Carol Burnett may be a pioneer of sorts, but women were taking pratfalls decades before she was born. As Steve Massa sees it, the Boy’s Club “myth” of silent film comedy started with James Agee’s seminal Life magazine cover story in 1947, which revived widespread interest in the efforts of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy but minimized the contributions of the ladies in their midst. In what seems destined to become the definitive text on the subject, Massa’s groundbreaking “Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy” gives the gals their due—and it’s long overdue.
The 633-page book (available in hardcover and paperback from BearManor Media) is encyclopedic in its coverage and scope. But Massa gives us far more than names and faces and film titles. He describes the comediennes so vividly we can see them. He gives us a sense of their surviving films; trade magazine reviews and news items flesh out the details, along with still photos, advertisements and posters. The chapter on Mabel Normand, the most influential funny girl of ‘em all, includes an eloquent discourse on her abilities as a director at Mack Sennett’s fun factory.
The more familiar names—Marion Davies, Thelma Todd, Colleen Moore—largely get short shrift in order to shift the focus to their lesser known sisters in slapstick. To name a few: Flora Finch, a name only vaguely familiar to silent comedy mavens as pioneer funster John Bunny’s partner-in-crime; Victoria Forde, who became Tom Mix’s love interest on and offscreen; Dorothy Gish and Constance Talmadge, who were obscured by their more famous sisters; and Mrs. Sidney Drew, who helped write and direct the light comedies in which she co-starred with her husband. Virtually no one is overlooked; even Josephine the monkey and Cameo the dog are covered.
Marion Davies is highly visible at the moment with the gorgeous restoration of her 1922 film “When Knighthood Was in Flower” (available in Blu-ray + DVD Combo from Undercrank Productions). As Mary Tudor, kid sister of Henry VIII sold into an alliance with the King of France, the actress has ample opportunity to display her charm, beauty and comedic talents—indeed, her indelible screen presence. William Powell, in his second film appearance, is well in evidence as the villain of the piece—the nephew and heir to the elderly French king, who has designs on her himself.
This release also enhances composer Ben Model’s reputation as an indie producer of home video editions of silent movies. In a manner befitting this lavish costume drama made on an epic scale (one of the most expensive films of its era at $1.5 million) Model spares no effort, digitally reinstating the picture’s original tints—not to mention creating a sumptuous new theatre organ score. Davies’ biographer, Lara Fowler, provides erudite notes on the film. This “road-show” version seems a tad too long at 115 minutes but the movie holds up well; we should all look this good and hold up this well at age 95.