Sarah Duhamel, rebellious clown of French silent comedy

This is a guest post for Silent London by Jonathan Wakeham, the co-founder and programer of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival, the 6th edition of which takes place at BFI Southbank 4-7 May 2017. Find out more at locofilmfestival.com.

We’re all familiar with the iconography of male silent comedy stars: Harold Lloyd’s glasses, Chaplin’s cane or Laurel and Hardy’s signature hats. They are brands as recognisable as Hitchcock’s silhouette, and they make the same promise: a guarantee of entertainment.

But there’s no equivalent female brand: no icon that’s known the world over. That’s not because there were no women silent comedy stars. Women such as Louise Fadenza, Mabel Normand, Marion Davies, Sybil Seeley and more were big names in their day. Florence Turner — “the Vitagraph girl” — was the biggest box-office draw of her era, and arguably the first true movie star.

But although they drew huge audiences there was, from the beginning, a doubtfulness about women becoming comedy stars. Part of this came from a tradition that defined comedy as inherently male; the French philosopher Henri Bergson declared in 1900 that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion … highly emotional souls in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter”.

rosalie

And even if a female comic spirit were possible, could it be reputable? While men could engage in comic violence, demolishing their dignity for comedic effect, slapstick broke the rules as far as women’s bodies were concerned. After all, in silent comedy bodies were pummelled, broken or even exploded, their clothing regularly torn off by children, dogs or locomotives. Women’s bodies, on the other hand, were supposed to be pure and inviolable, their behaviour altogether dignified. And while male sexual desire could be made laughable, female desire was surely sacred, untouchable in every sense?

All of which is a reason to celebrate Sarah Duhamel, one of France’s greatest silent stars. Round-faced and robust, she’s not a conventional beauty, but she has a sexual confidence that sparkles on screen and she’s unashamedly a clown, completely in command of her own physicality, self-aware and full of mischief.

SarahDuhamelstill.jpg

She was born in 1873 and was a star from the age of three, when she made her debut at the Théâtre Lafayette. After a successful career as a child performer she joined the Fourmi theatre group, then began work in film in 1908. After making some short films with Louis Feuillade she teamed up with director Romeo Bosetti and began a remarkable partnership, creating two long-running series: thirty “Rosalie” films and twenty “Pétronille” films between 1911 and 1916.

Although they inevitably vary in quality, Duhamel’s persona shines through: raucous, rebellious, always in trouble but often triumphant, as in Pétronille Wins The Great Steeplechase, in which Pétronille, having bet all she has on a horse, takes its jockey’s place when he is injured and rides it to triumph despite being twice his size.

In her defiance of gender expectations, her capacity for getting into trouble and her ability to win despite the odds, Duhamel in these series is the pioneer for modern icons such as Melissa McCarthy, Amy Schumer or Roseanne. And in the space between the single-reeler and the feature she’s also creating the sitcom: every episode tells a new story while keeping the character constant, vulnerable moment to moment but returning unscathed the next time.

Over a hundred years after Duhamel’s final film it’s almost inconceivable that there are still articles being written that question women’s right to be funny. But there are also thousands of women who prove every day that they can. And the silhouette of Sarah Duhamel — strong, proud, invincibly funny — deserves to stand alongside her more famous male counterparts, an inspiration to the women who will blaze the next comic trail.

Jonathan Wakeham

  • The LOCO London Comedy Film Festival runs from 4-7 May at BFI Southbank. On Saturday 6th May LOCO celebrates the women stars of silent comedy with a programme including Rosalie et Leontine Vont Au Theatre, curated by Bryony Dixon and with a new live score by The Lucky Dog Picturehouse. www.locofilmfestival.com
  • If you are interested in silent comediennes, I thoroughly recommend a new book called Slapstick Divas by Steve Massa. It’s a valuable reference work, and a very entertaining read both, full of fascinating characters. I reviewed it in the current issue of Sight & Sound.

 

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