(Phillips & Lois Weber Smalley, 1913, USA, 10m, BW)
Directed by Phillips Smalley
Written by Lois Weber
Starring Lois Weber, Val Paul
Distributed by Universal Film Manufacturing Company
Release dates July 6, 1913
Running time 10 minutes
Country United States
Suspense is a 1913 American silent short film thriller directed by Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber. Weber also wrote the scenario, and stars in the film with Valentine Paul. The film features early examples of a split screen shot and a car chase.
A servant leaves a new mother with only a written letter of notice, placing her key under the doormat as she leaves. Her exit attracts the attention of a tramp to the house. The husband has previously phoned that he is working late, the wife decides not to ring back when she finds the note, but does ring back when she sees the tramp. Her husband listens horrified as she documents the break in, then the tramp cuts the line. The husband steals a car and is immediately pursued by the car's owner & the police, who nearly but not quite manage to jump into the stolen car during a high-speed chase. The husband manages to gain a lead over the police but then accidentally strikes a man smoking in the road, and checks that he is OK. Meanwhile the tramp is breaking into the room where the wife has locked herself and her baby, violently thrusting himself through the wood door, carrying a large knife.
Lois Weber as The Wife
Valentine Paul as The Husband
Douglas Gerrard as The Pursuer
Sam Kaufman as The Tramp
Lon Chaney as A Hobo (uncredited/unconfirmed)
An isolated house in deserted area is too remote for a servant, who leaves a note, quietly exits the back door, and puts the key under the mat. Alone in the house is a mother and her infant. A tramp watches the servant leave, then begins to skulk. The woman sees him outside as he discovers the latchkey. She phones her husband, who's working in town, and he jumps into a car idling in front of his office. He races toward home while the car's owner (and the police) are in pursuit.
Lois Weber was the first woman in America to direct a feature film – no mean accomplishment in an era when a woman’s place was still largely considered to be in the home. It’s only natural to assume that a woman would have to show inarguable talent behind the camera to be given the opportunity. It’s films like this that helped Weber to win the job. Weber was such an accomplished director that D. W. Griffith singled her out as one to watch.
In Suspense she also appears in front of the camera as the damsel in distress in a remote family home who is menaced by a sinister tramp when her maid walks out. Weber does a superb job of building the suspense with early and confident use of parallel editing. She also displays a similar confidence when it comes to shot composition and choice of angles. Suspense marks the first use of a triptych scene – in which three different pieces of action are shown on a split screen at the same time – in a film. Unlike most techniques employed for the first time, the triptych device works remarkably well with simultaneous pieces of action synchronised on the screen. Today, a director would use parallel editing, but the technique still works surprisingly well here.
This film shows another side of the multi-talented Lois Weber’s film-making being a terse exercise in drama designed to agitate the audience in a rather different way to her more political outings. Directed by Weber and husband Phillips Smalley from her own script, there’s a wealth of invention and incident in its eleven adrenalized minutes. The film packs a lot of shots and cuts into this time, maybe not quite as many as Griffith (and someone has counted…) but enough to show that he was far from the only gunslinger in town whilst Weber adds and adapts some stunning innovations of her own.
Suspense is notable, however, for a couple of reasons. First is its imaginative use of the camera—split-screen, overhead shots, tracking and extreme close-ups (witness the two stills from the movie). The second is that it is the work of Lois Weber, the first really successful American woman director. The plot of the 10-minute short Suspense—an intruder menaces a lone woman while her savior rides to the rescue—was already a cliche by 1913 (so much so that an early Keystone Kop comedy that year featured a spoof of both it and such D.W. Griffith's two-reelers as The Lonedale Operator that has used the same storyline).
Lois Weber, who had been a street-corner evangelist before entering motion pictures in 1905, became the first American woman movie director of note, and a major one at that. Herbert Blaché, the husband of Frenchwoman Alice Guy, the first woman to direct a motion picture (and arguably, the first director of either gender to helm a fictional narrative film), cast her in the lead of "Hypocrites" (1908). Weber first got behind the camera on A Heroine of '76 (1911), a silent that was co-directed by pioneering American director Edwin S. Porter and actor Phillips Smalley, who played George Washington. She also starred in the picture. In 1914, a year in which she helmed 27 movies, Weber co-directed William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1914) with Smalley, who also played Shylock, making her the first woman to direct a feature-length film in the US. (Jeanie Macpherson, who would play a major role in cinema as Cecil B. DeMille's favorite screenwriter, also acted in the film).
In the spirit of her evangelism, she began directing, writing and then producing films of social import, dealing with such themes as abortion, alcoholism, birth control, drug addiction and prostitution. By 1916 she had established herself as the top director at Universal Film Manufacturing (now Universal Studios), the top studio in America at the time, making her the highest-paid director in the world. The following year she formed Lois Weber Productions. She directed over 100 films, but her production company went bankrupt in the 1920s as her career faltered. She did not make the transition to sound, although she did make one talkie, White Heat (1934), in 1934.
Weber was the leading female director-screenwriter in early Hollywood. She began her career alongside her husband, Phillips Smalley, after the two had worked together in the theatre. They began working in motion pictures around 1907, often billed under the collective title “The Smalleys.” In their early years at studios like Gaumont and Reliance, they acted alongside one another on-screen and co-directed scripts written by Weber. Indeed, their status as a married, middle-class couple was often used to enhance their reputation for highbrow, quality pictures. In 1912, they were placed in charge of the Rex brand at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, where they produced one or two one-reel films each week with a stock company of actors, quickly turning the brand into one of the studio’s most sophisticated. The couple increasingly turned their attention to multireel films, completing a four-reel production of The Merchant of Venice in 1914, the first American feature directed by a woman. Later that year they moved from Universal to Hobart Bosworth Productions where they were given more freedom to make feature-length films, among them Hypocrites (1915).
By the time the couple arrived back at Universal in 1916, Weber had emerged as the dominant member of the husband and wife partnership and, indeed, as one of the top directors on the lot. She was the sole author of scripts the couple adapted for the screen, and marketing materials and reviews singled out her work on the productions. Reporters visiting the couple on set found Smalley repeatedly turning to his wife for important decisions (Stamp 2006, 124–125). During these years Weber made a series of high profile and often deeply controversial films on social issues of the day, including capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), drug abuse in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), poverty and wage equity in Shoes (1916), and contraception in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917).
At a time when many remained wary of cinema’s cultural impact, Weber believed in the medium’s narrative and dramatic power. Among the first to produce complex feature-length narrative in the early teens, she sought to bring the same quality of artistry to the screen as flourished in other media. Her “ideal picture entertainment,” she once said, was “a well assorted shelf of books come to life” (“Lois Weber on Scripts”). But for Weber, bringing refinement to the cinema went beyond highbrow subject matter to include films of social conscience. She often talked of using motion pictures as a means of achieving political change, aspiring to produce work “that will have an influence for good on the public mind” (Photoplay 1913, 73).
Weber achieved the height of her renown during these years: her name was routinely mentioned alongside that of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades. While at Universal it is also likely that she helped to foster the careers of other actresses employed at the studio, many of whom she had directed, including Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, and Dorothy Davenport Reid, who would become directors or producers in their own right.
Weber’s prominence was solidified in 1917 when she left Universal to form her own company, Lois Weber Productions, setting up shop on the grounds of a former residential estate in Los Angeles, where she erected a 12,000-square-foot outdoor shooting stage and converted the original home into the company’s administrative offices. Weber negotiated extremely lucrative distribution contracts with Universal, making her, for a time, the highest paid director in Hollywood according to Photoplay (York, 87).
At her own production company, Weber began to move away from what she called the “heavy dinners” she had produced at Universal, side-stepping the censorship troubles she had endured in favor of more intimate productions focused on marriage and domesticity, concentrating her creative energies more than ever on the lives and experiences of women in films such as What Do Men Want? (1921), Too Wise Wives (1921), and The Blot (1921). In an attempt to transcend the factory-like mass production techniques employed at the major studios, Weber also experimented with different working methods, shooting on location as much as possible and often in narrative sequence (Weber 1917, 417).
While Weber was one of the few female screenwriters to make a sustained career out of directing, like most other female pioneers, her output slowed down considerably after 1922. The end of Weber’s marriage that same year is often cited for the abrupt shift in her career and has led some to argue that Smalley played a more central role in her filmmaking activities than had been assumed. Anthony Slide, for instance, speculates that Weber could not function “without the strong masculine presence” of her husband (1996, 131). However, it is worth noting that while Weber’s career did decline sharply following the couple’s divorce, she wrote and directed five features over the next decade:
A Chapter in Her Life (1923), The Marriage Clause (1926), Sensation Seekers (1927), The Angel of Broadway (1927), and White Heat (1934). Smalley, in contrast, never again worked in any creative filmmaking capacity other than acting—and did not get much work even at that. More than likely, the downturn in Weber’s career was related to larger circumstances at play in Hollywood during the early 1920s, circumstances that compromised the fate of many independently run production companies, especially those headed by women. Plus, Weber’s focus on urban social problems, rather than amusement, and on the complexities of marriage, rather than romantic courtship, was increasingly perceived as outdated, overly didactic, and dower. “Why does Miss Weber dedicate herself, her time and her equipment to the construction of simple sermons?” one reviewer complained in 1921 (“The Screen”).
By the time Weber died in 1939, at the age of sixty, she was eulogized chiefly as a “star-maker,” a director notable only for fostering the talent of young starlets. Weber herself was “rediscovered” in the 1970s by historians like Anthony Slide, who dubbed her “the director who lost her way in history” (1996) and Richard Koszarski, who remarked that “the years have not been kind to Lois Weber” (1977). It is now time to ask what a history rewritten with Weber’s legacy in mind might look like.
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Parchesky, Jennifer."Lois Weber’s The Blot: Rewriting Melodrama, Reproducing the Middle Class" Cinema Journal 39:1(Fall 1999): 25-53.
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Remont, Fritzi. "The Lady Behind the Lens" Motion Picture Magazine(May 1918): 59-61, 126.
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Sloan, Kay. "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: An Introduction" Film History 1:4(1987): 341-366.
Stamp, Shelley. "Lois Weber and the Celebrity of Matronly Respectability." In Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin, eds., Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in AmericanFilm History and Method. Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 2007, 89-116.
------. Lois Weber in Early Hollywood. Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming.
------. "Lois Weber, Progressive Cinema and the Fate of ‘The Work-A-Day Girl'" Camera Obscura 56 (2004): 140-69.
------. "Lois Weber, Star Maker." Vicki Callahan, ed., Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History.Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010.
------. "Presenting the Smalleys, ‘Collaborators in Authorship and Direction" Film History. 18:2(2006): 119-28.
------. "Taking Precautions, or Regulating Early Birth Control Films." In Jennifer Bean and Diane Negra, eds.,The Feminist Reader in Early Cinema. Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2002, 270-97.
Van Loan, H.H. “Lois the Wizard.” Motion Picture Magazine (Jul. 1916): 41-44.
Weber, Lois. "A Dream in Realization.” Interview with Arthur Denison. Moving Picture World (21 Jul. 1917) Rpt. in Richard Koszarski, ed., Hollywood Directors, 1914-1940 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976, 50-53.
-----."How I Became a Motion Picture Director" Static Flashes (24 Apr. 1915).Rpt. in Antonia Lant, ed., Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema. London and New York: Verso, 2006, 658-60.
York, Cal."Plays and Players" Photoplay (March 1917): 87.
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