Funny girls: Heroines of slapstick

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

All the biggest stars of silent film were men, but their leading ladies could throw a custard pie with the best of them. Geoffrey Macnab salutes the unsung heroines of pre-war slapstick

Can women be clowns? In many film historians' accounts of the silent movie era, the answer is an emphatic "No!" Serious slapstick was the province of male performers like Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton. Women were there to play ingenues, vamps or character parts. The film historian Walter Kerr claimed that: "No comedienne ever became a truly important film clown." The stars were supposed to be beautiful and glamorous – the object of the gaze. Clowning Glories and Screwball Women, a season of comedy films screening during the festival Birds Eye View, a celebration of women in film, seeks to challenge this hoary old chauvinistic thinking.

Kelly Robinson and Ingrid Stigsdotter, the curators of the season, set about their task with crusading zeal. Sitting in the British Film Institute, watching silent movies on ancient Steenbeck machines, they looked for films that served one key purpose – namely, ones that made them laugh.

Robinson, an academic who wrote her PhD on the influence of German cinematographers on British cinema during the 1920s and 1930s, admits to feeling apprehensive when she set about researching the season. "Were we going to find women directors, women writers? Ultimately, were the films going to be funny? The more we watched, [the more] we were absolutely delighted," she says.

Robinson and Stigsdotter insist that their selection of silent screen gems will have a strong appeal for young audiences who want to enjoy themselves. "Silent cinema has a slightly stuffy image. People think it is going to be slow, boring and potentially difficult," says Stigsdotter. "We go to a lot of silent film screenings and we tend to be the youngest people in the audience." But audiences, they believe, will be surprised by just how contemporary the work feels. They cite comediennes such as Mabel Normand and Marion Davies, both neglected today, as having a distinctly modern sensibility.

Normand was credited as the first woman ever to throw a cream pie at Chaplin. She worked often with Chaplin, and also with Fatty Arbuckle. "Madcap Mabel", as she was known, was not only beautiful, she was a key figure at Keystone Studios, the company formed by her lover Mack Sennett in 1912. She later had her own production company, Mabel Normand Productions. Her career tapered out and her final years (before her untimely death in 1930) were clouded by illness, alcohol and drug abuse, and scandal. Nonetheless, she was one of the titans of early screen comedy: a star who wrote and directed her own work and was acknowledged as a mentor by Chaplin. Today, she is almost forgotten.

Davies, meanwhile, has been treated equally cruelly by posterity. She is primarily remembered today as media magnate William Randolph Hearst's mistress. Davies is harshly caricatured in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Kane's mistress Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), the failed opera singer turned drunk, has several traits in common with the actress, who had a stutter and was a heavy drinker. In a 1989 article in The New York Review of Books, Gore Vidal suggested that "rosebud" (the mysterious phrase on Kane's lips as he dies) was what "Hearst called his friend Marion Davies's clitoris".

In all the prurient speculation about her private life and the more intimate parts of her anatomy, the fact that Davies was a brilliant comic actress has long been overlooked. In King Vidor's Hollywood satire Show People (1928), she excels as Peggy Pepper, an actress working for the Keystone-like Comet Studios. When Peggy first arrives at the studios, she thinks she is in a serious film and is appalled when the cream pies start to fly. "Baby, all the stars have had to take it on the chin – Swanson, Daniels, Lloyd, all of them," she is told, and she learns how to be a trouper. Eventually, she becomes a serious actress for the High Arts Studio, renames herself Patricia Pepoire, and leaves her lowly slapstick friends behind.

Often in the silent era, even when the direction of the comedies was attributed to men, the women were really calling the shots. This was the case on Mary Pickford's films. "She never took direction. She directed herself and sometimes the other actors," Robinson notes of the star known to the public as America's sweetheart and to her fellow professionals as a ruthless and hard-headed businesswoman.

Watch her 1928 feature My Best Girl and you quickly realise that "the girl with the curls" was a brilliant choreographer as well as one of the screen's most famous ingenues. She plays Maggie, a lowly department store employee who falls in love with her colleague Joe, unaware that this stock boy is actually the boss's son working undercover to learn the business. The first time we see Maggie, she is carrying dozens of pots and pans. We see her struggling through the store, bumping into well-dressed customers. At one point, her petticoat falls round her ankles. She steps out of it and leaves it on the floor. Another customer thinks it belongs to her and squirms into it as Maggie looks on, horrified. It's the kind of skit combining comedy and pathos that you expect to find in Chaplin's work. What is surprising – at least to those who don't know Pickford's work – is her comic élan.

Pickford was one of the co-founders of United Artists. Other major female comedy stars were likewise able to mould their careers. For example, the former vaudeville star Elsie Janis wrote screenplays and songs for films, as well as working as a production supervisor.

During their research, the curators came across plenty of very funny films – and one or two surprises. Gloria Swanson is remembered as one of the supreme screen vamps. In The Danger Girl (1916), the short film being shown by Birds Eye, she plays an anarchic tomboy who looks as if she is on leave from a Mark Twain novel.

It's not just the Hollywood comediennes who are on display. Also featuring in the season is Britain's "Queen of Happiness", Betty Balfour, who specialised in playing what one critic called "low-life gamines". Her roles ranged from a cockney flower girl (the Squibs films) to a "reformed female hooligan" (Little Devil May Care, 1928) and a circus assistant (Monkeynuts, 1927). Meanwhile, the season also includes Blue Bottles (1928), a short starring the angular and very eccentric Elsa Lanchester. There is a foray, too, to Europe in the form of German director Ernst Lubitsch's starkly titled I Don't Want to be a Man! (Ich Möchte Kein Mann Sein!, 1918), starring Ossi Oswalda.

As the two programmers acknowledge, their season highlights a paradox. It was indeed hard for women to be taken seriously as clowns in the silent era. Today, though, the situation may even be worse. "How come, pre-1920, there were more women film-makers working in the industry than now?" asks Robinson. "Why is that?"

Clowning Glories may not provide an answer to this stark question, but it will certainly give audiences plenty to laugh about.



Clowning Glories and Screwball Women is part of Birds Eye View Film Festival, running at London cinemas from 6 to 14 March (see www.birds-eye-view.co.uk for details)

Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star