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Funny girls: Heroines of slapstick

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)