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  • Destructive Metamorphosis: The Comedy of Female Catastrophe and Feminist Film Historiography
  • Maggie Hennefeld (bio)


Images of women spontaneously combusting while doing housework constituted a popular trope in early film comedy, though like the flammable subjects of these films, few traces of it have survived into the present. Mary Jane’s Mishap (G. A. Smith, UK, 1903), an especially iconic example that is still extant, features a British maid who accidentally blows herself to smithereens and erupts out of the chimney while attempting to light a hearth fire with paraffin (figure 1). Comic and trick films conjure an endless variety of permutations on this volatile scenario. In A Shocking Incident (Biograph, USA, 1903), an Irish domestic gets electrocuted by a battery-wired turkey while she is preparing dinner. A flirtatious Irish maid falls victim to an exploding bowl of flour when her employers’ son plays with fireworks in Nora’s 4th of July (Biograph, USA, 1901).

Women’s bodily metamorphoses, their abilities to assume different shapes and textures in conjunction with ongoing formal [End Page 176] changes to the motion picture medium, provide lenses through which to reengage the uneven and messy development of film history. Bringing together feminist historiographic methods with semiotic discourses of destructive plasticity, I trace a dialectic between elasticity (reversibility) and plasticity (irreversible change). Techniques in film editing increasingly derealized the irreversible violence exercised on slapstick comedienne bodies: from vanishing ladies who always reemerge unscathed to self-immolating house-maids who undergo permanent bodily traumas. Most film studies scholarship about comedy emphasizes the status of objects in comic constructions (such as a man slipping on a banana peel). However, metamorphic comediennes internalize the instabilities of the outside world through their constant recourse to bodily transformation. Women’s metamorphic bodies mediate and render ambiguous these usual oppositions between subject and object. Male bodies do this too, but they do so in different aesthetic and social contexts: whereas male metamorphosis is obsessed with excretion—and transmetamorphosis by displacement or substitution—female metamorphosis is haunted by the thematic of reincorporation. Examples of female metamorphosis such as Mary Jane’s Mishap as well as Madame’s Cravings (Alice Guy-Blaché, France,

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Figure 1.

Mary Jane smiles at the spectator while dousing her fireplace with paraffin.

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1906) and A Sticky Woman (Alice Guy-Blaché, France, 1906) in fact change the way we think about comedy.

Fundamentally, I define comedy as the attempt to preserve pleasure and mystification against the rupture and historical finitude characteristic of industrial modernity. Early film comediennes internalize the instabilities of the outside world, in addition to the rampant contingencies of modern life, through their gleeful bodily mutability. They offset a teeming world of slippery and lost objects by partially becoming, embodying, and metamorphosing into these impossible objects of desire. Drawing on works by Georges Bataille, Catherine Malabou, and Anca Parvulescu, I propose a theory of film comedy premised on the subjective instabilities of laughter, above its objective instruments, through readings of these combusting, contagious, and consuming comedienne film archives.

While female bodies exploded comically onscreen, women’s proper places in the domestic sphere encountered seismic ruptures. Momentous societal changes wrought by industrialization and the gendered reorganization of the labor force, the rise of commercial consumerism that catapulted women into the public sphere, and suffragist political activism all dovetailed with the technological devices enlisted to manipulate female corporeality in motion pictures. Slapstick comedienne housemaids exploded onto the public sphere (from out of the chimney) in early film comedies (figure 2). Given the fluidity of national borders characterizing early film’s distribution market, focusing on America’s social politics and exhibition climate would not represent a parochial example of national film culture. Rather, this national focus reveals the extent of America’s domestic traversal by international film markets through the early 1900s—though more work needs to be done on social and industrial contexts of female metamorphosis in other countries.

Women’s visual metamorphoses onscreen often intersected with anxieties about the societal changes both represented and provoked by the new medium of cinema. In a slightly later and more complex riff on the exploding housemaid genre, Laughing Gas (Edison...


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pp. 176-206
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