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  • Slapstick Violence and the Female Comedian in Early Cinema
  • Tom Gunning (bio)
specters of slapstick and silent film comediennes by maggie hennefeld

A slap-stick was a theatrical prop introduced in the sixteenth century in commedia dell'arte; it consisted of two hinged wooden slats that produced a loud noise when slapped together. It accompanied pantomimes of violent slaps or punches with an exaggerated and artificial sound effect. Maggie Hennefeld, in her new book Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes, describes it this way: "a wooden stick that creates a jarring, violent sound while delivering a disproportionately mild blow to the body" (177). This "disproportion" between the actual physical blow and its aural report defines the comic effect of the device; the sound of a violent blow without its full physical effect. It also reveals something profound about the genre of comedy it named, essential to Hennefeld's approach to the genre: violence can be rendered comic through exaggeration but not denied. The slapstick migrated from Italian pantomime to international physical comedy, including the beatings of Punch and Judy puppet shows and live rough-and-tumble physical comedy. Even after the wooden device vanished, the term became generic for forms of physically violent comedy, especially as it moved from vaudeville and the music hall to the cinema. "Slapstick" now serves as a synonym for the gag comedy of the silent era, especially Chaplin and Mack Sennett, extending ultimately to Laurel and Hardy and even the Three Stooges and cartoons such as those featuring the battles of Road Runner and Wyle E. Coyote. Hennefeld's book deals not only with genre but also with gender. The comediennes she resurrects in this book moved through this violent and comic terrain clearly marked as women performing slapstick. [End Page 197]

Although slapstick violence is widely acknowledged as a component of silent film comedy, scholarly discussion of the genre has focused primarily on the sight gag. Maggie Hennefeld's furiously original book returns the spectacle of violence to the center of its discussion. I will stress this aspect of her book more than the topic signaled by the second phrase of her title, "Silent Film Comediennes." The issues of comic violence and female performers and characters are intimately related, and there is no question Hennefeld makes an important intervention in feminist film studies. But her revival of the issue of violence in slapstick comedy goes beyond the survey of silent film comediennes that one might expect from the book's title. Hennefeld's feminist analysis burrows into the nearly oxymoronic issue of comic violence. This is not to shortchange her investigation of the nearly forgotten corpus of silent film comediennes. The book includes a detailed and useful appendix that lists silent films featuring comediennes that the author viewed, films that deserve to be better known. Certainly any future study of women in silent film comedy will have to draw on Hennefeld's pioneering work. But to reduce this book to a survey of this body of work misses its point. In contrast to some historical works, existing and still to come, dedicated to recovering this aspect of female creativity in silent film, Hennefeld's work is more interpretive and theory driven, more devoted to feminist theory than to historiography.

I recall a panel at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, organized by Jennifer Bean some years ago, in which an important feminist scholar criticized the interest in early cinema as a distraction from the emphasis on feminist film theory that had had been so crucial to the early years of film studies. Hennefeld's thorough citing not only of women performers in early cinema but also of the contributions by women scholars to the study of early cinema makes clear how central this period of film history has actually been for feminist investigation. This book does more than this, probing the feminist stake not simply in early cinema but in the specific structures of slapstick comedy. However, there was a point to a feminist questioning of the historical turn in which the rediscovery of early cinema provided one of the pivot points. As valuable as the concentrated research into the women pioneers...


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pp. 197-206
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