The release of Stan & Ollie has got a lot of people thinking about comedy. And in the Guardian opinion pages, one of my favourite film writers posed a very interesting question. So why hasn’t there ever been a female version of Laurel and Hardy?
Don’t ever make the mistake of assuming the writer wrote the headline. What Gilbey meant, I think, was why hasn’t there ever been a female comedy duo quite as successful as Laurel and Hardy? You could also ask, why hasn’t there ever been a male comedy duo quite as successful as Laurel and Hardy? But that’s not what Gilbey is getting at, writing very perceptively:
Never underestimate the ingrained sexism of male impresarios, who must have decreed that audiences simply don’t respond to female double acts, explaining away the ones that work as exceptions to the rule. But perhaps there is some deeper reason why the sight of two women performing harmoniously together as heightened versions of themselves has never properly clicked, or never been allowed to … Male friendship and rivalry is routinely the stuff of comedy. Does the notion of women getting along – or not – make us so uncomfortable that we can’t even bear to laugh at it?
Perhaps there is something in this. A deep-seated distrust of the idea that women can be funny, which doubles when there are two or more women on screen together? It’s very difficult to measure such a response, though. I’m more interested in where Gilbey went looking for his examples. He starts out in the 70s, and moves forward … citing French & Saunders as a prime example (but character comedy doesn’t count, apparently). Gilbey’s point is that female duos have a tougher time getting recommissioned – we, or the powers-that-be, don’t allow them to thrive. He may well be right there.
However, if you’re looking for a female version of Laurel and Hardy, you’re in luck. The key is to look back to the heyday of Stan & Ollie themselves. The silent and early sound era featured some brilliant, boisterous and downright hilarious female comedy duos. Did they smash the “custard ceiling” that kept solo comediennes such as Mabel Normand and Laura La Plante out of the highest echelons of slapstick royalty? Maybe not, but the work is hilarious, and every bit comparable to what Stan and Ollie were up to.
If we’re looking for a predecessor to Laurel & Hardy, we can do worse than Ole & Axel, AKA Pat and Patachon AKA Long and Short, the physically mismatched Danish duo that were popular around the world in the early 1920s. But way before then, there were female duos bounding across the screen, especially in Europe.
Let’s begin in the UK, before the war, with the Tilly Girls, played by Alma Taylor and Chrissie White. Both Taylor and White went on to have distinguished careers in British silent cinema, and played leading and dramatic roles, but together, as the Tilly Girls, they played merry havoc as a pair of riotous schoolgirls. Try two films from 1911, Tilly’s Party and Tilly and the Fire Engines (both on BFIplayer), directed by Lewin Fitzhamon for Cecil Hepworth’s company, when both actresses were around 16 years old. The series was begun with a film called Tilly the Tomboy Plays Truant, starring the dancer Unity Moore. When she was unavailable for more filming, Hepworth chose White and Taylor, in his words “two other little girls, just as clever and already on the fringe of our stock company” to star instead.
What’s notable about these films is how wild the girls are. It’s a far cry from our idea of Edwardian ladylike behaviour. In Tilly’s Party the girls are banished from a party but instigate a frenzied bash of their own, inviting two sailors to join them. In the second film, which we only have a fragment of, they steal a fire engine to take it on a joyride. Cecil Hepworth later wrote about these sprightly films in his memoir, saying:
“the great aim and object of these Tilly girls, in their pictures, was to paint the town extremely red, and the joyfully disarming way in which they thoroughly did it was the great charm of these delightful little comedies. Mischief without any sting in it is the one unfailing recipe for child-story pictures. Fitz, who loves children as much as I do, knew just exactly how to bring it out.”
There was more riotous female comedy to be found in continental Europe at this time, and that includes double-acts. For example, French comedienne Sarah Duhamel was a former stage star who made more than between 1911 and 1916 with the director Romeo Bosetti, playing her Rosalie and Pétronille characters. For a guaranteed chuckle, see her paired with a female chum causing absolute havoc in the balcony in 1911’s Rosalie and Léontine vont au Théatre. I have never seen audiences keep a straight face with this one.
Over in America in the early teens, you’ll find the “Frontier Twins” Dot Farley and Victoria Forde, rowdy “siblings” running amuck out west. Then there were the Fox Kiddies Jane and Katherine Lee. In historian Steve Massa’s words: “these were not sweet or simpering Kewpie dolls but ornery and cheeky little hellions”. In the 1920s, the Duncan sisters, Vivien and Rosetta had a hit with Topsy and Eva (1927), which has been little seen since, probably just as well given that Rosetta spends the entire film in blackface as Topsy. Lois Weber was initially set to direct, but left the project as she felt it was offensive.
Elsewhere in Hollywood though, two great comediennes, Marie Dressler and Polly Moran, sparred with each other in a series of eight silent and sound films starting with The Callahans and the Murphys (1927). Moran’s career declined after Dressler died in 1934, sadly, although happily you can see her in Adam’s Rib (1949).
Inside the Hal Roach studios at MGM, home to Laurel and Hardy, we find some especially strong contenders. If you have never seen A Pair of Tights you are missing out on a classic of slapstick comedy. This film from 1928 is an out-and-out comic masterpiece, the last and final collaboration of Anita Garvin and Marion Byron. Garvin had appeared in many slapstick films alongside Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase. Byron, you may remember as the leading lady in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. Hal Roach teamed the 4ft 11in Byron with the 6ft Garvin in a short-lived attempt to create a female equivalent to Laurel and Hardy. While the experiment didn’t last long, it has left us with this brilliant film, in which a simple scenario, buying an ice-cream, is spun into myriad variations and escalations, each more hilarious and bruising than the last. I think it’s every bit as funny as the best Laurel and Hardy picture. And more so than many.
The Byron-Garvin partnership was a hit, but they had only made three films together. And in the sound era, Hal Roach put together a new female comedy duo: fretful, fragile Zasu Pitts and slinky blonde Thelma Todd – and they work brilliantly together. Both Todd and Pitts were former silent stars. For Todd, however, her career came alive in the talkies, when she flourished as a comedienne, appearing with stars including the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. Pitts was a very experienced comic actress, although she is now best remembered for her indelible, tragic performance in Erich von Stroheim’s silent epic Greed – a casting choice that surprised audiences at the time. Pitts and Todd made 17 short films together, and when Pitts left she was replaced by Patsy Kelly for a further 21 shorts. Then Pert Kelton was brought in to replace Todd after her early death in 1935. Then Kelly was paired with Lyda Roberti for three films. Much later, in 1941, Pitts and Kelly appeared together in the feature Broadway Limited.
Let’s stick with Pitts and Todd, the original “Sugababes” of slapstick for now. You can find some of their work on YouTube, or on this fantastic-looking new DVD. Try Show Business from 1932 and Asleep in the Feet from 1933. These two films feature the girls in their typical situation as working girls down on their luck. In Show Business, the girls are travelling vaudevillians who cause havoc when they bring their pet monkey onto a train. In Asleep in the Feet they try to make some money for the rent bill as taxi dancers, that is selling dances in a nightclub to eager young men, or not so eager or young in Pitts’s case. Watch out for the return of Anita Garvin, who appears in both these films too. I think Pitts, especially, is just wonderful in these and I hope you enjoy her unexpected “Boop-boop-a-do” moment in Asleep in the Feet.
As I said earlier, Todd died young, aged just 29 – she was found in her car having died of carbon monoxide poisoning. There were speculations about suicide, and even murder. She had had a complicated life, and if you are interested in her, I highly recommend the episode of the You Must Remember This podcast, which is devoted to her story.
None of these double acts enjoyed the global success or longevity of career that Laurel and Hardy did. But those two were a one-off (sounds almost illogcal enough to be great Stan Laurel line, that). Gilbey makes some excellent points about how female comedy is perceived in his piece, but don’t let it blind you to some great female-led comedy that gives the boys in the bowlers a run for their money.
- Read Ryan Gilbey’s article here.
- Read more about silent comediennes here.
- Read more about Sarah Duhamel here.
- Read more about Stan & Ollie here.
- Don’t miss 30-Second Cinema!
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