Tag Archives: Florence Turner

Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes

These reviews of Slapstick Divas: the women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa and Specters of Slapstick & Silent Film Comediennes by Maggie Hennefeld first appeared in the June 2017 and July 2018 issues of Sight & Sound, respectively. I am reposting them here ahead of a slew of events celebrating silent cinema comediennes coming up soon.

Marion Byron & Anita Garvin

 

Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa

In the silent era, as now, film comedy looks a lot like a boys’ club – and that disparity is more deeply entrenched in the arena of physical humour. For those who would like to see Marie Dressler and Marion Davies, let alone Flora Finch and Anita Garvin, as celebrated as their male peers, Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy, will be a welcome resource. A followup to Massa’s survey of lesser-known male silent comedians, Lame Brains and Lunatics, Slapstick Divas tells an engrossing tale of female performers beating a path in the silent film industry.

An entire chapter is devoted to the most famous slapstick comedienne of them all, Mabel Normand, who segued from modelling work to acting, first in Vitagraph comedies and then at Biograph where she played dramatic roles for D.W. Griffith, but was happier putting over gags for Mack Sennett. Normand would become a fixture at Sennett’s new Keystone studio, starring in ever more physically demanding films. The chapter is named after a Photoplay description of Normand as “the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit”, but her work was as rough-and-tumble as her peers. “I have fought with bears, fallen out of a rapidly moving automobile, jumped off a second story roof into a flower bed and risked life, limb and peace of mind in innumerable ways,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1916. She appeared in several films with Charlie Chaplin, including the feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and was regularly paired with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Although she was later dismissive of her skills behind the camera, she directed several films too, including Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), Chaplin’s first performance as the Tramp. Sadly, an accident on set one day contributed to Normand’s slow decline. While she continued to act into the 1920s, her career faltered owing partly to a series of scandals, but mostly her increasingly erratic behaviour in the studio, and gaunt appearance on film, consequences either of her brain injury, or her drug use. She died from tuberculosis in 1930, aged 37, and although she is the star of this volume, Massa notes that “her work has rarely been screened and her talent has been taken for granted”. Continue reading Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes

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A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – review

A Night at the Cinema in 1914
A Night at the Cinema in 1914

This is a guest post for Silent London by Juliet Jacques. Jacques is a freelance journalist who writes about gender, sexuality, film, football and literature. She writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman and the LRB and her new book Trans: a Memoir will be published by Verso in 2015. 

Film historians often credit DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) with popularising the full-length feature film, if not inventing it – changing both the language of cinema and the way it was seen. Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s US Civil War novel The Clansman, it opened with “A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture”, attempting to create new formal techniques that drew on literature and drama. Distancing it from the fairground sideshows at which Edison, Méliès and other pioneers showed their works, aiming to attract more middle-class viewers, Griffith’s epic screened in theatres with an interval and printed programme, and a three-hour score by Joseph Carl Breil, which combined original music, familiar melodies and classical compositions, notoriously Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries during the ride of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Birth of a Nation was not the first full-length feature, historical epic or literary adaptation: Giovanni Pastrone’s 200-minute Cabiria, set in ancient Carthage and Sicily, inspired by Flaubert’s Salammbô and written by poet and novelist Gabriele d’Annunzio, was released a year earlier, and several Italian studios took such risks, by now assured of their audience. So 1914 – that seismic year for Western culture – marked a turning point for cinematic convention, departing from the collections of single or double-reel comedies, adventure films, travelogues and newsreels shown at music halls, shop fronts and penny gaffs during the early 1900s.

Marking the centenary of the First World War, A Night at the Cinema in 1914 attempts to recreate the atmosphere in one of Britain’s 3-4,000 “picture houses”, featuring 14 short films from the BFI archives, curated by Bryony Dixon, all in good condition, with an improvised score by pianist Stephen Horne that references music of the time, it invites 21st-century viewers to imagine when movies would have provided not just a social occasion, with rowdier audiences happy to talk not just between reels but also during them, but also the chance to catch up with the world, illustrating what had been covered by the newspapers.

Several newsreels open the collection. First, a “light” item about British pilots Gustav Hamel and Bentfield Hucks Looping the Loop at Hendon, in March. This lasts just a few moments, but shows how bracing aviation must have been, the rickety box-planes flying low, the pilots exposed. What seems most amazing now is that just months later, 11 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, these were used in warfare. (Less surprising is that far more British pilots died in training than combat.)

Emmeline Pankhurst arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914
Emmeline Pankhurst arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914

One of the biggest pre-war political concerns features in Palace Pandemonium (May), which shows Emmeline Pankhurst marching to Buckingham Palace, held by police who barely hide their contempt, to petition George V for women’s suffrage. This reminds us how high-profile the campaign was, but Austrian Tragedy immediately shifts the agenda, chronicling the Austro-Hungarian royal family’s efforts to carry on after the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Continue reading A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – review