Old films give us a window into the cultures, values and everyday norms of the past, and comedies sometimes hold up the mirror to society best of all. Although silent comedies rarely tackled politics head-on, they often took inspiration from current events and trends, and people’s attitude to them. Often this was in passing, but sometimes comics went the whole hog to make satires. The Suffrage moment became a favourite topic for comedy; many men in the male-dominated society felt threatened by the increasing voice of women, and this was reflected in comedic portrayals of fearsome battleaxes. As the 1920s rolled on, the increasingly confident and empowered flapper generation began to be represented in films, with wonderful performers like Clara Bow, Dorothy Devore and Marie Prevost flying the flag for contemporary women.
However, not all welcomed such developments. The narrow-minded mutterings in some quarters that skirts were getting too short and things really were going too far were ripe for spoofing. Emasculated men having to deal with the housework became a comedy staple, but the gagwriters at the Hal Roach studios went one step further and made some wonderfully silly and surreal films where genders were bent as men and women swapped roles fully. They weren’t trying to make a serious point, just having some fun and trying to make good comedy that would resonate with their audiences. Nevertheless, the films give a fascinating insight into what was considered conventional for each gender in the 1920s.
In 1922, the gagmen and performers had great fun playing with exaggerated gender stereotypes in Snub Pollard’s YEARS TO COME. Set in a future where men’s and women’s roles are reversed, it offers the amusingly goofy sight of the heavily moustached Pollard and the usually tough and burly Noah Young delighting in incongruous feminine mannerisms.
The Roach gagmen always liked to revist a good idea, and in 1926 they remodelled the basic idea of YEARS TO COME with another moustachioed comic, Clyde Cook. WHAT’S THE WORLD COMING TO? was even dafter than the original, and mocks the more ridiculous gender conventions of Hollywood film for all they are worth. To this end, we get James Finlayson as a shrewish father-in-law (“about to bear up bravely as his little one is wrenched from his apron strings”), and Laura de Cardi as a caddish lounge-lizard, as well as a series of ridicuously surreal visions of an outlandish future.
This gag-happy little film was co-written by Stan Laurel and Frank Terry (It is Terry who makes a cameo as a man in a window, not Laurel as often stated. Sorry, Stan Fans!) For many years known primarily in a one-reel cutdown, WHAT’S THE WORLD COMING TO? has been restored to its full glory, and kindly shared online by The San Francisco Silent Film Festival:
Roach comedian Charley Chase had a theory that comedy ideas could be recycled around every seven years. Sure enough, in the mid-30s he began reaching back to some older plots from the silent era. 1935’s OKAY TOOTS! was maybe inspired by the two previous films. Though not a remake of them, it takes a similar approach in playing with gender roles. In fact, it anticipates FREAKY FRIDAY as Charley and his wife Toots (Jeanie Roberts) swap bodies, each speaking with the other’s voice as Charley gets a lesson not to take all his wife does for granted. It’s a bizarre little film – unlike the previous two shorts, Charley and Jeanie do not outwardly look or dress like the opposite sex, but everyone accepts them as such without question. Chase’s impotent indignation as a group of housewives give him an enforced makeover is a highlight, as is his variation on a parallel parking routine used by Lloyd Hamilton and W.C.Fields. Look out for a funny bit from Charlie Hall at his most menacing too!
Though these films and the conventions they spoof are obviously very dated now, they remain interesting artefacts of their times – and more importantly, they’re still funny!