When I heard about Movies, Silently’s blogathon about funny women the first name that came to mind was Louise Fazenda’s, and that was almost instant. However, unlike in my recent Children in Film Blogathon post wherein I knew Jackie Searl’s works, but had just discovered a new side of his them; here I’d quite honestly never heard of Louise Fazenda until I read the wonderful book The Keystone Kid.
The Keystone Kid is part film history and part memoir. The recollections of Coy Watson, Jr. speak most fondly of Louise Fazenda, not only as she became a close family friend, but also of her talents as a comedienne.
My discovering Fazenda’s work, any of it really, is a testament to the importance of The Keystone Kid as a document of film history. As we move further and further in time from given eras in the artform, thumbnail sketches and one line synopses become what we take to be the truth about era, films and performers alike, while other instrumental figures can be forgotten entirely.
Examples of this would be that through Watson’s book I learned that Bobs, whose talent and fame for crying I knew and have been witness to, was the youngest of a large family; that Coy, Sr. was a pioneer in wire effects in Hollywood and that there was an actress named Louise Fazenda who was highly regarded. However, even in wanting to give her what was her due, and he did so citing her notoriety; and two stories (one on set and one off), I still knew nothing of her really, and I was very intrigued. This was not just because she was an unknown silent actress to me, but also because even her name, which means farm in Portuguese, fascinated me. It was a decidedly “un-American” surname yet remained unchanged.
So this post has that element of excitement wherein I’m not coming of a position of having known a bit about, and having insights into, said performer, but instead was discovering her. And that’s great because part of why I don’t read books about film as voraciously as I could is that element of “I wanna see that, and that and that” for various reasons and being disappointed to find said titles are rare or hard-to-find.
My tactics in finding her, owing to the fact that I didn’t have too much time to get cracking, were to hit two internet resources one was YouTube, the other the Internet Archive. I didn’t scour compilations as it may have taken too long to uncover he appearances there.
The films I was able to see all or part of were as follows:
Your Show of Shows (1929)
Wilful Ambrose (1915)
Ambrose’s Fury (1915)
When Ambrose Dared Walrus (1915)
Ambrose’s Lofty Perch (1916)
Ambrose’s Nasty Temper (1917)
Once Over Lightly (1944)
The Bat (1926)
Her Fame and Shame (1917)
Her Torpedoed Love (1917)
A Versatile Villain (1915)
If I had only seen Once Overly Lightly, a 1944 moviereel style compilation of many silent films with a voice-over track full of insincere wistfulness and backhanded apologies for silent tropes; I still would’ve known little. Again she’s cited as one of the best but all that’s cut into the film is one very apt pratfall. This release being just five years after her last credit mind you.
Yes, Louise Fazenda survived into the sound era. As the first clip I watched showed (Her segement in Your Show of Shows), though she was playing the straight man, she remained quite funny, versatile and had a pleasant speaking voice. She had a good run in the transition to sound, at least in terms of years, it seemed apparent even in 1929 that writers didn’t know what to do with her talking though – a harbinger of the influx of stage influence in the craft of writing and acting perhaps.
So those first two bits only gave me small glimpses. As I sat down to write this I wondered, maybe the internet has some insights. I found on Golden Silents her bio from Who’s Who on Screen 1920:
“Louise Fazenda, famous Mack Sennett comedienne, was born in Lafayette, Indiana and educated in Los Angeles. After a short season in stock she secured an emergency engagement with Universal, going from there to Keystone and Mack Sennett. Miss Fazenda scored notable success in “The Kentucky Lady,” “Her First Mistake,” “Her Screen Idol,” “The Village Chestnut,” “The Village Smithy,” “The Foolish Age,” “Hearts and Flowers,” “Treating ‘Em Rough,” “Back to the Kitchen,” and “Down on the Farm.” She is five feet, five inches tall, and weighs a hundred and thirty-eight pounds. Her hair is light and her eyes are blue. In spite of her remarkable characterizations of homely girls, Miss Fazenda is one of the screen’s most beautiful actresses.”
At least, here you see some popular titles at the time. It can be worth looking into those down the line, but I’m fairly sure that time has been very unkind to many of her earlier works. Oddly enough through my viewing over this week, I didn’t see what was cited as her staple character:
Her best known character was her country bumpkin — complete with spit curls, multiple pigtails, and calico dresses, a look that went on to inspire such later comics as Judy Canova and Minnie Pearl.
However, I did see her range one of the amazing things I picked up by watching Fazenda, even in the fleeting glimpses I saw, was that there is an elasticity, a chameleon-like quality to her appearance. In the teens she played lovestruck young ladies and matronly housewives. When you compare that to her appearance in Your Show of Shows, she looked more refined, mature (as she could look) but hardly like 14 years had passed.
Sure there was movie magic even back at the very beginning but ones facial structure and the quality of their features have to be perfectly conducive to such a seamless transformation. Fazenda did what needed doing to create her character and seemed to take it seriously even in entirely goofy films. That grounding in reality, even of just one element can be essential for comedic success. It’s not a wonder that legend has it that Mack Sennett would bring in Fazenda to try and quiet Mabel Normand’s comments on the caliber of films Keystone put out.
Fazenda seems to have a physicality that’s ahead of her time, possessing not only natural ability but the innate ability to seem natural on screen. Silents weren’t communicating with words so gestures, movements and looks had to be exaggerated such that those who could be big but also convey and get desired results with restraint are noteworthy. As cameras moved closer to actors broader was no longer better and those who could make subtle communicative gestures continued to work consistently. Fazenda proved early on she had that innate ability.
Her facial expression in Wilful Ambrose as she lines up a “bonk” in Wilful Ambrose is priceless. A husband being smashed on the head is a standard bit, but to make the anticipation funnier than the result is great and the mark of a good comedian. All of these traits, including a good singing voice, were on display in the sound era.
In The Bat you can see that she was the comic relief and brought that levity when needed but her fear always seemed very real. She instantly asserts her presence. Her character, for as superstitious as she is, is often correct to be fearful and it ends up being one of the charms of the film. While that film had its failings it is perhaps the best illustration of her persona that I was able to see: deft physical comedy and seriously grounded commitment.
Going back around to the beginning, it really is a wonder what The Keystone Kid, or any written work about film can do. You open the book with a vague interest in the subject matter and learn of very specific avenues to explore. They are entryways to new constellations in the universe of film. Due to this book I now have definitive thoughts on why Louise Fazenda is great. I no longer take that statement and remember it like a cinematic platitude such as film X is great and film Y is such-and-such’s best. I’ve now seen some of her work for myself.
If a piece of film writing leads you find one new artist of film it’s done a great service. If you find many it’s a debt that can never be repaid save to thanks again. I am now a fan Louise Fazenda’s thanks to Coy Watson, Jr.’s book, and I’m quite grateful I am.