Last week, I recommended a new Buster Keaton box set. Well, there’s an evergreen sentiment. I remain a devotee of physical media (and in the interests of full disclosure, also make part of my living from it), but I realise it’s getting a little trickier for people to get hold of news discs right now, whether that’s because of distribution difficulties or lack of funds. I hear you.
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