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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