Q&A with Maggie Hennefeld on Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes

This week, our featured book is Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes. Today, we are happy to present you with an exclusive interview with author Maggie Hennefeld!

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Q: What is the funniest film that you talk about in your book?

Maggie Hennefeld: Without a doubt, it’s Mary Jane’s Mishap, a slapstick comedy from 1903, starring Laura Bayley, about a housemaid who spontaneously combusts out of the chimney while trying to light a fire. Mary Jane erupts out of the chimney, and then her dismembered limbs and torso rain down over the village skyline, and finally she returns as a ghost to haunt her own gravestone, which has the epitaph, “Here Lies Mary Jane. Rest in Pieces.”

I’m really attracted to these types of films in which gendered violence is rendered totally absurd. That’s what slapstick is all about: the exaggerated representation of make-believe violence, but violence that strikes us as somehow too ridiculous or cartoonish to be really threatening. Women have always had a marginal position in physical comedy because audiences often feel uncomfortable laughing at comical images of violence against women.

In the films that I talk about in this book, female slapstick is more than a joke or a funny sight gag: it’s a major avenue for feminist activism and protest. For example, the only way for Mary Jane to break out of the home and onto the public sphere was apparently through the chimney. In another film I talk about, Daisy Doodad’s Dial, a bored housewife trains to compete in an amateur face-making competition—so avidly that she injures her face and then is arrested for public indecency and disturbing the peace for grimacing at random men in public. In another film, a Black woman is given “laughing gas” by her dentist, and then spreads her laughter contagiously throughout the public sphere.

Humor in these films is sparked by the incongruity between how women are traditionally expected to behave and how they actually want to live. I write about suffragette protest comedies, trick films in which women metamorphose into giant spiders or man-eating dolls, in addition to the domestic disaster comedies in which women spontaneously combust out of the chimney while doing housework.

Q: Speaking of feminism and comedy, do you see a lot of parallels between the early 1900s and the present moment in 2018?

MH: I absolutely do. Satire and laughter are such vibrant parts of feminist protest culture today, as in the early 1900s. One of my favorite protest signs at the Global Women’s March in 2017 was carried by two older women dressed as suffragettes: “Same Shit, Different Century.” That could’ve been a caption for my book. We commonly think of laughter as a way of “speaking truth to power,” but there’s something about women’s laughter that’s particularly terrifying to a patriarchal, white supremacist society. Virginia Woolf wrote in 1905 that the reason men so fear women’s laughter is because, “like lightning,” it “shrivels them up and leaves the bones bare.” Or as Margaret Atwood says, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.” You see, “same shit, different century.”

It’s also important to remember that cinema was the most explosive form of popular new media in 1890s and early 1900s—there was something about the novelty of displaying the visibility of movement that was really fertile terrain for social protest and cultural experimentation. Women’s bodies were ideal toward this end, because they were believed to be physically malleable and less resistant to bodily manipulation—in certain ways, like the images of new media. We’re drawn to new media throughout history because we believe in the transformative power of radical images. I think female-identified bodies—the clothes they wear, the positions they assume, the way their bodies occupy public space—are markers of how much social norms and cultural ideals change over time. I mean, just look at the corsets women were expected to wear in the early 1900s, that contorted their bodies into crazy human hourglasses.

In this book, I trace the dialectic between women’s bodies and the emergence of cinema. I argue that women’s flexible physicality offered filmmakers blank slates for experimenting with the visual and social potentials of new cinematic technologies. When images of female metamorphosis become expedient in this way, all the old models of forcing women to “hold it in”—to keep quiet, be polite, suppress their laughter, and so forth—are thrown into crisis. Instead, women combust out of the chimney, and rip off their corsets or domestic shackles in a variety of visually startling and joyfully hilarious ways. And their doing so was absolutely crucial to the formations of cinema as a dominant form of twentieth century visual culture.

Q: So where can we watch more of these slapstick comedienne films? I know you talk about hundreds of different films in your book…

MH: Excellent question! I’m programming screenings of these films at as many venues as I can, mostly revival theaters and silent film festivals. My friend Laura Horak and I co-curated a program on “Nasty Women of Silent Cinema” at the Pordenone Giornate in Italy in 2017, and we’re doing a follow-up screening on “Nastier Women” at Pordenone in October 2018. I’ve also curated a couple of shows here in Minneapolis at the Trylon Cinema, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and am hoping to take it on the road next year. A specter will be haunting a revival theater near you, so stay tuned!

The book also has detailed archival information about each film in the “Annotated Filmography” at the back of the book. This includes, a) whether the film still exists (because most silent films have been lost), b) if so, where you can watch it. Some of the film can be viewed online, like Mary Jane’s Mishap and Daisy Doodad’s Dial are posted on the British Film Institute’s YouTube channel. Others are available on DVD, but most you have to watch on 16mm or 35mm at a film archive. I did most of my archival film research for this book at the Library of Congress, MoMA in New York, the George Eastman House, the British Film Institute, the French Cinémathèque, the Amsterdam Film Museum, and at annual silent film festivals like the Pordenone Giornate and Bologna Ritrovato. For the non-extant films, I had to rely on film reviews and advertisements in popular magazines and trade press journals, or on copyrighted film frames (known as “paper print fragments”) at the Library of Congress.

The annotated filmography also includes a pithy, funny synopsis for each film. For example, “Bridget and the Egg (1911): Bridget attempts to crack open a tough egg by wielding a large axe.” Here’s another, “The Kitchen Maid’s Dream (1907): An overworked kitchen maid fantasizes that she can dismember her own limbs to finish her housework on time.” Last one: “How Bridget Made the Fire (1900): The answer is by blowing herself up.”

Q: These films sound absolutely incredible, but also a bit gruesome. Do you view them all as feminist films? Do they all promote messages of social resistance?

MH: Definitely not, but that’s precisely what makes them so interesting to me. How do we laugh at films when their politics are at best ambiguous, if not explicitly predatory and offensive? One film from 1909, The Suffragette’s Dream, actually ends with the scene of a woman being beaten by her husband as punishment for forgetting to cook dinner because she was having an especially vivid dream about the feminist revolution. You know, women run government, take over the police force and the fire department, while men “crochet for dear life” and inherit the biological capacity to give birth. In a British film, Milling the Militants, the disgruntled husband of a militant suffragette dreams that he becomes Prime Minister and disciplines women for protesting in really awful and humiliating ways, like “milling” or dunking them in a pond as punishment for leading hunger strikes in prison.

In our culture today, I think we often don’t know what to do with this type of comedy that has a double or contradictory message. We always want to know the politics of our laughter in advance. But laughter is supposed to be involuntary, and often erupts in response to things that actively confuse us. Most satire can be read both ways, as simultaneously radical or edgy, but also extremely offensive. In other words, the lines between “edgy” and “too far” are always fluid, and we see them being redrawn every day, via #MeToo, Time’s Up, and in response to new revelations of sexual abuse. As a society, we talk a lot about the power politics of laughter, especially this distinction between “punching up” versus “punching down.” For example, Daniel Tosh, a white male comedian, joking about a woman in the audience getting gang raped at an LA comedy club is a very different thing than when feminist writers like Lindy West, or Roxane Gay, or Rebecca Solnit publish humorous think pieces that target rape culture—because one critiques rape (“punches up”) and the other cannibalizes it (“punches down”). But often times the line is not that clear cut, and it takes an enormous amount of nuanced understanding and social context to say just where the punch line falls… On which side of the line? When does satire or slapstick comedy provoke a predatory mode of laughter, and when does it unleash that radical and subversive feeling that could give rise to lasting, progressive social changes? I don’t know.

Feminism often gets a bad rap for being “humorless.” For example, women are accused of being “feminist killjoys” when we don’t want to laugh at violent rape jokes, or racist “yo’ mamma” jokes, or even dumb blond jokes. This is no doubt why feminist theorists have been reluctant to engage with slapstick comedy, and typically much more interested in melodrama or humanitarian documentaries or the avant-garde. When feminist scholars do take on slapstick comedy, they are often drawn to examples that overtly “punch up” and affirm feminist politics. For example, we’ve long celebrated the figure of the “unruly woman,” who makes a spectacle of herself with her uncontained body, loud laughter, and disruptive social presence. I love the “unruly woman,” and I’m totally indebted to the work that she does, but what I’m trying to do in this book is a little bit different. I attempt to find a 3rd way between “killjoy refusal” and “unruly disruption.”

This is why I emphasize films with ambiguous messages, or whose politics confuse us, as promoting social resistance even while ridiculing the very women who fought so hard to achieve it. Laughter always has the potential to swing both ways, and it’s extremely difficult to know in advance what the consequences of a joke will be in the moment we’re encountering it, and potentially opening ourselves to involuntary laughter at it. These are the questions that I’m always thinking about and chasing through my research.

Q: What’s your next project? Are you still haunted by the “specters of slapstick comediennes,” or are you researching a different topic now?

MH: To be honest, I’m kind of still haunted by the specters, but not of slapstick comediennes so much as women’s laughter in general. My next project is a social history of women’s laughter, focusing on the ways in which women’s laughter has been alternately silenced and pathologized. I found a number of obituary notes from the late 19th century about women who allegedly died from laughing too hard. For example, “Woman in Connecticut Goes to the Theater to See a Comedy, Ends Up Furnishing a Tragedy,” because she died from laughing too hard and “is now in the morgue.” I take these stories with a huge grain of salt, because I don’t think women were ever so absurdly vulnerable that laughter would kill them, and instead think about them as regulatory discourses meant to terrify and cow women into suppressing their laughter. I also look at this “death from laughter” epidemic in relation to the clinical sideshow of female hysteria, where laughter was not fatal but actively solicited as a pathological symptom and put on display in front of live audiences of medical physicians. The next book is called “Death from Laughter, Female Hysteria, and Early Cinema,” so stay tuned…



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