The unsung ladies of slapstick comedy are a selection of mean landladies, vamps, spinsters, flirty fat girls, mother-in-laws, society snobs, dingbats, and busybodies who performed yeoman service making up the universe of the silent comedy films. Whether fierce, maternal, or straight-laced, they were well-seasoned veterans who were past masters of timing, and at providing much needed comic tension. Some, due to their physicality, specialized in one specific type, while others were more chameleon-like and played all kinds of roles. The backbone of the genre – many of these women were ubiquitous, turning up in film after film from practically all of the various comedy units. Four talented comediennes in particular have fallen through the cracks of film history.
Ethe Teare is a neglected lady clown whose starring films for Kalem and Fox have almost all vanished without a trace. After going on stage at fourteen she toured all over in vaudeville and with stock companies before starting at the Kalem Studio in 1914. Teare was statuesque and quite a beauty, but wasn’t afraid to go to extremes in make-up and costume in the name of comedy. In her second film appearance, the surviving The No-Account Count (1914), she plays the hideous daughter of the rich Mr. Hardup, who’s finding it impossible to get a husband for her.
Since she’s covered with warts and knobs all over her face, when her father gets a scheme to hook her up with a certain Count De Bluffe, he sends her to the beauty doctor to get sand blasted, and while she’s there it’s revealed that she’s bald as well, with nothing but a few transparent wisps of hair on the shiny dome under her wig. In other shorts Teare was allowed to be pretty, and had an earnestness and sweetness which led her to take a low-keyed approach to gags and seriously play her characters. A toothy smile that was just a hair too large and a slightly bow-legged walk, her with rear sticking a bit, out completed her comic persona.
Busy at Kalem in comedies that she starred in, as well as working with their comedy team of Ham and Bud, Teare moved to greener pastures in 1917 when she joined Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company. Although her stay there was brief, it gave her career a boost, and gave her the opportunity to work with pros like Mack Swain, Polly Moran, and Chester Conklin. Her next stop was the Fox Studio where they took advantage of her talent and headlined her in a series as a gawky and innocent country girl character.
Outfitted in loud checkered dresses and with her hair in little buns on either side of her head, the use of white-face make-up gave her an innocent look. With her big-toothed smile and hesitant gestures she gallumped her way through entries like Her First Kiss (1919), The Roaring Bathtub, Pretty Lady (both 1920), and The Baby (1921). After 1921 she left Fox, went back to vaudeville where she worked with the Marx Brothers in Chicago, and after a few more pictures finally retired in 1924. Sadly almost all of her starring comedies are missing which has left her reputation in limbo.
Most of the screen comediennes came from vaudeville, but Jane Bernoudy got her start in Wild West Shows, where she won awards for fancy riding and roping. Her cowgirl expertise was her ticket for entering films in 1913 to make westerns for Vitagraph, Kay-Bee, Broncho, and Bison, but after going to Universal in 1914 she gravitated to their comedies. In 1915 she was teamed with comic Victor Potel in a series of domestic comedies where Bernoudy was headlined as the family’s maid Sally Slopus. In shorts like Slim, Fat or Medium (1915), When a Wife Worries, and Love Laughs at Dyspepsia (both 1916) Bernoudy toiled as a slightly addled young servant with her pail and mop, lop-sided maid’s cap, checkered blouses, and voluminous aprons. Bernoudy continued in occasional appearances as Ms. Sloppus, as well as played spinsters and other characters in shorts like Mixed Matrimony, The Topsy Turvy Twins (both 1917), Don’t Flirt (1918), and The Movie Queen (1919) until she left films in 1919.
Jane Bernoudy as Sally Sloppus with soon to be director Edward Sedgwick in Lizzie’s Waterloo (1919).
Children and animals are always sure-fire “scene-stealers,” and two forgotten silent examples are little Hannah Washington and Cameo the dog. Hannah Washington was the niece of popular West Coast singer and dancer Mildred Washington, who started in films at age three and was soon a regular in the Bray Company’s McDougal Alley Kids Comedies. The McDougals were one of the many imitations of Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts, and Hannah was an imitation of Our Gang’s Farina. Named “Oatmeal” and dressed as a boy she was the tag-along younger sibling, who toddled around in too-big shoes and always created problems for the gang, like in The Big Pie Raid (1927) where Oatmeal finds a “kitty,” which of course is a skunk, and brings it to the big pie fight.
After about a year and a half of the McDougal shorts Hannah moved on to other kids’ series such as Mickey McGuire and Winnie Winkle Comedies, as well as a couple of shorts for producer Al Christie. Eventually she ended up at Universal and became a regular in their Buster Brown series. Little Arthur Trimble who starred as Buster wasn’t funny, so Hannah became their comedy ace in the hole for the series – still playing Oatmeal and dressed as a boy. A good example of her work is in the surviving Knockout Buster (1929) where the opening half of the picture is a boxing match between Buster and his fat friend Albert. Hannah plays the referee who gets all the laughs, and most of the punches, as she tries to dodge the blows to no avail, even taking one on the chin that turns her into a human pinwheel spinning wildly on the ringside ropes.
After the series ended in 1929 Washington’s appearances became sporadic and difficult to chart. Her last known role is the slave girl Sally Ann in Shirley Temple’s The Littlest Rebel (1935). It’s a shame that Hannah was stuck in the Bray and Stern Brothers low-budget left-overs instead of working for more upscale producers like Mack Sennett or Jack White. With good material (or at least some kind of material) her funny presence and natural comic timing could have been developed and resulted in some solid comedy films.
There were many canine comedians in silent films – Teddy, Brownie, Pal, Buddy, and the famous Pete the pup – but perhaps the best, and the only comedienne of the litter, was Cameo. Owned by supporting comic Hap Ward, Cameo had been a sickly pup who was nursed around the clock by Ward, and afterward would do whatever he asked her. Hap Ward was appearing in Chester Comedies’ Snooky the Human-Zee two-reelers, and Cameo made her screen debut in titles like Ladies Pets and Ready to Serve (both 1921). It wasn’t long before she branched out as a sidekick to the likes of Baby Peggy and Lige Conley, but some of her best work was done at the Mack Sennett Studio.
In Nip and Tuck (1923) Cameo plays an unbelievable poker game with Billy Bevan and Harry Gribbon. Cheating for her master Billy she nonchalantly takes a few peeks at Harry’s cards, and whenever he catches her she looks away with split-second timing, leading to a hilarious back and forth routine. From the mid-1920s on she was all over the silent comedy map – shorts such as Low Tide, and Baby Be Good (both 1925), in addition to many “A” features like Penrod and Sam (1923), Mary Pickford’s Little Annie Rooney (1925), and Ham and Eggs at the Front (1927). Known as the “Buster Keaton of dogdom,” Cameo went from studio to studio as the total film dog. Hap Ward told reporters that Cameo never had any set tricks, but understood what he told her and would do it. Her appearances in the sound era were less frequent, probably due to her advancing age, and she passed away at sixteen (one hundred and six human years) in 1935.
These four ladies are just the tip of the iceberg of overlooked silent comediennes. Although their names are forgotten, when their films are played today they still get their laughs and bring delight to viewers.
–Steve Massa for Classic Movie Hub
Steve Massa is the author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy, Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy and Marcel Perez: The International Mirth-Maker. He has organized and curated comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, The Library of Congress, The Museum of the Moving Image, The Smithsonian Institution, and The Pordenone Silent Film Festival.
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