Here I am again, talking about one of my very favourite subjects: women in silent cinema.
In fact, let’s get right into it – on Monday 30 May I am delivering an online lecture on the very subject. It is called “The Women Who Built Hollywood: A Feminist History of Early Cinema” and I would love you to join me. Here’s the official blurb from the website.
Today it looks like Hollywood is run by men, but it was built by women. In fact, there were more women working in Hollywood in its first two decades than there are now, or have been at any time since. If Hollywood is ever to achieve gender parity in its studios and boardrooms, it should look back to its beginnings.
This article was originally published on the Drugstore Culture site on 23 November 2018. As that site is currently shuttered, I am reposting it here.
The career of Mabel Normand represents one of the biggest gaps in popular film history. Why isn’t this uproariously funny comic, who starred in more than 167 shorts and 23 features, remembered as one of the greats of silent comedy? Instead, there is a long-established male hierarchy in slapstick: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at the top, vying for the number one slot, with Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd snapping at their heels. Then there’s Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Raymond Griffith and many more, cramming in to the picture like a cohort of bungling Keystone Cops. For years the top ranks have been pictured this way, as a boys-only club, with room only for comedians, not comediennes. In his 1975 slapstick bible The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr even declared: ‘No comedienne ever became a truly important silent ﬁlm clown.’ The reason being, he argued, the beauty standards required of women in the film industry. ‘Comediennes, from Mabel Normand all the way to Marion Davies, laboured under an instant handicap: they had to be pretty… The girl was expected to function as a girl, no matter what incidental nonsense she might be capable of; grotesques need not apply, except for supporting roles.’
It’s a misperception that is finally shifting. A hundred years after the fact, it seems we are finally appreciating the contribution of women to the art of silent comedy, including many more great comediennes besides Normand and Davies. Recent books such as Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas (2017) and Maggie Hennefeld’s Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (2018) are changing our idea of the comedy canon, and in the UK, screenings as part of the nationwide BFI Comedy Genius season and at the annual Slapstick Festival in Bristol should help to get the word out further. For the record, Marion Davies was deathlessly hilarious, squeezing acclaimed comic set pieces into the action of hit comedies including Show People (1928) and The Patsy (1964), and I would add to that list Marie Dressler, Beatrice Lillie, Colleen Moore, Alice Howell, Laura La Plante, Zasu Pitts and Mary Pickford, just for starters. If we go back further in time, a phalanx of rambunctious women were making boisterous comedies in the pre-Hollywood years: Cunégonde and Rosalie in France, Florence Turner, Laura Bayley and the ‘Tilly Girls’ in Britain. If you’ve been led to believe that women took only dramatic roles in silent cinema, take a second look at these comics, who were as comfortable falling, fighting and making a mess as any of their male counterparts.
January is a time for looking forwards, not back, right? That’s just not the Silent London way. With immense thanks to all of you for voting and sharing in the 2018 poll, I am delighted to announce your silent film highlights of the past year.
Best DVD/Blu-ray of 2018
It arrived late in the year, but hotly anticipated and was everything we wanted it to be. Kino Lorber’s magnificent Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set is your favourite release of the year. And mine too. Check out selected highlights from the set on UK Netflix now.
Best Theatrical Release of 2018
Never let it be said that there is any kind of bias in this list – but the BFI’s release of Pandora’s Box, in a gorgeous new restoration topped your choices this year. And of course I wholeheartedly agree.
Slim pickings in this category, but an overwhelming number of you got creative and chose John Krasinski’s held-breath horror A Quiet Place in this category. I see what you did there and I like the way you think.
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.
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→
That’s all, folks. I don’t know about the other festival delegates, but I am utterly and completely scherben*. it has been a fantastic festival: eight days to wallow in the full diversity of what we call silent cinema. I have learned a lot, met some wonderful people and enjoyed many, many movies.
The final day began with rain, a sleepy trek to the Cinemazero and some really quite startling footage, completely unsuited to the tender hour. I am not talking about Felix the Cat, who entertained a select crowd with his adventures as a wildlife documentarian in Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles (1928). I am talking about the new documentary feature by David Cairns and Paul Duane, Natan. This award-winning doc tells the truth, or attempts to, about Bernard Natan and his incredible life.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Hi everyone. Welcome back to another edition of Charlie’s London.
As promised I will be looking at two more women who I believe shaped his life, both on screen and off. Last time I looked at Chaplin’s mother and Mabel Normand, this week I will look at Edna Purviance and Oona O’Neill. I have to confess, Normand never used to be a favourite of mine, even though I consider her contribution to be important and often overlooked. Now, I have to say, I’m really in her corner. People have often said that Chaplin and Normand hated each other. People have also often said Chaplin and Mary Pickford hated each other too, for me, these relationships are one and the same. Their relationships were creative ones: if they clashed, let’s call it artistic differences.
Normand not only directed Chaplin but also acted as his leading lady too: a role taken most often by Edna Purviance, who appeared in 33 of his pictures including extra parts in Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. Purviance was first cast opposite Chaplin in 1915 after a chance meeting with one of his associates in a Tate’s Cafe in San Francisco – the director was looking for a new female lead for his Essanay comedy A Night Out. Even after her final film with Chaplin, A Woman Of Paris in 1923, Purviance stayed on the company payroll right up to her death in 1958.
Chaplin and Purviance were romantically linked for many years, and unfortunately this is how some film enthusiasts and historians seem to want to remember her. I completely disagree with this. Chaplin would never have another leading lady like Purviance – Paulette Goddard comes close, but they don’t have the same bond on screen.
This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome to another edition of Charlie’s London! For this segment and the next I’m going to look at some of the women in Chaplin’s life, showing how influential, important and ultimately empowering some of these women’s roles really were.
A lot has been written about Chaplin’s private life; he was a dashing and charismatic individual whose appeal extended beyond stage and screen. Recently I was talking to a fellow Chaplin fan and friend in Bologna. We both agreed that there was something so beautiful about Charlie, it was no surprise that his private life become front-page news, whether the stories were true or not. Putting the gossip aside, for me the women who shaped, moulded and even changed Chaplin were his mother Hannah, Mabel Normand, Edna Purviance and of course Oona O’Neill.
This subject will often be debated, with some enthusiasts and historians adding Hetty Kelly, Charlie’s first love, and even Paulette Goddard, his third wife and star of Modern Times and The Great Dictator, to that list. I hope with these two blogs I will explain why I have chosen this group. In this first instalment I will talk about Hannah Chaplin and Mabel Normand.
Hannah Hill, Chaplin’s mother, was arguably the most influential woman in his life. Her struggles in order to give Chaplin a decent upbringing, only to suffer such terrible mental health problems, no doubt haunted him for the rest of his days. I have spoken of Hannah before, and I am quite fond of her as a historical character, not only because she is the mother of my hero, but because I feel she is incredibly interesting. Historians have labelled Hannah as everything from a woman of ill repute to an undiscovered music hall genius whose renditions of the era’s classics would ignite her son’s thirst for the art.
The “fallen woman” analysis comes very much from psychologist Dr Stephen Weissman whose book Chaplin: A Life paints Hannah in a very unflattering light. His depiction of her affair with stage star Leo Dryden (the union that would produce Chaplin’s brother Wheeler) and his suggestion that syphilis was the cause of her madness (including references to her working as a prostitute) are seen as very controversial by other Chaplin enthusiasts and historians. David Robinson is quite rightly kinder to Hannah, noting the confirmed ancestral link to mental health dificulties within the Hill women as the roots of her tragic downfall, while also highlighting her faults such as her affair.