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Comedy Silent Film Vaudevisuals Bookshelf Women Writer

Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – Specters of Slapstick & Silent Film Comediennes

Women explode out of chimneys and melt when sprayed with soda water. Feminist activists play practical jokes to lobby for voting rights, while overworked kitchen maids dismember their limbs to finish their chores on time. In early slapstick films with titles such as Saucy Sue, Mary Jane’s Mishap, Jane on Strike, and The Consequences of Feminism, comediennes exhibit the tensions between joyful laughter and gendered violence. Slapstick comedy often celebrates the exaggeration of make-believe injury. Unlike male clowns, however, these comic actresses use slapstick antics as forms of feminist protest. They spontaneously combust while doing housework, disappear and reappear when sexually assaulted, or transform into men by eating magic seeds—and their absurd metamorphoses evoke the real-life predicaments of female identity in a changing modern world.

Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes reveals the gender politics of comedy and the comedic potentials of feminism through close consideration of hundreds of silent films. As Maggie Hennefeld argues, comedienne catastrophes provide disturbing but suggestive images for comprehending gendered social upheavals in the early twentieth century. At the same time, slapstick comediennes were crucial to the emergence of film language. Women’s flexible physicality offered filmmakers blank slates for experimenting with the visual and social potentials of cinema. Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes poses major challenges to the foundations of our ideas about slapstick comedy and film history, showing how this combustible genre blows open age-old debates about laughter, society, and gender politics.

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Simultaneously hilarious and seriously incisive, Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes is a dazzling demonstration of the way in which the female body in early film comedy is the privileged site for the display of the cinema’s defamiliarization of the world. Hennefeld skillfully links the centrality of women in comic films of mobility and catastrophe to anxieties surrounding their rapidly changing social position. This is a marvelous analysis. (Mary Ann Doane, University of California, Berkeley)

Hennefeld does a remarkable job of framing the politics of early film comedy in relation to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophies of laughter. This is a far-reaching study that will change our understanding of the history of early film slapstick and gender. (Robert J. King, Columbia University)

Hennefeld draws on hundreds of films to reveal the radical interest and specificity of the silent film comediennes who humorously ruptured themselves while negotiating the shifting place of women’s bodies in cinema’s early years. Forging a rigorous third way between “killjoy refusal” and “unruly disruption” using a “Laughing Methodology” to counter misogynist violence, this brilliant book illuminates the vital link between feminist laughter and the slow-burn pleasure of feminist thought. (Karen Redrobe, University of Pennsylvania)

An original and significant book, solidly grounded in comic theory. (Film Quarterly)

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Categories
Book Shelf Magic Performing Arts Photography Recommended Reading List

Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini”.

Award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Joe Posnanski enters the world of Harry Houdini and his legions of devoted fans in an immersive, entertaining, and magical work on the illusionist’s impact on American culture—and why his legacy endures to this day.

Harry Houdini. Say his name and a number of things come to mind. Escapes. Illusions. Magic. Chains. Safes. Live burials. Close to a century after his death, nearly every person in America knows his name from a young age, capturing their imaginations with his death-defying stunts and daring acts. He inspired countless people, from all walks of life, to find something magical within themselves.

This is a book about a man and his extraordinary life, but it is also about the people who he has inspired in death. As Joe Posnanski delves into the deepest corners of Houdini-land, visiting museums (one owned by David Copperfield), attractions, and private archives, he encounters a cast of unforgettable and fascinating characters: a woman who runs away from home to chase her dream of becoming a magician; an Italian who revives Houdini’s most famous illusion every night; a performer at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles who calls himself Houdini’s Ghost; a young boy in Australia who, one day, sees an old poster and feels his life change; and a man in Los Angeles whose sole mission in life has been to keep the legend’s name alive.

Both a personal obsession and an odyssey of discovery, Posnanski draws inspiration from his lifelong passion for and obsession with magic, blending biography, memoir, and first-person reporting to examine Harry Houdini’s life and legacy. This is the ultimate journey to uncover why this magic man endures, and what he still has to teach the world about wonder.

“Enthralling . . . This is a first-class book, a subtle stretching of the biographical form that is also superbly readable.”

—The Times (London)

“Whatever mystical inspiration drew Joe Posnanski to the story of Harry Houdini, readers will be forever grateful. Joe’s writing about the mysterious and mythical magician is touched by its own stunning magic.”

—David Maraniss, author of A Good American Family

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Categories
Book Shelf Commedia dell' Arte Vaudevisuals Bookshelf

Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – ‘Commedia dell’ Arte – An Actor’s Handbook’

Commedia dell’ Arte – An Actor’s Handbook

by John Rudlin

There has been an enormous revival of interest in Commedia dell’arte. And it remains a central part of many drama school courses. In Commedia dell’arte in the Twentieth Century John Rublin first examines the origins of this vital theatrical form and charts its recent revival through the work of companies like Tag, Theatre de Complicite and the influential methods of Jacques Lecoq. The second part of the book provides a unique practical guide for would-be practitioners: demonstrating how to approach the roles of Zanni, Arlecchion, Brighella, Pantalone, Dottore, and the Lovers in terms of movement, mask-work and voice. As well as offering a range of lazzi or comic business, improvisation exercises, sample monologues,and dialogues. No other book so clearly outlines the specific culture of Commedia or provides such a practical guide to its techniques. This immensely timely and useful handbook will be an essential purchase for all actors, students, and teachers.

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This new book by John Rudlin is much more than a re-examination of a theatrical style long past – in Rudlin’s hands, the whole subject becomes not only vital to today’s creators of theatre, but to the future as well.”– Theatre Scotland

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“John Rudlin describes in great detail every aspect of commedia dell’arte. Having personally studied with John Rudlin, he is today’s master of the masked world. Indepth character analysis, sample plots, illustrations, pictures of masks, detailed background information, and an overall ‘everything you need to know’ by the man who knows better than anyone.”

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For information on purchasing this book and others that have appeared in the Vaudevisuals Bookshelf go here!
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Categories
Book Shelf History Sideshow Vaudevisuals Bookshelf

Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “Inseparable” by Yunte Huang

With wry humor, Shakespearean profundity, and trenchant insight, Yunte Huang brings to life the story of America’s most famous nineteenth-century Siamese twins.

Nearly a decade after his triumphant Charlie Chan biography, Yunte Huang returns with this long-awaited portrait of Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–1874), twins conjoined at the sternum by a band of cartilage and a fused liver, who were “discovered” in Siam by a British merchant in 1824. Bringing an Asian American perspective to this almost implausible story, Huang depicts the twins, arriving in Boston in 1829, first as museum exhibits but later as financially savvy showmen who gained their freedom and traveled the backroads of rural America to bring “entertainment” to the Jacksonian mobs. Their rise from subhuman, freak-show celebrities to rich southern gentry; their marriage to two white sisters, resulting in twenty-one children; and their owning of slaves, is here not just another sensational biography but a Hawthorne-like excavation of America’s historical penchant for finding feast in the abnormal, for tyrannizing the “other”―a tradition that, as Huang reveals, becomes inseparable from American history itself. 28 illustrations.

 

“Excellent… Mr. Huang compellingly makes his case that racism was a factor in these two self-made gentlemen landowners still being considered, late in life, as nothing more than a Barnumesque “freak show”… It’s not difficult to find in this, as Mr. Huang most definitely does, a comment on the times in which we live.”
– Melanie Benjamin, Wall Street Journal

“Engrossing…. give[s] an unvarnished look at the degradation and disparagement the brothers had to endure.”
– Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

Inseparable, Yunte Huang’s exuberant and vivid account of the ‘original Siamese twins,’ examines 19th-century American attitudes toward race and sex that resonate today ― a time when immigrants, people of color, those with disabilities and others are denied their stories and denied their humanity… By sharing his own experiences, [Yuang] reveals the poignant commonalities of immigrants across time and place, strangers making sense of a strange land, determined to make a better life for themselves and their children.”
– Vanessa Hua, San Francisco Chronicle

You can purchase the book here!

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Categories
Book Shelf Performing Arts Photography Sideshow Story Teller Vaudevisuals Bookshelf Women Writer

Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “The Electric Woman” by Tessa Fontaine

“The Electric Woman” by Tessa Fontaine

The Electric Woman

Tessa Fontaine’s astonishing memoir of pushing past fear, The Electric Woman, follows the author on a life-affirming journey of loss and self-discovery―through her time on the road with the last traveling American sideshow and her relationship with an adventurous, spirited mother.

Turns out, one lesson applies to living through illness, keeping the show on the road, letting go of the person you love most, and eating fire:

The trick is there is no trick. 
You eat fire by eating fire.

Two journeys―a daughter’s and a mother’s―bear witness to this lesson in The Electric Woman.

For three years Tessa Fontaine lived in a constant state of emergency as her mother battled stroke after stroke. But hospitals, wheelchairs, and loss of language couldn’t hold back such a woman; she and her husband would see Italy together, come what may. Thus Fontaine became free to follow her own piper, a literal giant inviting her to “come play” in the World of Wonders, America’s last traveling sideshow. How could she resist?

Transformed into an escape artist, a snake charmer, and a high-voltage Electra, Fontaine witnessed the marvels of carnival life: intense camaraderie and heartbreak, the guilty thrill of hard-earned cash exchanged for a peek into the impossible, and, most marvelous of all, the stories carnival folks tell about themselves. Through these, Fontaine trained her body to ignore fear and learned how to keep her heart open in the face of loss.

A story for anyone who has ever imagined running away with the circus, wanted to be someone else, or wanted a loved one to live forever, The Electric Woman is ultimately about death-defying acts of all kinds, especially that ever constant: good old-fashioned unconditional love.

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“An assured debut that doesn’t shy away from the task of holding the ordinary and otherworldly in its hand, at once. It’s herein that the book’s power lies . . . Throughout this narrative is the story of [Fontaine’s] relationship with her mother, a story that is sometimes its own hard-to-watch sideshow act. Fontaine is unafraid to write the ugliness ― the imperfect care and love ― that takes place between people, and the memoir is most ‘electric’ when it doesn’t shy from that imperfection . . . I’m stunned by the beauty of Fontaine’s rhythms and images.” ―Rachel Khong, The New York Times Book Review

“While caring for her mother following a stroke, Tessa Fontaine became enchanted by the world of the carnival sideshow, learning to charm snakes, swallow swords, and escape handcuffs. What Fontaine finds, as she recounts in her fascinating memoir, The Electric Woman (FSG), is that there’s no trick to overcoming one’s deepest fears.” Vogue

In the opening pages of this fascinating memoir, first-time author Fontaine learns how to eat fire. This is just one of several “death-defying” feats she learned during her stint with the World of Wonders, “the very last traveling sideshow of its kind.” Intrigued by illusion and danger, Fontaine—a grad student studying writing—accepted a surprising invitation to join the show. Not only did she yearn for adventure but she also hoped to temporarily escape from assisting her mother after her mother suffered a debilitating stroke. Fontaine segues between hospital visits to her mother in California’s Bay Area and the fantastical world of the carnival, where Fontaine learned to handle snakes, swallow swords, free herself from handcuffs, and eventually master the role of “the electric woman,” lighting light bulbs with her tongue. Traveling state and county fairs, Fontaine shares the unusual stories of her fellow carnival workers, all of whom come across as devoted to the exhausting, grueling, yet inspiring work they do each day. Fontaine explores the history of the carnival (e.g., the first incubators were on display in a carnival sideshow in the early 20th century); its pecking order of performers, carnies, and foodies; its humor and dark underbelly. This remarkable, beautifully written memoir explores the depth of mother-daughter love and the courageous acts of overcoming fear and accepting change.

– Publishers Weekly

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Biography

Tessa Fontaine is the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, an Amazon Editors’ Best of the Month featured debut, iBooks favorite, and more. Tessa spent the 2013 season performing with the last American traveling circus sideshow, the World of Wonders. Essays about the sideshow won the 2016 AWP Intro Award in Nonfiction, and have appeared in The Rumpus and elsewhere. Other work can be found in Glamour, LitHub, Creative Nonfiction, and more.

Raised outside San Francisco in a tangle o’ hippies, Tessa got her MFA from the University of Alabama and is currently a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Utah. She is the recipient of the University of Alabama’s 2012 graduate departmental awards in fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and the 2013 awards in fiction and nonfiction. She has won the University of Utah’s Academic Fellowship and the University of Alabama’s National Alumni Fellowship, Boone Fellowship, Truman Capote Award and First-Year Teaching Award, and has received awards and fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Taft Nicholson Center, Writing by Writers, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and more. She has taught for the New York Times summer journeys, at the Universities of Alabama and Utah, and in prisons in Alabama and Utah.

Around the country, she has performed her one-woman plays in theatres ranging from New York to San Francisco. The scar on her cheek from a 2 am whip act is slowly fading.

Tessa loves redwood trees, ghost stories, and goats. Every year on her birthday, as a gift to herself, she eats unlimited Doritos.

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Categories
Book Shelf Cinema Pranks Sideshow Story Teller Vaudevisuals Bookshelf Ventriliquist

Vaudevisuals Bookshelf – “The Unholy Three” by Tod Robbins

Step right up, folks, and prepare to have your blood run cold as you meet the strangest, most bizarre trio of misfits ever spawned by a carnival of blood: TWEEDLEDEE, an adult man trapped in the body of a three-year-old toddler, whose mask of childlike innocence hides a seething brain plotting hideous revenge against all that is sane and normal! HERCULES, the circus strongman, brutal, bestial, reveling in carnage and murder – yet the submissive slave of a deadly dwarf! ECHO, the expert ventriloquist with the uncanny ability to throw his voice so that lifeless wooden dummies seem to speak even as you or I! Together, they are THE UNHOLY THREE, star attractions of Tod Robbins’ classic novel of hate, murder, and madness on and off the midway. Best known as an author of the story which inspired the still-controversial fear-film FREAKS, Robbins first stunned the public with this intense account of a ruthless war on society waged by a triad of carny castaways.

It seems to have garnered much interest by the director Tod Browning and actor Lon Chaney as they made a film out of this book.

Here is the description of the film by Wikipedia:

The Unholy Three is a 1925 American silent film involving a crime spree, directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney. The supporting cast features Mae Busch, Matt Moore, Victor McLaglen and Harry Earles.

The film was remade in 1930 as a talkie. In both the 1925 and the 1930 version, the roles of Professor Echo and Tweedledee are played by Chaney and Earles respectively. The films were based on the novel of the same name by Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins.

The Plot:

Three performers leave a sideshow after Tweedledee (Harry Earles), the midget, assaults a young heckler and sparks a melee. The three join together in an “unholy” plan to become wealthy. Prof. Echo, the ventriloquist, assumes the role of Mrs. O’Grady, a kindly old grandmother, who runs a pet shop, while Tweedledee plays her grandchild. Hercules (Victor McLaglen), the strongman, works in the shop along with the unsuspecting Hector McDonald (Matt Moore). Echo’s girlfriend, pickpocket Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch), pretends to be his granddaughter.

Using what they learn from delivering pets, the trio later commits burglaries, with their wealthy buyers as victims. On Christmas Eve, John Arlington (an uncredited Charles Wellesley) telephones to complain that the “talking” parrot (aided by Echo’s ventriloquism) he bought will not speak. When “Granny” O’Grady visits him to coax the bird into performing, “she” takes along grandson “Little Willie”. While there, they learn that a valuable ruby necklace is in the house. They decide to steal it that night. As Echo is too busy, the other two grow impatient and decide to go ahead without him.

The next day, Echo is furious to read in the newspaper that Arlington was killed and his three-year-old daughter badly injured in the robbery. Hercules shows no remorse whatsoever, relating how Arlington pleaded for his life. When a police investigator shows up at the shop, the trio becomes fearful and decide to frame Hector, hiding the jewelry in his room.

Meanwhile, Hector proposes to Rosie. She turns him down, but he overhears her crying after he leaves. To his joy, she confesses she loves him but was ashamed of her shady past. When the police take him away, Rosie tells the trio that she will exonerate him, forcing them to abduct her and flee to a mountain cabin. Echo takes along his large pet ape (who terrifies Hercules).

In the spring, Hector is brought to trial. Rosie pleads with Echo to save Hector, promising to stay with him if he does. After Echo leaves for the city, Tweedledee overhears Hercules asking Rosie to run away with him (and the loot). The midget releases the ape. Hercules kills the midget before the ape gets him.

At the trial, Echo agonizes over what to do, but finally rushes forward and confesses all. Both he and Hector are set free. When Rosie goes to Echo to keep her promise, he lies and says he was only kidding. He tells her to go to Hector. Echo returns to the sideshow, giving his spiel to the customers: “That’s all there is to life, friends, … a little laughter … a little tear.”

Production:

The “ape” was actually a three-foot-tall chimpanzee who was made to appear gigantic with camera trickery and perspective shots. When Echo removes the ape from his cage, the shot shows Echo (with his back turned to the camera) unlocking the cage and walking the ape to the truck. The ape appears to be roughly the same size as Echo. This effect was achieved by having midget actor Harry Earles (who played “Tweedledee” in the film) play Echo for these brief shots, and then cutting to Chaney, making it seem as though the ape is gigantic. (In the 1930 remake, the ape was played by Charles Gemora.)

Lon Chaney as Professor Echo in “The Unholy Three”.

Harry Earles, Victor McLaglen and Lon Chaney in “The Unholy Three” 

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One of my favorite films of all time!