I am pleased to present this (relatively brief!) look at the life and career of the underappreciated Louise Fazenda, one of our earliest and most popular female clowns. I am currently researching Louise in as much depth as I can for a possible book project, so if you or anyone you know has any info on her life and career, don’t hesitate to contact me!
Custard pies, a chase, a fall, mud, a fire hose, soup, a leak in the plumbing, innumerable lost garments, broken dishes, a slide on a cake of soap, mud in the hair, pie in the eyes, soup down the back, a fall into a lake, policemen, a cleaning up, a bucket of suds and a mop, a slavey with a round-eyed, utterly blank expression, a Mack Sennett comedy–Louise Fazenda.
–Allen Corliss, Photoplay
Long before Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett would earn their places in pop culture history, there were a number of comediennes who paved the way for them. The most famous of these was Mabel Normand, the irrepressible, winsome Keystone star. But not too far behind her was another irrepressible performer: Louise Fazenda.
Many people today are at least familiar with the name of Mabel Normand, but how many are aware of Louise Fazenda? She was one of the most popular comediennes of the silent screen and one of the most familiar character actresses of the early talkie era, but she often gets no more than a passing mention even in film histories. And yet, she was one of the most well-known female clowns, and–as a bonus–was one of Hollywoodland’s most beloved and charitable individuals.
Louise Marie Fazenda was born in Lafayette, Indiana on June 17, 1895–according to numerous fan magazines and newspapers. However, according to her birth certificate the actual year was 1896–perhaps the only time in history when a year was constantly added to an actress’s age. Her parents were Joseph Fazenda, who was born in Mexico but seems to have been of Portuguese, French, and Italian descent, and F. Nelda Schilling, who was Dutch. Nelda (who must not have cared for her first name) was nearly 40 at the time of her birth. Since Louise was an only child, we can probably assume that she was a surprise. They were a religious family, having a particularly strong belief in the importance of charity work. The Fazendas would soon move to Los Angeles–which would turn out to be a fortunate move indeed.
Joseph opened a grocery store called Power House Grocery, and Louise, a hard worker by nature, began helping out with the family finances at a young age. She ran errands, babysat, and delivered groceries via a horse-drawn wagon. As she later recalled, for a time she was a “newsie,” too. As a teen she tried out several jobs while attending Los Angeles High School (where she had her first taste of acting in school plays): assisting a doctor, a tax collector, a dentist, and working in a soda fountain. She graduated in 1912 and planned on going to college, but when her father’s business suddenly folded that was no longer possible.
Louise would continue to help support her small family, partly through thespian means. When she was a star she would sometimes refer to her time “on the stage,” although it’s hard to discover exactly what meant. She seems to have been in dramatic stock companies, supporting leading women Virginia Brissac and the popular Los Angeles native Miss Lucretia Del Valle. At any rate, on the advice of a neighbor Louise decided to look for work in a young industry that was practically on her doorstep–the “picture business.” “Acting was the only thing I wanted to do, so I applied at Universal–and got it,” she later recalled.
Louise was one of the many extras jostling for work at the time and soon graduated to bit parts. Her flair for comedy must’ve been clear, because she was chosen for Universal’s new Joker Comedy unit. The little unit would include Max Asher, Bobby Vernon, Gale Henry, Billy Franey, Heinie Conklin, Lee Morris and Sam Kaufman. She would keep her rather unusual maiden name, “Fazenda” for her entire career (her family would claim it was Italian, although it may have been Portuguese). “My name is like me,” she once said to Photoplay, “sort of a misfit.”
Joker comedies were as lively and silly as any Keystone product, full of broad humor, thick makeup, and loads of knockabout. The eclectic variety of settings and situations meant that Louise had to constantly change her appearance and acting style to fit whatever whim the director had that day–a perfect comedy training ground. Joker titles included Mike and Jake Live Close to Nature, A Freak Temperance Wave, The Sharps Want a Flat, and, most intriguingly, In the Year 2014.
In 1914 the versatile comedienne was wiled away from Universal to the mighty Keystone Film Company–the most popular comedy studio in the nation. It’s possible that with Mabel Normand being busy with the “Fatty and Mabel” series Sennett wanted more leading ladies. Her first big role was as Mack Swain’s battleaxe wife in Willful Ambrose, released March 1, 1915. Her performance was broad and fearless, as was her makeup–featuring bushy eyebrows and hair scraped up in a bun on the crown of her head. However, her real first appearance on Keystone celluloid took place in Ambrose’s Sour Grapes (1915), which was filmed first and released around the same time. She had the lofty role of “Girl in Park Who is Shot in Rear”–a very Keystone-esque initiation.
The studio soon noticed that the comedies Louise was in were always good box office, so she was soon given her own series as a character called “Maggie.” While she was an attractive gal, she was most at home in roles where she portrayed a gawky country girl in unfashionable dresses and moth-eaten hats. She soon developed a distinct costume of a plaid or calico dress, old high-top shoes, and–most important of all–two tight pigtails wound into knots high on her head and a forehead spit curl.
She said the memorable hairstyle was based on one she had as a girl, when her mother well-meaningly did up her hair so tightly that she went around with a “moon-faced” expression.
Often paired with vaudeville veteran Charlie Murray, Louise frequently played an assortment of “slaveys” who bungled their way through various chores or jobs, or a country rube falling heir to a fortune that Rascally Villains schemed to take away from her.
Like many of the great comedians, such as Roscoe Arbuckle or especially Buster Keaton, she had a clean, precise way of performing gags, sometimes accompanied by a straight face that emphasized her well-meaning if oblivious absorption in a task. In Her Fame and Shame (1917), she’s a kitchen slavey in an unkempt restaurant. When a customer orders eggs, she finds a plate of “eggs with a past” on a shelf, casually blows off a copious amount of dust, and fastidiously wipes them with her apron before reheating them in a pan.
The hardy, outgoing young woman was not only a capable actress, but she adored the excitement of making comedies. She tackled the rough Keystone slapstick with gusto, including the risky stuntwork. In a Motion Picture Magazine interview she talked about making The Feathered Nest (1916):
“It seemed to be a jinx for everybody in it. We were all hurt. The hansom cab ran over Mr. Murray’s foot; Wayland Trask fell from the bicycle and wrenched his shoulder; the rowboat tipped over and knocked me unconscious (I was in bed for a week), and, to cap the climax, we were all so badly burned that we could hardly move. But, just the same–” and she laughed–“it was lots of fun!”
Audiences and critics loved Louise, and considered her one of the best comediennes on the screen. Photoplay called her the “Comic Venus.” She was praised not only for her comedy skills but even for a shade of “pathos” in her work. As noted by the book Clown Princes and Court Jesters noted: “Although physically strong…Louise added a touch of the sweet, calm and pathetic feeling to an otherwise complete burlesque comedy type.” One writer in a 1925 issue of Motion Picture Classic went so far as to claim: “Her comedy is as great in its way Charlie Chaplin’s. Like Chaplin’s it has the undercurrent wistful sorrow. Behind every one of her laughs is the suggestion of tears.”
We might see her today as a bridge between the light comediennes such as Constance Talmadge and the likes of roughhousing, tomboyish Polly Moran–a good-looking young woman who could still pull off a wacky costume and do rough slapstick without a trace of self-consciousness. While Mabel Normand was arguably the most important pioneering comedienne, Louise was perhaps more of a true “clown” than Mabel, having a distinctive costume of clothing and hairstyle in the same vein as Gale Henry, Alice Howell and Fay Tincher.
In 1920 Louise’s Sennett contract expired. She made some comedies for Special Pictures Corp. and Punch Comedies, and after a brief return to Sennett she worked in Mermaid comedies as well.
She proved herself to be a valuable character actress in a number of features throughout the 1920s and 1930s, including Main Street (1923) and The Bat (1926) and Alice in Wonderland (1933). She generally specialized in daffy maids and eccentric aunts, although she could easily dress up to play more glamorous figures as well.
In 1926 she married Hal B. Wallis, a publicist who had yet to “make it big.” The event caused some surprise among fans when it was revealed to be her second marriage, her first being to Noel Mason Smith (a prolific comedy director) from 1919 until their divorce in 1926. Whether because of her career, some unhappiness in the marriage, or some other unknown reason, Louise had kept that part of her life a secret and was not living with Smith when she first became acquainted with Wallis.
Her parents and friends weren’t wild about her second marriage at first, feeling that she was too famous and well-off to settle for someone of Wallis’s lowly status. However, they would remain married until her death and Hal B. Wallis would become one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, responsible for such middling pictures as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.
In her free time Louise was an avid collector of antiques, especially china. She also enjoyed beadwork, hooking rugs, and cooking (her chocolate cake was quite famous among the Hollywood set). She was very smart in business matters, making wise investments and, after marrying Wallis, starting a profitable ranch that grew apricots, walnuts, and oranges (they made a deal with Sunkist to harvest some of their crops). And importantly, she was a very devout Christian who was committed 100% to helping those in need, no matter what their backgrounds or circumstances. She said that her parents had set an example for her:
“They believed that you must always give away part of what you earned, no matter how little. Because it was pleasing to God. They devoutly believed the legend, held true for centuries by the peasants in many European countries, that one must always help out a wanderer, a stranger, a tramp. For, who knew but that the stranger might be Christ. For, as He had come once to earth as a carpenter,who could tell what humble guise he would again appear in?”
Louise and Hal had hoped to have children, but after years of trying it seemed unlikely. In the early ’30s Louise decided to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, and then the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec, both being places credited with granting miracles to the sick and disabled. Amazingly, she would have her first and only child, Hal Brent Wallis Jr, not long after. Photoplay dramatically covered the story under the title “The Miracle of Louise Fazenda’s Baby” in 1933.
With a young son and a career that was starting to slow down, Louise was content to devote herself more and more to charity work. In 1939 she appeared in one last film, The Old Maid starring Bette Davis. After that, with Hal’s career going strong and her investments in place, she was free to devote herself to her passion. As she had once said: “Someday when I’m through with pictures I want to make a regular business of being friendly to people.”
And she certainly did. She would send money to perfect strangers after reading about their misfortunes in the papers. She spent much time at volunteering at hospitals, especially to help sick children. A number of elderly people could count on her regular visits–often she was their only visitor. She was the main benefactor for the McKinley Home For Boys, and writer and former juvenile delinquent Eddie Bunker credited Louise with giving him his first typewriter and trying to set him on the straight and narrow path. She kept a quotation framed by her bed: “May I never leave a lame dog by a stile, but lift it to the other side and make its life worthwhile.”
In 1962, after a full and busy life, Louise passed away at home from a brain hemorrhage caused by arteriosclerosis. The little church that hosted her funeral was jammed with family, friends, and former coworkers from all over Hollywood. Louise was interred in the Inglewood Cemetery in Los Angeles, alongside her parents. The UCLA Medical Auxiliary established a memorial fund in her honor, in memory of her impressive volunteer work.
In an era when so many temperamental stars are being remembered with great detail in countless books and articles, let us hope that this warm-hearted woman who gave so much of herself to so many will get some recognition. Among the pool of actresses said to be role models, she is one of a precious few who seems to have truly made herself worthy of such a title. If ever a name deserves to be remembered, it’s the name of Louise Fazenda–one of our earliest female clowns and one of Hollywood’s great humanitarians.
I’d like to offer a warm thank you to the staff of the Margaret Herrick library at the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences!
Massa, Steve. Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2013.
Walker, Brent E. Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.
Lahue, Kalton C. and Gill, Sam. Clown Princes and Court Jesters. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1970.
Fowler, Gene. Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett. New York: Covici, Friede, 1934.
Higham, Charles and Wallis, Hal. Starmaker: The Autobiography of Hal Wallis. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1980.
King, Rob. The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
Louvish, Simon. Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 2003.
Meredith, Edith. “The Miracle of Louise Fazenda’s Baby.” Photoplay, August 1933.
Carr, Harry. “Putting the Fizz in Fazenda.” Motion Picture Magazine, January 1919.
Evans, Delight. “Off and On: A Close-up of the Real Louise Fazenda.” Motion
Picture Magazine, December 1917.
St. Johns, Adela Roger. “The Most Versatile Girl in Hollywood.” Photoplay, June 1925.
Squier, Emma Lindsay. “And They Said She Couldn’t Cook.” Photoplay, November 1919.
University of Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections
California Digital Newspaper Collection
Hal B. Wallis papers, Mack Sennett papers, and Frances Marion papers at the Margaret Herrick library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences