This article rethinks the emergence of narrative film syntax through the comedy genre, focusing on slapstick films that depict female unruliness. I discuss films featuring Mabel Normand, Florence Turner, Marie Dressler, Sarah Duhamel, and other forgotten silent comediennes, arguing that these women's performances played crucial roles in orchestrating transitions in industrial film form. Focusing on a comparison between the French Pathé and American Vitagraph companies, I examine the variety of techniques deployed to try to rationalize or contain the unruly bodily gestures of slapstick comedienne performers — most of whom have now dropped out of historical visibility entirely. I frame this comparative analysis through close readings of two key texts: a Vitagraph trick film, Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (dir. J. Stuart Blackton, 1909), which depicts the surrealistic plight of a male cigar smoker who gets pestered by two micrographic nicotine fairies; and a Pathé slapstick comedy, Betty Pulls the Strings (dir. Roméo Bosetti, 1910), about a madcap female trickster whose pranks wreak mass anarchy. Whereas films like Princess Nicotine micromanage their comediennes' unruly bodily performances in order to execute their trick techniques, films like Betty let their comediennes run wild in front of the camera, instead making sense of their irrational behavior through postproduction editing. Comedy has always haunted the emergence of cinema both as a narrative storytelling medium and as an international industry. Here, I analyze how unruly women and uncomfortable experiences of laughter provided coconspirators for legitimizing the motion picture's nascent storytelling vocabulary.
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Maggie Hennefeld; Slapstick Comediennes in Transitional Cinema: Between Body and Medium. Camera Obscura 1 September 2014; 29 (2 (86)): 85–117. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-2704643
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