The Woman in the Suitcase (1920) A Silent Film Review

In a grisly tale of madness and murder, the dismembered body… Just funnin’ ya! The title is a bit deceptive as it is a picture of a woman that ends up in a suitcase. The plot can best be described as The Women meets The Parent Trap as Enid Bennett plays detective and tries to track down her father’s mistress to save her family.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Most deceptive title in movie history?

Even among silent movie fans, Enid Bennett’s name is often met with a confused “Huh?” Her two most famous roles were as Maid Marian in the Douglas Fairbanks version of Robin Hood and as Rosamond in The Sea Hawk. The problem is that neither of these parts were really good showcases for her talents. Those movies were all about the men and Bennett’s main duty was the stand around and look pretty and/or be rescued.

I always had the sneaking suspicion that Bennett had a lot more to offer if given the chance and I was proven right when I saw The Red Lily, which co-starred Ramon Novarro and was directed by Bennett’s real-life husband, Fred Niblo. Novarro does okay but Bennett is sublime and fearless in what could have easily been a trite role.

Bennett gave "The Red Lily" her all.
Bennett gave “The Red Lily” her all.

Bennett’s career slowed in the mid-twenties as she began to focus more on her family. She also took a year off acting to travel with her husband to Italy when he was assigned the gargantuan task of rescuing the foundering production of Ben-Hur. Bennett acted as an uncredited assistant director, helping her husband keep track of extras and making peace when tempers flared on the set.

But what about her early days? Enid Bennett had enjoyed a successful career in the late 1910s and early 1920s as the solo star of a series of films, many directed by Niblo. Take a gander!

Bennett takes aim in "Fuss and Feathers"
Bennett takes aim in “Fuss and Feathers”
Bennett is the swashbuckler in "Strangers of the Night" aka "Phantoms of the Night" aka "Captain Applejack"
Bennett is the swashbuckler in “Strangers of the Night” aka “Phantoms of the Night” aka “Captain Applejack”

(Both films pictured above are missing and presumed lost. Check those attics, Soviet archives, antique stores and dumpsters!)

These films seem to have covered every genre imaginable but almost none of them are available to the general public. And this is why The Woman in the Suitcase is so significant; it’s a chance to see the motion pictures that made Bennett a popular star.

The story opens with Mary Moreland (Bennett) playing with a Pekingese, who seems quite annoyed about the whole thing. Mary is a member of the smart set and the only child of doting parents Claire McDowell (one of the go-to moms of the silent era) and William Conklin.

What's in the suitcase?
What’s in the suitcase?

Mr. Moreland has been out of town on a trip and that usually means a present for Mary. Her father tells her to wait for later but Mary wants a peek and so she opens her father’s suitcase. Inside in the photograph of a woman she has never seen before. The picture is inscribed with “all the love in the world” and signed by a woman calling herself Dolly. What’s going on? Who is this person. Is Mary’s father stepping out?

Our heroine is ready to give her father the benefit of the doubt but when she is freshening up her makeup, she sees her father’s reflection in her compact. (Nice visual effect, by the way.) He is hiding the photograph in his desk. If he is innocent, why does he feel the need to stash the picture?

Nope. not suspicious at all.
Nope. not suspicious at all.

Mary is having a party (one of the guests is a very young Gladys George in only her second motion picture appearance) with balloon hats and everything but when she excuses herself to use the phone, she hears her father on the other line with a woman named Dolly (Dorcas Matthews). The woman in the suitcase! The pair are clearly on intimate terms and are planning a rendezvous.

(I must also bring attention to the fact that Mary has a little satin telephone cozy. Awww!)

Doesn't everyone?
Doesn’t everyone?

This is the last straw. Mary decides that the matter requires her full attention. The problem is that Dolly and Mr. Moreland are meeting on the shadier side of town and Mary has, up to this point, been a very good girl. She’s never even set foot there! Personal safety must be considered.

(Hurray for heroines who consider personal safety!)

Hello, please send me your finest gigolo.
Hello, please send me your finest gigolo.

Mary’s solution is both practical and naïve. She advertises for a “nice” man-about-town to accompany her on her jaunts on the seedy side of life. Billy Fiske (Rowland V. Lee, who would go on to direct Barbed Wire, Captain Kidd and Son of Frankenstein) is the son of the newspaper’s owner and he is dying for some adventure. When he sees the advertising clerk chuckling over Mary’s ad, he decides that this is an answer to his prayers.

Mary is calling herself Amelia Black for the purpose of her undercover mission. She likes Billy at once but is focused on her investigation. It turns out that Dolly is a famous performer in a Ziegfeld Follies-esque beauty showcase. As Billy is acquainted with her, Mary forms a plan. She will be introduced to Dolly, become her friend and then show her father exactly what his behavior looks like from the outside.

Mary's new life.
Mary’s new life.

Billy isn’t let in on her plans, he only sees a nice kid apparently going to the dogs. Mary is drinking, smoking and spending every moment she can whooping it up with Dolly. Billy tries to stage an intervention with a Noble Protector shtick but Mary tells him to mind his own business, he’s her hired hand. (You tell him, Mary!)

Will Mary’s trap catch her rat of a father? Will she decide that Billy is the man for her? Or will she discover that she has bitten off more than she can chew? See The Woman in the Suitcase to find out.

This woman (and her hats) are not to be trifled with.
This woman (and her hats) are not to be trifled with.

Enid Bennett does not disappoint in the leading role. She is bold but practical, naïve but nobody’s fool. Best of all, she doesn’t back down. In fact, I think it’s a pity that she and Rowland V. Lee didn’t launch a series about their characters solving crimes among the high hat set. I would watch the heck out them tracking down stolen necklaces and unmasking blackmailers. (By the way, 1920 was the last year of acting for Lee and his first as a director. He would work steadily in that capacity until 1945, a respectable quarter decade.)

Don't get frisky, Fiske.
Don’t get frisky, Fiske.

Director Fred Niblo is often described as pedestrian but I think he just did better on a smaller scale. The Woman in the Suitcase is full of tiny dabs of visual sophistication, from the compact mirror scene mentioned earlier being a prime example. And anyone who thinks that animated title cards are exclusive property of German filmmakers will be enlightened by this picture. It’s not as gorgeous as The Red Lily but there is always something interesting to see.

I would describe the story of The Woman in the Suitcase as a cross between The Women and The Parent Trap. However, while The Women had the obnoxious message of “take your medicine” to women with wayward husbands, Mary shames her father for his straying ways. The Women also has the snobby attitude that a man will have fun with his bit of naughty from the wrong side of the tracks but the wife need only be patient and he will return to her. Because people who have cheated once never, ever cheat again. And the wife would want him back because… Oh yes, the stigma of divorce and the difficulties women had in entering well-paying professions. Lovely culture you have there, 1930s.

It's a known fact that men always stop at one mistress.
It’s a known fact that men always stop at one mistress.

Mrs. Moreland may be ready to wait for her husband’s return Mary isn’t going to cool her heels while her father gets bored with Dolly and moves onto his next conquest. She takes action immediately to show how hurtful his behavior is. It is also worth noting that Mary’s mother is portrayed as pleasant, attractive and loving. The film gives Mr. Moreland absolutely no wiggle room to explain away his behavior.

Damsel? Ha!
Damsel? Ha!

The Woman in the Suitcase is a lightweight trifle but it’s fun to watch. Enid Bennett’s assertive heroine is a terrific answer to the “silent movies were all about damsels in distress” myth. It’s not really a masterpiece but succeeds in telling its story in an entertaining manner. Really, isn’t that what the movies are all about?

Movies Silently’s Score:★★★

Where can I see it?

The Woman in the Suitcase has been released on DVD by Grapevine. Any other silent Enid Bennett titles would be enormously appreciated!


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