Think women only just started playing the fool in Hollywood?

Are women funny? Fans may remember a couple of years ago that opinion pieces on Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer started appearing, expressing surprise that finally, there were funny women in Hollywood – almost as if giraffes had been spotted on Sunset Boulevard. Fortunately, our grandparents and great grandparents were less sexist than us in many ways – and an exhibition at the BFI Southbank in London now explores Playing the Fool – and the women of early Hollywood who entertained audiences with their comedic genius.

 

Clara Bow, Sarah Bernhardt, Katharine Hepburn and the not-so-familiar name of Mabel Normand are amongst those who feature, as curator Claire Smith explains. “It’s a really good opportunity to feature women who contributed to early Hollywood comedy and tell a behind the scenes story. We chose to focus on films of the 1910s, 1920s and 30s, when movies were still influenced by the travelling circus culture of the late 19th century and which migrated into film. It was a time of anarchic humour.”

Clara Bow in Dangerous Curves (1929). Photograph by George Hommel. BFI National Archive

Clara Bow in Dangerous Curves (1929). Photograph by George Hommel. BFI National Archive

 

The exhibit also looks are popularity of the clown and in particular the Pierrot, as the character became increasingly ungendered. “It’s still a character that captivates audiences and was seen as charming and romantic, as well as quite poignant. It makes you ask questions about what’s behind the mask. Everyone from Sarah Bernhardt to Katherine Hepburn through to Twiggy has portrayed Pierrot and what’s lovely is I suppose fascination with the image of the clown still survives, right down to Pinterest boards today.”

Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett, 1935 Photo RKO Studio. Source BFI National Archive.

Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett, 1935 Photo RKO Studio. Source BFI National Archive.


As the 1910s progressed, a recognisable form of film-based comedy emerged in Britain and the US. Expressive and nuanced, gestural humour was rooted in the face and the body. It was championed by scores of women such as Marie Prevost, Betty Balfour and Dorothy Devore who found comedic roles gave them an opportunity to take on adventurous, anarchic and subversive characters.

 

We may have lost their names over the years, but according to Claire, they did donate something to the modern women – the worship of the athletic female body that is a phenomenon of the last century. “They needed physicality for their brand of comedy,” she points out,” and they were the ancestors of the female athleticism which is prized today. If you watch what they did you really get a sense for the first time of the strength of the female body and the modern woman’s shape that is emphasised today.”

Bebe Daniels as Alice Smith and Gertrude Ederle in Swim, Girl, Swim,1927  Source BFI National Archive.

Bebe Daniels as Alice Smith and Gertrude Ederle in Swim, Girl, Swim,1927

Source BFI National Archive.

 

The exhibit also accompanies the BFI player’s short film programme, The Marvellous Mabel Normand: Leading Lady of Film Comedy. Normand was an extraordinary performer who blazed a trail as the most successful of all the silent film comediennes, starring in at least 167 short films and 23 features, including guest appearances in her films coming from Charlie Chaplin, Fattie Arbuckle and Oliver Hardy. She was in fact, the first person to throw a custard pie on screen.

 

“She was an actor and ran her own production company,” Claire Smith explains, “but her name isn’t celebrated and remembered in the way some of her male collaborators are. I think we wanted to champion her and say, ‘if you want to start exploring comediennes in film this is where you should start.’ She was captivating on screen, but she was also a real powerhouse of film at the time.”

 

In fact, the 1930s may have been the ideal period for women to initiate and pioneer their craft, because the studio system had yet to be formalised. The opportunity for experimentation would be envied by their modern descendants, who are finally – nearly a century later – breaking through once more.

  

Playing the Fool runs at the BFI Southbank in London until the 6th January 2019

 

WOMEN IN FILM, ELECTRAEmma Jones