The Long, Dark Shadow of Lela Swift

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Happy Women in Horror Month, everybody! In case you missed it, not only is February Black History Month and the host organism for Valentine’s Day, but you also get to celebrate your Ann Radcliffes, Tanith Lees, and L.A. Bankses, your Vampyros Lesbos, Babadooks,  and Girls Who Walk Home Alone at Night, as we recognize the vital contributions of women to the horror genre. Yet even as we celebrate, the conventional wisdom that horror belongs to (probably sadistic) boys and men remains. Casual googling and experiential reality easily disprove this old saw, although it is also probably fair to say that Stephen King’s sister hasn’t quite found the metaphorical crypt of her own yet either.  When I recently browsed upcoming horror movie releases for this year, even though most told the story of a besieged heroine, nightmare villainess, or both, women behind these stories —  directors, producers, and writers — were relatively few. Horror films tend to focus on female characters, spin stories that depend on female experiences, and command significant, if not disproportionately, female audiences, and so the lack of female creators can be puzzling. Of course, much of the under-representation of women behind the camera in particular might well be pinned on industry bias, not genre bias, something well explored in the documentary Celluloid Ceilings. And here’s a good place to introduce you to my Women in Horror Month honoree, the late, the kickass Lela Swift.

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Lela Swift started fresh out of college in the secretarial pool at CBS, as one does. It was the mid-1940s, she was in her mid-20s, and it was a transformative time for everybody. The network was only just testing the potential of live TV at a time when televisions were still a luxury item for most households. Swift saw the future coming and told her bosses she’d work for free if she could work in television. I assume they paid her, but she did get the transfer. The constant ad hoc triage of the fledgling industry and live entertainment, sexism or no, made room for Swift to work her way from clerical to production, collecting impressive skills and influential mentors, including Worthington Miner and Frances Buss, one of the few female directors to precede her in the business.

So by the time CBS launched Studio One in 1948, one of its first nationwide programs, former secretary, gofer, researcher, Gal Friday Lela Swift was its Assistant Director. Gatekeeping is harder when gates aren’t on their hinges yet.  She did hit a ceiling with the Assistant Director title though, and it was entirely about being a woman, or more precisely, “a girl.” She was encouraged to go into other areas of the business, as other girls did.  She so didn’t. Eventually, she was given the title and responsibility she had been working for, but also told in no uncertain terms, it wasn’t going to be the same job it would have been if she were a man. She described it an interview with the Paley Center for Media:

“What happened was . . . the head of the programming department called me in and said, ‘They’re going to make you a director.’ My eyes lit up. I was really delighted, ’cause I didn’t know it would ever happen to me. And he said, ‘But I think that you know you’ll only be doing cooking shows ’cause you’re only a girl.’”

She accepted the promotion, but cooking shows were not her destiny.  Instead, Swift directed a musical. And then she turned to anthology shows, with their sensational mix of drama, horror, and suspense, and issues-oriented public affairs shows. She returned to direct Studio One. She directed episodes of shows like Suspense and The Web, famously fighting  for James Dean to keep his job on an episode of The Web, which turned out well for both of them.  So, basically, she did fabulously well and worked a good bit in a world where that’s never guaranteed, even after switching networks. And here’s a fun anecdote: while working on The Web, her young son toddled into a meeting of male directors, telling them, “You can’t be a director. A director is a mommy.” Oh, kids, darnedest things, etc.

Then in 1966 she got the directing job she’s always going to be remembered for (albeit not the the one she won all her Emmys for) – Dark Shadows, the O.G. gothic romance with the O.G. reluctant vampire. Filmed to tape in a small studio with a modest budget, Swift drew on her years of directing live TV to keep up with the rigorous serial format, so the episodes were filmed as live as they could manage, including lots of special effects. This process did lead naturally to the occasional flubbed line or boom mic cameo, which are treasured by Dark Shadows fans to this day. You can find early episodes of Dark Shadows on YouTube, too, with the production slates intact at the beginning of each episode and see most are done in one take, at most two, with a turnaround time from tape to air of about a week. That’s pretty speedy stuff, even without figuring out how to stage a fire in one take without the appropriate permits.  Dark Shadows was clearly always Dan Curtis’ baby, but after directing almost half the episodes and becoming a producer in the final 1970-71 season, Swift was at least its obstetrician. She even got a fan letter from Fritz Lang.

After ABC finally hammered wolfsbane and wreaths of garlic over Collinwood’s doors because they thought the world needed more game shows, Swift went on to direct and produce more popular TV miniseries and movies with a propensity for suspenseful and/or supernatural subjects. She helmed five episodes of the Wide World of Mystery, also available for the pursuing on YouTube.  She also directed the pilot for a new Dan Curtis series, Dead of Night, which didn’t get picked up by a network, but was repurposed into the delightful TV movie A Darkness at Blaisedon, featuring  Dark Shadows’ own Louis Edmonds and Thayer David. Swift kept directing through the 1980s, reaping 3 Emmy wins, plus nominations for a couple more,  while working on the blue collar soap Ryan’s Hope.

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When Lela Swift passed away last August at the age of 96, she was well-memorialized by Variety and other industry publications and groups, not to mention all the Dark Shadows fans in the universe, and no one neglected her importance as a pioneer female director.  At the risk of being a little prickly, I’d point out that, especially on Dark Shadows, she was a pioneer director, full stop.  Of course it was important that she achieved notable, award-winning success as a woman in a field women still struggle to participate in, much less be recognized in. Of course it’s important that the girl collaborated on and directed one of the most popular and ground-breaking series of its time. I mentioned how the lack of traditional gatekeeping at the birth of the television industry gave Swift an opening to gain the skills and experience that might otherwise have been out of reach, but it’s notable that she was one of so few actually to take that chance, and one of so few to succeed.

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Swift wasn’t an auteur, and she wasn’t a writer; the stories she brought to life onscreen started with someone else’s vision. She worked only in television, and while TV is from whence all the watercooler talk and cultural touchstones issue now, for most of her career, it was either an emerging or undervalued medium, even as it became essential to everyday life. Given her close collaboration with Dan Curtis, Lela Swift’s contributions to horror or gothic horror, if you like, are likely to be seen as a workmanlike fulfillment of his vision, if they are really scrutinized at all. In interviews, she downplayed her influence on Dark Shadows stories and gave full credit to Curtis and the writing staff. But Lela Swift made these stories happen.  Listening to Swift in interviews, it’s clear she was tough, assertive, but insightful about Dark Shadows’ appeal and enthusiastic about her part in bringing it to life at a time when there were few templates and no safety nets.

Looking back on her work can be practically difficult because so much of it belonged to an era before TV was reliably syndicated or curated. Still, even at the remove of degraded BASF videotape uploads, you can see not only what Lela Swift did as a director, but what she accomplished at the birth of an exciting new medium. It’s something that bears notice, as exciting new media are hatched every day, and our consciousness about equal time for female storytellers becomes heightened enough even to have things like Women in Horror Month.

For your consideration, Lela Swift selected filmography and resources:

Check out her episode of Suspense, “Kiss Me Again, Stranger,” based on a Daphne du Maurier story about a serial killer run amok and a jealous lover, and give thanksgiving for the bounty of excellent old TV on YouTube.  (Although the piping organ accompaniment in this episode does not survive modern sensibilities well, I will grant you.)

The Wide World of Mystery episode Alien Lover is terrible, but I’m including it because it’s just the right kind of terrible, born of the era and possibly the writing, and this should not reflect poorly on Lela Swift or her stars, which include a young Kate Mulgrew talking to a strange man in a TV set years before Poltergeist. The video transfer is terrible, but somehow that adds to the experience.

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“The Phoenix is reborn!” Here’s a little behind the scenes clip to give you an idea of  the authority Swift commanded on set and also what it was like wrangling special effects on Dark Shadows. Audio only at the beginning, pictures show up at about 1:34, and the scene starts at about 3:14.

If you’d like to watch or rewatch Dark Shadows with the accompaniment of affectionate riffing, there is a livetweet of Dark Shadows episodes every Sunday at 7:00pm EST on Twitter, and you can learn more, including video locations, at http://collinstweet.blogspot.com/.  You can find many episodes of the series on YouTube and Hulu.

The first and best place for all things Dark Shadows on the internet is The Collinsport Historical Society, and you can find among its many treasures a reprint of an article about Lela Swift in 1953, including her reflections on starting out in the industry and advice to aspiring young Lela Swifts. “Above all, don’t let anybody tell you it can’t be done. I did it. You can, too.”

And finally, along with the links provided to selected works above, you can find A Darkness at Blaisedon included as a special feature on the Dead of Night DVD collection, cheap at any price, but especially so on Amazon.com.

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Angela cannot definitively substantiate this, but she suspects that there are statistically fewer boom mic cameos in Lela Swift-directed episodes of Dark Shadows than those of her male colleagues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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