Some things are just self-evident; one of these verities is that if Steve Massa has something to say, we want to hear it, and I’m pretty sure our readers do too, whether it’s in person at the Silent Clowns Film Series he co-produces with Bruce Lawton and Ben Model; or the blog entries he writes that illuminate the collections of the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts division, where he works; or his great books like Lamebrains and Lunatics and his biography of screen comedian Marcel Perez.
I couldn’t have been more excited when I first heard he was working on his new book Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy. For many reasons. One is that there’s a serious void in that area, both in terms of scholarship and in published material. Two, is that I knew that there was a serious story out there worth telling, largely because of Massa’s previous work in this area, along with his Silent Clowns cohorts. My own post on the topic owes much to their tutelage (as does plenty of content on this site, for that matter). Figures he and they have championed like Alice Howell and Alberta Vaughn mightn’t even made it to my radar if not for those guys. Third, I knew that he’s got terrific access to important collections and he’s like a kid in a candy store when let loose in archives others have barely even looked at. Enthusiasm breeds discovery. And, lastly, because he’s extremely good at capturing the personalities of performers, of making their work as comedians and artists come alive on the page, which is one of the hardest jobs of a critic.
So, I was anticipating all that, and he didn’t let me down. What I did NOT expect is the size of the haul he would come back with in his fishing net. I’m not sure what I assumed; I guess that it would be a book that focused on one area of information (female funny ladies) he had already made us aware of, but with more depth. In other words, it would mostly contain new information about artists who were already familiar to me. But it’s much more than that. The book introduces the reader to scores of other actresses and comediennes of the silent era that I swear I’ve not previously encountered anywhere else, in addition to all the well-known names. It’s over 600 pages long. The scholarship in this book is important; maybe even revolutionary. It’s the kind of book that is destined to eventually give birth to hundreds of other books and articles and scholarly papers. It’s going to be an important reference not just to silent cinema and comedy scholars and enthusiasts, but for feminists and women’s studies authors as well — maybe them above all, but hopefully not. My hope would be that in the long run it’s going to help rewrite the entire narrative of silent comedy history more completely, and increase our understanding of what went down a century ago. I tend to think of Melissa McCarthy as a revolutionary screen figure, but she had many comedy grandmothers whose tombs have long been covered up by the shifting sands of time. Massa’s brought them back into the light.
Further, he’s broken the book down into useful categories, for there were many different kinds of comedy actresses: some were slapstick stars themselves, some were leading ladies to comedians, some specialized in stereotypical ensemble characters, some were mere visual jokes, some were there to be sex objects. And some were auteurs who produced and directed their own films (ironically it was easier for women to do that in the silent era than in later times). I’m not going to bore you by listing a lot of unfamiliar names here. But I will be one of the ones who brings some of those names to you in the coming months and years, as I begin to follow Massa’s map and discover the work of these comediennes myself and form my own impressions. The book will also help enhance and correct many of my existing posts based on older sources which I know will not be authoritative as Steve’s. But don’t wait around for my tardy, second hand accounts. You owe it to yourself — NOW — to get your hands on the mother lode, familiarize yourself with its contents, and keep it at the ready for future reference. Buy Slapstick Divas now. Get it here at Bear Manor Media.