Playing the fool: the pioneering women of clowning

Drawing on photographs and publicity materials from the BFI’s Special Collections, this season’s mezzanine gallery display celebrates pioneering women clowns from the 1920s and 30s.

11 December 2018

Dangerous Curves (1929)

To tie in with our Comedy blockbuster, a mezzanine gallery display at BFI Southbank celebrates a selection of women pioneers who asked to be taken seriously as clowns. Drawing on the BFI National Archive’s rich treasure-trove of photographs, we present the earliest years of film as those of experimentation, adventure and, frequently, laughter. Silent comedy was championed by scores of women who saw it as an opportunity to take on anarchic and subversive characters. Then, as now, comedy offered an opportunity to challenge the status quo, and to position serious questions behind a smile.

These portraits are all drawn from the BFI National Archive, and represent just a handful of the many women of the period who asked to be taken seriously as clowns.

1. Betty Balfour (1903-1977)

Betty Balfour (1903-1977), English-born film actress. Photographed by Sasha (Alexander Stewart).
BFI National Archive

2. Mabel Normand (1892-1930)

Mabel Normand (1892-1930), American-born film actress, screenwriter, director and producer.
BFI National Archive

3. Clara Bow (1905-1965)

Clara Bow (1905–1965), American-born film actress. Photographed for Dangerous Curves (1929) by George Hommel.
BFI National Archive

4. Norma Talmadge (1894-1957) and Constance Talmadge (1898-1973)

Norma Talmadge (1894–1957) and Constance Talmadge (1898–1973), American-born film actress and producer; film actress. Photographed by James Abbe.
BFI National Archive

5. Dorothy Devore (1899-1976)

Dorothy Devore (1899-1976), American-born film actress.
BFI National Archive

6. Flora Finch (1867-1940)

Edited picture desk image of Flora Finch (1867-1940), English-born vaudevillian, stage and film actress.

Playing the Fool is on display in the Mezzanine gallery at BFI Southbank from 26 October 2018 to 6 January 2019.

The Comedy Genius season at BFI Southbank runs until January 2019.

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