslaughter at the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church. The location was only a few blocks from the childhood home of the starring actor in the film, Thomas Meighan. Although not a household name today, Meighan was one of the silent film era’s leading men—even eclipsing the legendary Rudolph Valentino for a time—and a top box office draw during his days in Hollywood.

From 1914 to 1927, Meighan appeared in close to fifty productions, sharing the silver screen with such notable fellow actors and actresses as Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney Sr. and Gloria Swanson. Meighan was also amongst the highest paid performers of the time, earning $5,000 a week for most of his career and going as high as $10,000 during his peak years.

Thomas Meighan was born on April 9, 1879, on Taylor Avenue in then Allegheny City. His father was president of Pittsburgh Facing Mills, a prosperous foundry in the region. Despite the financial fortitude of his family, Meighan initially refused to attend college, only consenting to the wishes of his parents after his father put him to work shoveling coal. Although he studied pharmacy at St. Mary’s College, Thomas Meighan soon caught the acting bug and secured a position in the Pittsburgh Stock Company instead, earning $35 a week. New York City eventually beckoned, however, and Meighan began a brief but successful run on Broadway before being encouraged by Samuel Goldwyn to move to Hollywood a few years later.

While Meighan appeared in numerous motion pictures beginning in 1914, it wasn’t until 1919 and The Miracle Man that he truly hit stardom. One of his last silent films, meanwhile—The Racket—was even nominated for Best Picture at the 1929 Academy Awards. With the end of the silent era upon him, Thomas Meighan turned his attention to real estate and the lucrative Florida market. Although he sporadically returned to motion pictures during the early 1930s, Meighan was eventually diagnosed with cancer and died on July 8, 1936.

While Thomas Meighan was spotlighted during the Allegheny City Society’s 2013 Winter Film Series, another North Side native was featured in 2012, Lois Weber. Despite the fact that Weber was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960—21 years after her death—she is even less remembered today than Thomas Meighan despite an arguably more successful and influential career.

French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché is often considered the world’s first female movie director, for instance, but Lois Weber has the distinction of being the first American-born female movie director with the short A Heroine of ’76 in 1911 and full-length The Merchant of Venice in 1914. Over the course of three decades, Lois Weber directed 135 films, wrote 114 screenplays and acted in 100 motion pictures.

Like Thomas Meighan, Lois Weber was born in Allegheny City in the year 1879. She took an interest in the piano at an early age, and was even considered a “child prodigy.” When her piano-playing days abruptly ended in 1898, meanwhile, Weber turned to social activism as a street corner evangelist with the Salvation Army-like Church Army Workers, living in poverty and attempting to convince prostitutes to reject their corrupt lifestyles.

Although “religion” itself seldom played a role in the films that Weber later created, a deep-rooted morality does run through the screenplays she wrote and motion pictures she directed nonetheless. In fact, it was the potential to “preach” to a larger segment of the population that initially attracted Lois Weber to the film industry.

“I have unlimited faith in the future of the motion picture, because I have faith in the picture which carries with it an idea and affords a basis for the argument of questions concerned with the real life of people who go to see it,” she once explained. “If pictures are to make and maintain a position alongside the novel and the spoken drama as a medium of expression of permanent value, they must be concerned with ideas which get under the skin and affect the living and the thinking of the people who view them. In other words, they must reflect without extravagance or exaggeration the things which we call human nature, and they must have some definite foundation in morality. For certainly those are the things which endure.”

During the silent film era, Lois Weber wielded authority over her productions like few other filmmakers at the time. Many of her subject matters were controversial, dealing with the hypocrisy of society, drug addiction, marital infidelity, birth control and capital punishment. In the film The Hypocrites, for instance, Weber created a character named “The Naked Truth,” who was performed by a literally naked woman—the first depiction of full-frontal nudity in a motion picture.

While such topics and filming devices led to an uproar amongst the various state censoring boards, the critics at the time praised her work and the added publicity only helped to make the films of Lois Weber a financial success.

Weber was a “realist” who sought to depict “life as it was” within her works. This soon conflicted with Hollywood, however, which believed that the future of the film industry resided in “escapist” comedies and dramas that allowed the audience to leave life’s problems behind when they walked into a movie theater. Weber’s personal moralistic view, meanwhile, likewise put her at odds with the community-at-large. The advent of sound only further alienated her from a new breed of Hollywood producers, and she was quickly forgotten shortly afterwards.

Thomas Meighan and Lois Weber may now be footnotes in the long history of the motion picture industry, but they both played important roles within the early days of that industry nonetheless. The fact that both were born in the North Side of Pittsburgh is likewise a testament to the region.

Because of the efforts of the Allegheny City Society and its Winter Film Series, meanwhile, Thomas Meighan and Lois Weber are not only still remembered in their hometown, but their legacy lives on for a new generation of Pittsburghers to experience as well.

Anthony Letizia

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