The Rear-View Mirror: Lois Weber – Suspense (1913)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Even according to Wikipedia, J.W. Griffith “seems to have been the first to understand how certain film techniques could be used to create an expressive language”. Griffith is credited to have been “the first” to invent such innovations as intercutting, or even, absurdly, the close-up. However, he did not. There were many filmmakers before him to use such innovations, and during the span of his career, there were many others using these techniques to great, or better, effect. It is often difficult, seeing how much early film is lost, to determine who was “the first” to do anything. But it is certain that many early filmmakers used such techniques to “create an expressive language” before Griffith’s career was made by the massive, though controversial, success of his racist, excessive tour de force in 1915.

Lois Weber, for instance, would become one of the most important and prolific director-producers of her time. In 1913, she was elected mayor of Universal City, a place with “an entire outfit of women officials”, according to Universal’s publicity department. She was an actress, screenwriter, director, and later a producer. That year she starred in films such as The Picture of Dorian Gray. In July, the Rex Motion Picture Company released her short film Suspense: a collaboration between Weber and her husband Wendell Phillips Smalley. Suspense is a wonderful early example of how camera angles, inter-cutting, split screens and other cinematic techniques were used to great effect by a hugely talented filmmaker during the dawn of narrative cinema. It is pure storytelling through editing, and it even has a car chase!

Suspense is based on the French play Au Téléphone by André de Lorde and Charles Foley, though the trope of two locations connected by phone, home invasion, and rush to the rescue, was generally popular at the time. It tells the story of a young mother (played by Weber herself) who, when the housekeeper suddenly quits, is left alone with her baby in a very remote area. A vagrant (Sam Kaufman) comes by, and sees an opportunity to enter the house with the woman still there. She spots him and, panicked, calls her husband (Valentine Paul) in the city. The husband then rushes to rescue her in a car he steals for the purpose, closely followed by police. The husband and the villain scuffle, the police come in… and the day is saved! As is so often the case, the rather hoary plot is hardly the point: it’s the techniques which makes Suspense live up to its name. Although the acting, apart from Kaufman’s hamming it up as the most villainous villain ever, is remarkably natural.

One of the most striking sequences, in this short thriller which sports so many, is the superimposition of a triangle on the screen, in which you see the panicked woman calling in one corner, the husbands response in another corner, and the nefarious vagabond’s actions in the third. This simultaneity builds the suspense of the film and, though not the very first use of split-screen, it is a remarkable innovation for 1913.

The very next year, 1914, Weber directed as many as 27 films, first came to the attention of the censors and moved to Bosworth Studios to become the best known and highest paid of the woman directors in Hollywood. Incidentally, it was also in that year that Frances Marion, then contracted as an actress, was hired by Weber. The director became known for films which were as profitable, as they were grounded in a firm moral and social conscience. “I’ll never be convinced that the general public does not want serious entertainment rather than frivolous” she said. And she appears to have been right.

It is easy to forget that in the 1910s, ’20s and early ’30s more women were working in Hollywood than even today, and that half of the films copyrighted between 1911 and 1925 were written by women. Women stood at the very beginning of movies, not only as writers, but as directors and producers. The elevation of a man like Griffith as the sole “father of film” at their expense, is not only unjust: it is untrue.

In 2018 Suspense got a well deserved, beautifully polished BluRay release with a brand new score by Skylar Nam as part of a box set called “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers”. But it is also readily available on YouTube. Take 10 minutes and watch it: it might just change your notions of early cinema.

Lois Weber

A more detailed review of Suspense by the always knowledgeable Fritzi Kramer, also featuring a comparison with similar films of the time, can be found at Movies Silently.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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