Rep Diary: Footloose Widows & Queen of Aces
The history of silent slapstick focuses on the man-child genius of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, but rarely touches on feminine pratfall pursuits. Unheralded comedians Louise Fazenda and Wanda Wiley were given their due by programmers Steve Massa and Bruce Lawton at The Silent Clowns film series in New York City, which screened the cross-dressing Wiley short Queen of Aces (25) and the Fazenda gold-digging feature Footloose Widows (26) in pristine prints preserved by the Library of Congress. Packing the Bruno Walter Auditorium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, these actresses' subversive behavior sent ripples of laughter through the crowd, as if they were still snappy ingénues with the world at their feet.
Wanda Wiley is a victim of studio negligence. Of the 40-plus comedy shorts she made in the Twenties, only a few still exist. The majority were produced by Century Film and distributed by Universal, and Universal destroyed most of their silent negatives in the late Forties. Biographical details are slim outside of official studio publicity. According to a September 1924 issue of Universal Weekly, Wiley came from a medical family. While she was a student at the Texas Dental College in San Antonio, she gave a tour of the campus to a director filming a Western in town. She was exactly the type he wanted to cast in his picture, and Wiley soon became a leading lady in Century Film shorts.
A striking flapper with curly short hair and a heart-shaped face, Wiley's cute, almost demure exterior belies a destructive physicality. The article emphasizes her sporting talents, remarking on her expert horsemanship and swimming ability, allowing her to “perform many athletic stunts.” Even outside of Universal publications she was admired. A January 1927 issue of Film Daily described her “as vivacious and attractive a pictorial morsel as one could possibly desire.” Her last credited film is Custard’s Last Stand (27), and it is unclear why her career ended so suddenly. She returned to San Antonio to marry ophthalmologist Donald T. Atkinson in 1937.
In Queen of Aces Wiley plays a tomboy whose rich boyfriend is barred from seeing her because his father thinks she is too mannish. In revenge she disguises herself as a slick-haired gentleman and crashes the boyfriend's father's poker party. When the gambling den is raided, she leads him on a madcap escape across the rooftops. The most throat-catching gag occurs when two of the officers end up in barrels and get tossed off a skyscraper, collateral damage to Wiley’s macho energy. It’s a supercharged farce directed with verve by William Watson, who started as an editor at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Wiley was clearly a provocative talent, but it seems she will remain a phantom, unless more of her films miraculously turn up.
The headliner of the evening was the Warner Brothers production Footloose Widows, starring Louise Fazenda and Jacqueline Logan as New York City department store models who decide to become gold-digging con artists in Florida instead. The screenplay, which future mogul Darryl Zanuck adapted from a Beatrice Burton short story, anticipates the wave of saucy pre-Code sound comedies that would dominate Warners for the next decade, complete with director Roy Del Ruth, who would go on to become a prolific director of them (Blonde Crazy, Taxi, The Mind Reader).
Fazenda was already a comedy veteran, having come up with Sennett in 1915. By 1925 she was settling into character roles, emphasizing her wide eyes and long face as naïve backwoods bumpkins or, in this case, as a ruse to fool rich men into believing her tall tales (she would later take on spinster roles). Born in 1895 in Lafayette, Indiana, she got into the movie business to earn some pocket change, taking work as an extra at Universal’s Joker comedy division.
In Footloose Widows Fazenda plays a relentless schemer with the appropriately flip name Flo, introduced plucking her eyebrows and getting a hair iron stuck in her curls. She lives with Marian (Logan) in a filthy Brooklyn apartment. (The opening title reads that New York City was purchased for $24.50 from the Indians, and “The 50 cents was Brooklyn.”) Del Ruth emphasizes their bachelor lifestyle, with dishes overflowing the sink and no clean utensils to use for dinner. In a slow-burning gag, the girls have to improvise: Flo uses the hair iron as tongs to pick up bacon and a shoehorn as a butter knife.
Both lazy and in search of a better life, Flo and Marian soon resort to crime. Their boss, an oily English gentleman, invites them to dinner, and to borrow some of his store’s dresses to wear. Flo tells Marian: “There’s two ways of getting clothes—one is to buy them”—so off they flee to Florida. The film’s intertitles are almost entirely dialogue, reflecting a growing trend during this period. In Bordwell, Thompson, and Staiger’s Classical Hollywood Cinema, they counted that only nine of the film’s 184 titles were expository. The movie never slows down for a second.
With her new couture, Marian pretends to be a mourning rich widow in order to snag a millionaire husband. In a comic highlight, Marian freezes when asked for the story of her husband’s death, so Flo extemporizes an outrageous demise, which Del Ruth stages in a flashback featuring clutched hearts, streaming tears, and a pearl-handled revolver. It's a deliciously brutal satire of melodramas of the period, with large vaudevillian Mack Swain as the doomed husband declaiming: “This is what I get for being a bootlegger!”
A roundelay of mistaken identities ensues between Flo, Marian, an incognito soft-drink tycoon (Jason Robards Sr.), and his con-man impostor. Flo pushes Marian to target the fake, and soon there are wedding bells, though neither are aware the other is broke. The girls are back where they started, although with clean flatware.
With Wiley, only brief impressions are possible: she's a figure of pure velocity who bends the world to her will. The rest of her work must be created in our heads, an interior cinematheque of invented pratfalls—until the next miraculous archival discovery. Fazenda is more concrete, a true character of impish wit and a rubber face, as cheerful in deceit as she is in love.