Classic Movies · Stuff You Should Know

Book Review: Slapstick Divas


Film historian/author Steve Massa released one of the most essential books on silent movie comedy back in 2013—Lame Brains & Lunatics—and in my review of this wonderful reference in August of 2016, I mentioned that his next project was going to expand on the female comediennes touched upon in Lunatics, titled Slapstick DivasDivas hit bookstores in August of this year (thanks to Bear Manor Media), and I was able to scrape together enough funds to purchase a Kindle version two months later.  (I should get some credit for not waiting three years to read this one, by the way.)

Whenever the subject of the immortal silent funsters is broached it’s often filtered through a male perspective (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc.)—an injustice Massa sets out to right with Divas.  “Even as astute a critic as Walter Kerr overlooks the women,” Steve writes in his introduction.  “The same kind of neglect occurs in his seminal 1975 book The Silent Clowns.  Not until chapter 30 does Kerr get around to discussing the women, and in two paragraphs comes to the conclusion that ‘No comedienne ever became a truly important silent film clown,’ basically because he feels that it was impossible for an actress to be funny and pretty at the same time.  That said, he hightails it back to the boys.”

Mabel Normand

Massa’s focus in Slapstick Divas is “hightailing it to the women.”  For example, he discusses at appropriate length the career of Mabel Normand, “the first comic to move from shorts to an ongoing series of silent features, beating Arbuckle, Chaplin, Lloyd, and the others to the punch.”  Noting that while books have been written on and/or by Normand, Marie Dressler, Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, and Clara Bow, there are female mirthmakers both in front and behind the camera who are entitled to their day in the sun: Alice Howell, Gale Henry, Fay Tincher, Louise Fazenda, and so many more.  As Steve notes: “Researching their films and careers caused it to really sink in to me just how many funny women there wore in silent comedy, and to formulate the obvious question—“Why aren’t they better known?”

Putting together such a reference as Slapstick Divas is a daunting task for one elephant-in-the-room reason: far too many of the celluloid accomplishments of these individuals has been lost to the ravages of time and neglect…and what does remain is often difficult to access, scattered hither-and-yon throughout the film archives of the world.  Massa succeeds admirably despite this handicap, arduously combing through the motion picture trade papers of the era for information/reviews on his subjects and tantalizingly describing those films that have survived.  (The book’s bodacious sampling of stills from movies both lost and found along with photographs of the women discussed is an additional bonus.)  At the back of the book are mini-biographies of female funsters whose cinematic c.v. may not have been extensive enough to examine in detail but remain influential enough that overlooking them would be a movie crime of the highest order.

Louise Fazenda, a personal favorite here at Rancho Yesteryear.

I may be just a simple country blogger, but Steve’s encyclopedia is not only a source you’ll want to have at the ready the next time you sit down to compose a post…it has rightfully earned a spot on the year-end “best movie books” lists such as those published at The Huffington Post (author Thomas Gladysz even lauds it twice in a special “silent comedy edition” list), Filmstruck, and Silent London.  A remarkable contribution to film scholarship, Slapstick Divas is essential for any classic movie maven’s bookshelf…but I will issue one caveat: once you start thumbing through its pages you’ll find it most difficult to stop.

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