Here’s a sneak preview of the upcoming issue of The Lost Laugh magazine: part of an article on daredevil comedienne Wanda Wiley. This is an abbreviated version. The full article contains more detail, a full filmography and lots of rare images!
Of the precious few female comedians given a chance to star in their own films, Wanda Wiley is one of the most obscure. Sadly, about 90% of her short comedies are now missing, but those that remain reveal a very likeable performer who gets stuck into some wonderful physical and visual comedy.
Wanda was very much a 1920s woman. She wasn’t an eccentric-looking comic type like Alice Howell or Gale Henry; she was modern, attractive and fashionable, but not just a leading lady. She was a motivator of her own plots and always at the centre of the action. Her comic equipment included long limbs that sprawled in different directions as she ran, and a wide-eyed, startled look as action swirled around her. Something about Wanda still seems to leap off the screen. Game for anything, she engaged in dangerous stunts and slapstick with vigour, usually without a double.
Her talent at physical comedy is particularly remarkable considering that she did not come from a stage background and had only been in films a year or so before being starred. Wanda was born Roberta Prestina Wiley in 1902, and was originally from San Antonio, Texas. She actually planned on being a dentist, and it was apparently while at Dental College that a film crew at work on the campus spotted her. Allegedly, Wanda was asked to give the director a tour of the campus, and wound up with a part in his Western.
Wiley’s next appearances seem to have been in Universal’s ‘Leatherpushers’ series. In 1925 an interviewer for Movie Monthly chatted to Wanda about her first appearances:
She was telling me the other day about her stunts. When she broke into the game, barely a year and a half ago, she was given a boxing scene in which she had to suffer a prompt and inglorious knockout. Wanda took her tap on the chin, but in falling added some funny business which set everyone to laughing.
This talent led her to Universal’s Century Comedies, made by Abe and Julius Stern. Wanda made her first appearance as leading lady to Harry McCoy, going on to appear alongside the Century Follies Girls and uber-obscure comedian Al Alt in several films. Her roles became increasingly prominent; and she was featured prominently in ads from HER FORTUNATE FACE onwards. From the beginning of 1925, she had her own star series.
Jess Robbins was hired to direct the films, alternating with William Watson and Edward Luddy. These experienced directors knew how to stage elaborate visual comedy and bring out the best in Wanda. The titles of the shorts leave no doubt about their comedic style: A THRILLING ROMANCE, A SPEEDY MARRIAGE, FLYING WHEELS, JUST IN TIME… These were fast-paced comedies, often featuring the heroine in a race to meet some kind of deadline. As one exhibitor put it, “When Wanda plays, you can always expect some speedy entertainment”!
A SPEEDY MARRIAGE is a good example. It turned up several years ago at the Danish Film Institute and was available to view for a short time on their website. The action begins immediately, as Wanda is thrown out of bed by an electrical device, and then struck by lightning! Her lawyer phones to tell her that she must be married by 5 o’clock to collect an inheritance. She makes a date with her fiancé, and drives madly to meet him, pursued by traffic cops. After dodging them in and out of manholes and a toy shop, Wanda meets her man and speeds off, but they collide with another car. Fortunately, the other occupant is a minister so the speedy marriage takes place and all ends happily! There’s only a tiny clip currently online:
Only the climactic second reel of FLYING WHEELS exists, but it again involves a car chase. This time, Wanda dashes across town in a miniature racing car in a fine and thrilling slapstick sequence.
A THRILLING ROMANCE is a clever little short, with Wanda as a budding novelist; we open on her typing away in a room filled with scrunched up paper. When an open window sends the paper flying to litter the entire boarding house, she is evicted . Slipping on her way out, Wanda rolls down the stairs wrapped in the carpet and right out on to the street – narrowly missing being run over by Earl McArthur’s taxi. Helping her up, Earl is so busy gazing into her eyes that he fails to notice his cab rolling away. Wanda has her own troubles, as a dog climbs into her grip and runs away inside it. Wanda’s pursuit leads her across town, and along the way she accidentally comes into possession of a crook’s bankroll. With the crooks in pursuit, she summons Earl’s help, leading to a car chase that ends up on a cliff top. Just as Wanda and Earl are hurled off the edge, the scene dissolves back into Wanda’s flat; the action has all been the latest story she is typing. You can view the short in this episode of The Silent Comedy Watch Party:
QUEEN OF ACES is rather different, substituting farce for thrills. This time, we open with Wanda engaging in a bout of fencing (apparently a real-life hobby). She is considered too much of a tomboy by her boyfriend Al’s father, and he bans her from attending. Undeterred, she dresses up as a man, and makes such a hit at the party that Dad invites her to a wild night at a gambling den. When the police raid, the pair hide in a pair of barrels that ultimately tumble from the roof! When they make it home, the father insists that (s)he spend the night in his son’s room: Wanda and Al are reunited.
Sadly, this handful of films are almost all we have to judge Wanda’s talent on for now. Century/Universal silent comedies are scarce, and Wanda Wiley’s films are no exception. Lots of the missing films sound like fun, action-packed little comedies. LOOKING DOWN features her attempts to ride an out-of-control bicycle (with a policeman on the handlebars!) before indulging in some Lloyd-type stunting on a half-built skyscraper. GOING GOOD features a race to secure a scientific formula in the face of “bearded giants, gorillas and ghosts”!
Action and stunting was the chief attraction of the Wiley comedies, and she did the majority of her stunts herself. She even recreated some live stunts involving cars on Broadway as a bit of publicity! As you’d expect, she suffered injuries as a result of her style of comedy. She was once thrown off a motorbike, but luckily escaped serious injuries, and was laid up for a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle and broken arm after an accident with a horse.
For the 1926 -27 series, Wanda’s films were not billed as star comedies in the same way, but came under the bland umbrella title of the “What Happened to Jane?” comedies. The move to the rebrand the series was the first step downwards in Wiley’s career. It made her less of a focus not only in billing, but also in material; as the ‘Jane’ series went on, more and more of the comedy was devoted to her male co-stars. It seems curious that, after establishing Wanda as a star, Century would seek to anonymise her in such a way. It would have made much more sense (and sounded better) to call the series “What Happened to Wanda?”. However, if you look at the Stern Brothers’ other comedies of the time, a pattern becomes apparent: the focus was on making series, not stars. ‘The Newlyweds and Their Baby’ and ‘Let George Do It’ focused on characters and brands rather than star personalities . The advantage for the Sterns was that these characters could be played by different actors. It offered them a way to control stars’ demands, and to easily replace them if they got out of hand.
It’s quite possible that Wanda was unsatisfied with the treatment. Whether she jumped or was pushed, Wiley departed Century in late 1926 and moved to Bray Comedies (there was also a fire at the Stern studio at this point which suspended production – this could have influenced the move, too). For Bray, Wanda appeared in several episodes of the collegiate series, ‘Fistical Culture’. Sadly, she soon found that her appearances were equally subordinate to male lead Lew Sargent, and before long she gave up on the series. Her disappearance from the screen may have also been hastened by the trauma of narrowly escaping from a house fire.
By early 1928, Wanda was reported to be hitting vaudeville, so often the agonal breath of a film comic’s career. This was no exception; she quickly faded from the limelight, and the coming of sound extinguished her career for good.
The big shame is that Wanda Wiley never got a chance to work for Hal Roach. Her flair for physical comedy grounded in a realistic personality would have slotted right in at the studio. It was not to be. Despite some vague reports of Wanda planning a screen comeback in 1933, she never made another film. However, she did marry happily to a noted physician, a Dr Atkinson, and lived on until the 1980s. We can only hope that more of her wonderful little shorts resurface one day. Those that do exist are genuinely funny comedies, and an all-too-rare breath of fresh air from the male-dominated world of silent comedy.