Recommended Reading

"Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy"

Steve Massa (Bear Manor Media - 2017. 633 pages)

 

Steve Massa's ultra-impressive SLAPSTICK DIVAS: THE WOMEN OF SILENT COMEDY is the bible of silent film comediennes. It is the most comprehensive tome on the era's funny ladies to date, running the gamut from the obscure (Ethel Teare, Josie Sadler, Charlotte Merriman, Molly Malone, etc.) to the forever famous (Mabel Normand, Constance Talmadge, Colleen Moore, Bebe Daniels, etc.) The sheer number of names covered in this book is massive but not surprising to silent movie fans who know of Massa's encyclopedic knowledge of silent comedy. His 2013 release of LAME BRAINS AND LUNATICS: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE FORGOTTEN OF SILENT COMEDY (BearManor Media) (see our review here) was, on its own, a work of art, but Massa has topped himself here. But to be clear, its appeal is not based solely on the wide array of talent covered in its 633 pages. Massa's style makes for engaging, enjoyable, entertaining and easy reading. We particularly like some of his metaphorical descriptions which made us smile. For Alice Howell, he said, "A round kewpie-doll face with large eyes and bee-stung lips topped off with a mountain if frizzy hair piled high on her head that resembled smoke billowing from an active volcano" or to describe Polly Moran's skill at getting laughs, "Polly would confront a laugh opportunity head on and wrestle it to the ground until is cried 'uncle.'"

Overflowing throughout with interesting, and sometimes surprising, facts and anecdotes, he also intersperses excerpts from publications of the period to help tell the story of the star. No comedienne is given an entire chapter with the exception of Mabel Normand, but it's a fitting tribute to the most important of the early female comics - thankfully not dwelling on the unfortunate aspects of her last years, but, instead, giving her the recognition she deserves in paving the way for other silent comediennes and female directors, as well. We like the way the book is laid out, too - for example, the chapters on "Leading Ladies of the Teens" and "Leading Ladies of the Twenties." The first of these chapters opens with five pages or so on Victoria Forde, who, most may only know, as Tom Mix's wife and a fixture in many of this short comedies of the 'teens. However, few may realize she was quite popular in comedies before Mix came along. The chapter continues with an appropriate number of pages delegated to such stars as Pearl White (betcha didn't know she did comedies!), Gertrude Selby, Lillian Walker, Billie Rhodes, Betty Compson and others. "Leading Ladies of the Twenties" brings us the obvious - Dorothy Gish, Bebe Daniels, Laura La Plante, Marie Prevost, Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, etc. - but also gives well-deserved attention to names such as Dorothy Devore, Alberta Vaughn, Baby Peggy, Edna Marion, Frances Lee and other ladies who brought so much beauty and laughter to those silent comedies. There are nine chapters in the first half of the book with titles such as "Behind the Camera," "Supporting Characters," "Starring Clowns," "Distaff Duos" and "Bathing Beauties and Love Interests," but the second half, covering nearly 200 pages, offers a wonderful array of "Selected Biographies" for all those stars you discovered in a silent comedy but didn't recognize and wanted to know more about. How many of these names do you know: Goldie Colwell, Dorothy Coburn, Marcella Daly, Thelma Daniels, Helen Darling, Adrienne Dore, Lorraine Eddy, Helen Foster, Magaret Gibson, Lillian Hackett, Dorothy Kelly, Lila Leslie, Gene Marsh, Mildred Moore, Kathryn Perry, Lois Scott, and more. But there are also those the reader should recognize such as Jewell Carmen, Mae Busch, Ann Christy, Josephine Crowell, Viola Dana, Priscilla Dean, Elinor Fair, Julia Faye, Wanda Hawley, Ruth Hiatt, June Marlowe, Blanche Mehaffey, Edna Murphy, Murel Ostriche, Vera Reynolds and others. One of the most interesting apects of Massa's book is that we don't associate comedy with many of these names, but he clearly points out their well-deserved place among silent comediennes.

It is unfortunate that there isn't space to say all the good things we'd like to say about SLAPSTICK DIVAS, but the fortunate part is you can get it for yourself and discover all the fun facts and surprises that are crammed in between the two covers of this book. Want to give yourself a gift that is guaranteed to please . . . this is it!


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