What Do Men Want? (1921)

What Do Men Want? is such a sermon in celluloid. It would have you believe that it is a genuine psychological drama, while it serenely ignores most of the real facts of life that would shake the pat answer it offers to the question it raises.”[1]

“What men need . . . 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.” – Lois Weber[2]

What do men want?

First of all, some context: originally, this movie was longer than what’s available today; only reels three, four, and five have survived. The movie follows two men, Frank and Arthur, as they court two different women. Frank courts Hallie, the “belle” of their town, and Arthur courts Bertha, a homely girl who makes dresses for a living. While Frank and Hallie get married, Arthur decides to break up with Bertha. She does not take it well because she is pregnant with his child. Overcome with despair, she drowns herself in a lake. The story then shifts to Frank and Hallie as Frank explores the title question: what do men want?

Lois Weber, the director and writer, has an answer for that, or rather, several answers. At the beginning, it’s commented that Frank only wants Hallie as a possession, not for love and companionship as Hallie wants Frank. While Frank is satisfied by his marriage, this satisfaction doesn’t last. Instead, he turns to a number of things: another woman, Big Business, money, power, freedom/bachelorhood, and youth, or something like it. At the end of the movie, no longer available for viewership, Frank asks the title question to his wife. Hallie says, “What they haven’t got,” but Frank says she’s wrong and instead says, “they want the intelligence to understand that a home, honorable responsibility, and the companionship of a true woman are the greatest blessings of life.”[3] As our anonymous New York Times reviewer says, it’s a pat answer.

Lois Weber behind the camera. https://dangerouswomenproject.org/2017/01/10/lois-weber-early-hollywoods-forgotten-pioneer/

The fragment that I watched is well acted, well edited, and well shot. The actors give more natural performances and have realistic reactions to what happens around them. Most actors in silent film, especially women, act like they are on a theater stage – over the top. Weber said, “I believe a woman, more or less intuitively, brings out many of the emotions that are rarely expressed on the screen.”[4] The film is also well-edited, with clean cuts from scene to scene and no extra expository set ups. Close ups of characters are done in a square frame rather than a round one, something a little more modern. And it has a really good transition – the title card says “Money was telegraphed Arthur with a message that terrified him into instant obedience.”[5] and the next scene shows Arthur on the train going back home. This propels the plot forward and heightens the tension. If it had been a male director, we probably would have seen the title card in action.

(Above, Lil Dagover from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Claire Windsor from What Do Men Want? Notice the difference in acting styles as well as the make up. Picture credits: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/520658406922414912/, https://clairewindsor.weebly.com/what-do-men-want.html)

 Weber had already been active in the industry at this point in her career. In addition to being a pioneer in early Hollywood, she was a strong advocate for social justice and causes that often made their way into her films. Most of her films were critiques on social norms, gender roles, and taboo topics. Weber especially liked to explore the relationship between men and women. Unfortunately, society was not too kind to Weber and her movies in the 1920s. Shocked at how “lewd” and “disgraceful” it was, Paramount Pictures cancelled her distribution deal. Society had also changed its tune: it no longer wanted an education over film, it wanted entertainment: “Weber’s focus on the urban social problems, rather than amusement, and the complexities of marriage, rather than romantic courtship, was increasingly perceived as outdated, overly didactic, and dower.”[6] As the movie industry changed, from a bunch of small independent houses to increasingly larger studios, Weber and other women in the industry lost a lot of ground. While Weber continued to work in Hollywood, it was not equivalent to the success she had at the start of her career.

So, what makes this movie essential?

Like Pollyanna, this film is essential because of its creator. Weber worked in Hollywood for almost two decades, and created a lot of milestones: the first female director, the first owner of a woman-owned production house, the first women elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association. As Hollywood changed, women were essentially erased from the history, leaving women like Kathryn Bigelow and Cholé Zhao to be deemed “pioneers” of film making. And in some ways, they are. But as society grapples with equality and representation in the movies, we need to remember that it wasn’t always like this. Women, at one point, were the backbone of Hollywood. It’s unfortunate that this is no longer the case today.

[1] “What Do Men Want?”, The New York Times Book of Movies, ed. Wallace Schroeder, New York, N.Y.: Universe, 2019, p. 1218.

[2] Emma-Lindsay Squier, The Atlantic Constitution, April 17, 1921. Found on “Why Doesn’t Hollywood Hire More Women? Let’s Ask the Most Famous Female Director of 1921!” slate.com, posted June 4, 2017. Web. Last accessed April 28, 2021. https://slate.com/culture/2017/06/director-lois-weber-discusses-sexism-in-hollywood-circa-1921.html

[3] Lindsay Squier, last accessed April 28, 2021

[4] Shelley Stamp, “Women in Early Filmmaking: No Finer Calling,” Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, New York, N.Y.: Kino Lorber, 2018, p. 7.

[5] What Do Men Want? dir. Lois Weber (1921; New York, N.Y.; 2018), DVD.

[6] Shelley Stamp, “Lois Weber,” Women Pioneers Film Project, New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. Web. Last accessed April 28, 2021. https://wfpp.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-lois-weber/#ccp Found in “Common Careers #1: Lois Weber,” by Ariel Schudson, Movies Are My Boyfriend, Web, last accessed April 28, 2021. https://moviesaremyboyfriend.com/2014/01/09/common-careers-1-lois-weber/

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