Technology is complicated. Sure, we sent people to the moon, which is impressive, but we also have Instagram influencers who’ve probably been sent here to torture each other and us. I can tell you are excited… your hands are stretching to check the latest Stories updates.
Similarly, many people were thrilled when films started featuring people’s voices, but this meant that some of the Golden Age silent movie stars got left behind. This is a tragedy! There was so much skill in silently conveying what modern actors and actresses can do through speech, voice-over, song, and (in the case of Henry Cavil, The Witcher) grunts. Other actresses had the technology to use their voices but were frequently censored, leaving us with only a handful of iconic lines. So, let’s look at three of the most talented comic actresses whose stories have sadly been lost to history.
Gloria Swanson was the “quintessential flapper.” She had the Betty Boop cupid’s bow lips, smoked, and constantly defied conventional norms. Swanson had no time for the status quo and always did what she pleased. Born in 1899 in Chicago, she was scouted for a walk-on role in a film after touring a studio with her aunt. From that point forward, her life accelerated dramatically. She appeared in around 80 TV shows, features, and film shorts. Although she worked on some “talkies,” most of her films were produced in the 1920s.
Swanson’s early roles were comedic; she was cast in a lot of slapstick, which she reportedly hated. However, she wasn’t completely averse to comedy and reported that her favorite film was Madame Sans-Gene, an early rom-com that had tragically been lost. The setting and filming of Madame Sans-Gene took place in France, where Swanson met her third husband, Henry de la Falaise. It wasn’t until later, in the 1928s—for her role in Queen Kelly—that she began to receive recognition for her more serious characters. In the film, Swanson played the eponymous queen, which was produced by Joseph P. Kennedy. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the father of former US President John F. Kennedy. Swanson and Kennedy (senior) had a dramatic affair during the film’s production, but he left her when it proved to be a financial flop.
This wasn’t the only time Swanson’s love life encountered difficulty. She was married six times and had numerous affairs before settling down in the 1970s with William Dufty, a writer. This relationship lasted until she died in 1983. The couple lived in California, Portugal, and had property in New York, where Swanson met and befriended former Beatles John Lennon and artist Yoko Ono. Swanson testified at Lennon’s immigration hearing and was a major reason he was granted American citizenship.
Swanson had previously assisted people in gaining entry into the USA, but in a much more dramatic situation. When she wasn’t receiving many film roles and had spent most of her money, Swanson moved to New York and established Multiprises in 1938. The company aimed to create a product that would revolutionize American life, even if it was a bit ridiculous. Swanson’s initial plan was a dustless broom. However, when she realized it wasn’t feasible, she shifted her focus to recruiting European Jewish inventors who could work for her and escape the increasingly hostile anti-Semitic society created by the Nazis. Using her French husband’s connections, Swanson brought three men across to the USA. She apparently became very fond of them, stating, “I had always wanted to be surrounded by brilliant engineers, the sort of men whose minds had always excited me.” Swanson returned to Hollywood after Multiprises shut down in 1943. However, one of the men went on to invent the talking typewriter.
This was when she made her most remarkable film, Sunset Boulevard. The film is a black comedy, and it’s easy to see how it could have been semi-autobiographical for Swanson, as it featured an out-of-work actress who had been famous during the 1920s and was determined to return to the screen. Sunset Boulevard won three academy awards, was inducted into the National Film Registry, and was ranked number 12 on the list of the 100 best American films in 1998, 48 years after its release. If you only watch one Swanson film, make it Sunset Boulevard.
Let’s move… From Swanson’s sophisticated and metropolitan “quintessential flapper” to the cute country bumpkin of Louise Fazenda. Fazenda was born in Indiana in 1895 and worked after school, delivering groceries in a horse-drawn carriage. If that doesn’t contrast spectacularly with Swanson, I don’t know what does! Fazenda was outgoing and scored a role in her school’s play, where she was scouted by Mack Sennett, “The King of Comedy.” At the age of 18, Fazenda was cast in her first film appearance, Poor Jake’s Demise, a silent slapstick.
Much of Fazenda’s early work and many other silent films of that era have been lost. The first film of Fazenda’s that remains is Fatty’s Tintype Tangle, a 27-minute-long film about a marital misunderstanding. The Library of Congress preserved the film in 1995, and it can still be viewed today. In a career that lasted until 1939, Fazenda made nearly 300 films, mostly comedies. In a number of her early roles, Fazenda was typecast as a stupid but adorable character who was often poorly treated by male characters.
In 1914, Fazenda expanded her talent with some burlesque films, such as Protect the Working Girl and The Diamond Nippers. Then, between 1921 and 1922, she took a break to learn about comedy in vaudeville, which was at the peak of its popularity, and to explore similar aspects of comedy in burlesque humor. When Fazenda returned to film, her first exploit was much more serious than her previous outings—the first adaptation of Scott F. Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned. Although she continued to dabble in comedy occasionally, her final role was in the drama The Old Maid, in which she co-starred with Bette Davis.
Fazenda was best known as an actress and a comedian because she kept other parts of her life private. After she died in 1962, the Los Angeles Times reported on her philanthropic work, which included helping out in local hospitals by comforting people dying of leukemia, cooking for a child with an eating disorder, and paying medical bills for children. Her work in films was commemorated with a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
Fazenda may have dabbled in the sexual aspect of comedy, but Mae West was the queen of double entendres and teasing censorship. West was born in 1893 and made her Broadway debut when she was just 18, following six years of experimenting with drag and vaudeville.
West was what we might now consider “woke” and provocative. She wrote a play titled Sex, in which she portrayed a sex worker. However, the authorities shut it down, eventually leading to her arrest. She rode in a limousine to her trial and told everyone about her underwear. When the whole thing was over, she went on to write The Drag, which was vocally supportive of gay men. West was happy to make her body part of the joke and was flattered when the US Navy started casually referring to their life jackets as “Mae Wests” because of their similarity to her sizable chest.
It took West some time to transition from theatre and writing to films, and she didn’t make her Hollywood debut until 1932 with Night After Night. Critics insist that this isn’t a comedy film, but West was there to provide comic relief, and the film was so successful that it saved Paramount from bankruptcy. West continued with her saucy humor throughout her life and career, and in her final film role in 1978, she uttered the iconic line, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”
West was married twice but eventually decided against the institution. She did have several high-profile relationships, including one with boxer William Jones. The management of the building where she lived tried to stop Jones from visiting because he was black, so West bought the whole building instead. Although the relationship didn’t last, the two remained close until West’s death. West died of a stroke in 1980 and was buried alongside her parents and sister.
Time is a destructive force. Think of all the talented artists, musicians, and actors whose work has been forgotten because the tape eroded, was lost, or was washed away by a storm. We must wait on the island, where everything turns up eventually… Or why wait? Let’s work hard to preserve the past and take the time to honor these amazing women who made everyone laugh through the centuries.
Written by Clara Godwin-Suttie
Thank you, John :))