Cissy Fitzgerald: The Girl with the Wink

Cissy Fitzgerald (1873-1941) was a performer who understood the wisdom of playing the hand you are dealt. Educated in an English convent, she came to fame in the British music comedy A Gaiety Girl in 1894, later touring the U.S. with that show. Like all of the so-called Gaiety Girls Fitzgerald was known for her provocative skirt-dancing, but she also had an additional gimmick. She had a tic that looked like she was winking. In those days, much more so than now, a wink was considered flirtatious, and therefore scandalous. Though she could scarcely control hers, Fitzgerald made it her trademark. In the mid 1890s she toured the U.S. with various musical comedies, played Keith vaudeville, and was the subject of an early Edison “actuality” short, essentially a recording of one of her vaudeville performances.

In 1913 Fitzgerald signed with Vitagraph and made comedies with the likes of Flora Finch, Hughie Mack, and Wally “Cutey” Van. In 1915, she moved over to Gaumont for several months. Cissy’s Innocent Wink (1915) is one of this batch.  This intelligence about Fitzgerald’s wink on stage and screen I think may inform our viewing of Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life (1918) — the bit where Edna Purviance keeps winking in the dance hall: is that an homage to Fitzgerald? In 1916 she appeared in the Musty Suffer comedy Look Out Below with Harry Watson and George Bickel for George Kleine, her last film for a time. After a break of about five years (during which time she went back to the stage), she returned with her own production company, with which she made Cissy’s Saucy StockingsSeeing America ThirstCissy Invades BohemiaCissy’s EconomyCissy’s Financial Flivver, all in 1921.

After another brief hiatus, Fitzgerald emerged yet again as a supporting actress in major Hollywood films, starting in 1924. Lillies of the Field (1924) with Corinne Griffith launched this new phase. Among dozens of other films you can see her in a 1924 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Long Pants (1926, a Hal Roach short, not the Langdon feature. This one has Glenn Tryon, Vivien Oakland, and Sally O’Neil), McFadden’s Flats (1927, with Charles Murray and Chester Conklin), Two Flaming Youths (1927, with Conklin and W.C. Fields), and the Lon Chaney classic Laugh Clown Laugh (1928). In the sound era she was more of a bit player, but she also appeared in some comedy shorts worth noting: The Diplomats (1929) with Clark and McCullough, Social Sinners (1929) with Raymond Mckee and Marion Byron, Aunts in the Pants (1930) with Walter Catlett, and Maids a la Mode (1933) with Thelma Todd, Zasu Pitts, and Billy Gilbert. In 1935 Fitzgerald returned to England, where she appeared in two last films, Strictly Illegal (1935) and Patricia Gets Her Man (1937). She was 68 when she passed away in 1941.

The Women Film Pioneers Project has a terrific article about Fitzgerald here. 

To learn more about vaudeville please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.