New research on silent comedy has been on the rise in the past decade, and quite a bit of this is thanks to the tireless efforts of renowned historian Steve Massa. Silent-ology is very pleased to present this exclusive interview with Massa, where we discuss his very well-received new book Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy.
For those readers who might not be familiar with your work, can you introduce yourself and talk a bit about your career?
I don’t know if I’d call it a career – it’s more of an obsession.
I was always movie crazy as a kid and got hooked on silent comedies watching television programs like Who’s the Funny Mann and Comedy Capers, that were edited it down and repackaged for children.
The introduction to my earlier book Lame Brains and Lunatics gives a blow by blow of my interest in silent comedy, but basically in 1990 I began organizing and curating silent comedy film programs for various festivals and archives. My writing started with the notes I wrote for the film series and comedy DVD releases that I’ve worked on. I’ve been lucky to have been involved with a number of archives, here and overseas, helping to identify the unidentified silent comedies in their collections. Around 2000 I started writing articles for the late, lamented Slapstick Magazine, and my books have grown out of that.
For a more complete rundown here’s my up-to-date bio from Slapstick Divas:
Steve Massa is the author of Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy and Marcel Perez: The International Mirth-Maker. He has organized and curated comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, Library of Congress, the Museum of the Moving Image, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. In addition to consulting with EYE Filmmuseum, Netherlands, the Cineteca di Bologna, the Royal Belgian Cinematheque, and other archives, plus contributing notes to the National Film Registry and the National Film Preservation Foundation, he is a founding member of Silent Cinema Presentations which produces NYC’s Silent Clown Film Series. Steve has also provided essays and commentary tracks to many comedy DVD and Blu-Ray collections such as The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry Langdon: Lost and Found, Becoming Charley Chase, Kino Video’s Buster Keaton: The Short Film Collection, and The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol 1, as well as co-curated Undercrank Productions’ The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, Volumes 1 & 2, and the award-winning Marcel Perez Collection.
What made you decide to write Slapstick Divas?
In 2003 I wrote the article Alice Howell and Gale Henry: Queens of Eccentric Comedy for Griffithiana (the former publication of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival). I had known how neglected they both were, but while researching them I was struck by how overlooked all the female comedians were, and that’s when I first started on the book. I began collecting material and even wrote a sample chapter to shop around to publishers, which became Chapter 3, the section on the starring clowns, in the finished book.
What are the biggest reasons why silent comediennes have been overlooked all this time?
I think it’s because the people that fostered the revival of interest in silent comedy in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as those that have written about genre, have almost all been men. There’s something of a boy’s club going on so the focus has always been on Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, etc. Accessibility is always a factor, but the male comics’ films, especially Buster Keaton’s, were actively looked for. No one was looking for Alice Howell, Ethel Teare, or Fay Tincher comedies.
In the past, I’ve wondered if the smaller number of female “clowns” (with specific makeups) might be a reason why they’re overlooked – what do you think?
Again, I think it’s the “boy’s club” as there were more female comics around than we normally think of because they haven’t gotten their fair attention.
What was the research process like for a book of this scale?
Very intense and exhausting. As I mentioned I started working on the idea in 2003, and that’s when I started amassing material. Since I work at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center I had access to our extensive clippings and files, as well as the exhibitor magazines, casting directories, and studio house organs such as the Vitagraph Bulletin, Universal Weekly, etc. I was also able to make use of the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Library of Congress – for print materials and films. The creation of the Media History Digital Library and Lantern Search has been an incredible boon. I really searched for material wherever I could.
Did you stumble across any information that surprised you?
Yes, for instance I had known that the stage comedienne Elsie Janis had starred in a number of feature films in the teens, and I knew a good amount about her stage career. She was great friends with actress Eva Le Gallienne, and I had worked with Le Gallienne in the early 1980s and afterwards read up on her life and career. So I knew a bit about Elsie Janis, but I was completely surprised when I found that she had written five of her six starring features.
Other big surprises were that Mrs. Sidney Drew appeared in tours of stage productions after her film career ended, and that Merta Sterling had been a stenographer in the offices of producers Klaw and Erlanger before she started her film career. When writing Lame Brains and Lunatics I was surprised to find that Gale Henry stopped performing to handle movie dogs – that her top dog was Skippy, who was better known as Asta in The Thin Man movies and also appeared in The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938).
You covered many, many names for this book, including a lot of names that even the most hardcore silent film fans probably don’t know. Are there any who could stand to be further researched and hopefully be rediscovered by new audiences?
Most definitely – Ethel Teare comes to mind immediately. Based on the evidence of her surviving films for Kalem, and the handful that exist from her stints at Sennett and Fox, particularly Her First Kiss (1919) which can be viewed at the National Film Preservation Foundation website, she was a very talented clown. She had an innocent air and a knack for heavy-duty physical comedy. Of course for her to be really appreciated more of her films will have to be found.
Florence Turner is one that I think was extremely important as an early screen comedienne – she was a protean character player as you can see in a surviving comedy like She Cried (1912) where she creates a completely convincing portrayal of a slow-on-the-uptake girl that gums up the progress of the well-oiled assembly-line of a busy box making factory. Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914) is another that takes her ability to make outrageous faces, and makes a very believable and funny plot to showcase it. Like Marion Davies after her she was an inspired and wicked mimic, and some of the photos from her stage performances where she’s doing people like Larry Semon are amazing. I only hope that the films that featured her imitations (i.e. 1915’s Florence Turner Impersonates Film Favorites) eventually turn up.
Some of the others include Louise Fazenda, Dot Farley, Madge Kennedy, Wanda Wiley – but there are many more that deserve more of a spotlight. Also somebody needs to find Dorothy Gish’s starring comedy features.
Do you have any personal favorites among these forgotten comediennes?
Well, of course Alice Howell and Gale Henry. Some of my other “pets” are Blanche Payson, Babe London, Caroline Rankin, Alice Washburn, Flora Finch, Marion Davies, Dorothy Gish, and Florence Turner. There were also some like Dorothea Wolbert, Phyllis Allen, Alice Davenport, Agnes Neilson, and Gertrude Astor that almost made the cut to get more detailed attention in the supporting characters chapter. But I couldn’t fit everyone in (I’d still be writing the book).
This book really makes me want to see more of these ladies’ films. Will there be any DVD sets to look forward to in the future?
I hope so. I’ve been involved in some talks for potential DVD sets, as well as Slapstick Divas film programs for certain cinemas and festivals, but we’ll have to keep our fingers crossed about everything working out. Often these kinds of things take a long time to come to fruition.
Lastly, do you have any research tips for budding amateur historians?
Look for a subject that’s been puzzlingly overlooked. Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, etc. have been way over done (that is unless you come up with an under-examined part of their career such as Michael J. Hayde’s excellent Chaplin’s Vintage Year). Work to be thorough – seek out primary source materials and just don’t go with what’s on IMDb or the Internet. I’ve seen a number of little micro-published silent comedy books pop up recently – many of them just made up of easily attainable on-line material. As I mentioned before the Media History Digital Library gives you access to trade and entertainment journals, which is important if you’re not near major research facilities like LOC, the Margaret Herrick Library, or the NYPL.
Really just go with the subjects that really interest you and that you have a burning desire to find out more about.
Many thanks, Steve, for sharing your insights and advice! We all look forward to your future projects.
Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy was published by BearManor Media and is available in both softcover and hardcover on their website and on Amazon. It’s a must for researchers and fans alike.