Phillips Smalley

Active - 1911 - 1938  |   Born - Aug 7, 1875   |   Died - May 2, 1939   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Romance, Crime

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Shortly after the Civil War, the wealthy parents of American actor Phillips Smalley made the first of several sojourns to Europe. The young Smalley went along on most of these trips in the 1880s, meeting such prominent personages as Disraeli, Gladstone, Robert Browning, James McNeill Whistler, and Oscar Wilde. Entranced by the reminiscences of major theatrical talents like Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving, Smalley vowed to tread the boards himself after graduating from Oxford University. Having appeared as Hamlet in an amateur production, Smalley continued pursuing acting during his postgrad years at Harvard back in the states. Establishing himself as a leading man (he had the strong jaw and deep-set eyes necessary for such a profession), Smalley decided that the stage was too confining for his ambitions and entered films at the Gaumont Studios in New Jersey, which in the early 1900s was experimenting with talking pictures. When talkies proved impractical for the moment, Smalley nonetheless stayed in films at Universal studios as an actor/director, ever on the outlook for cinematic innovations. Fascinated with camera tricks, Smalley introduced the triptych -- three separate scenes processed on the same frame -- in the 1912 one-reeler Suspense. Smalley's wife Lois Weber was an equally inventive director, and in fact she remained behind the cameras long after her husband had abandoned directing to return as a full-fledged actor. While he made quite an impression as a movie star in the years just before World War I, by 1919 Smalley's career began its decline. He was divorced from Weber by the mid '20s and relegated to character roles, notably as Sir Francis Chesney in Sydney Chaplin's Charley's Aunt (1925) -- a role he repeated in Charlie Ruggles' 1930 talkie version of the Brandon Thomas stage farce. By the mid '30s his career was essentially over, and he survived by picking up bit and extra work.

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