written by Stacy Davies
Comedy is a man’s game. At least that’s the general perception of most filmmakers and audiences, many of whom can name only Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett when asked about female comedy icons—and they’re often seen as exceptions.
Ball and Burnett’s progeny, actresses Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey, are hailed as recent developments, proof that women are finally, or are finally allowed, to be funny. All of this would certainly be news to silent film comediennes Mabel Normand, Alice Howell and Fay Tincher, of course, and most especially to the mega-comedy duo of Marie Dressler and Polly Moran.
Like their male counterparts, women comedians of the silent era were slapstickers, a genre of performers who engaged in violence that never really hurt. Where sitting on tacks or getting hit on the head with a sledgehammer, falling down a flight of spiraling stairs or off the top of a precarious peak only resulted in a head full of swirling stars. It was the domain of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but this universal language of pratfalls and pranks also made supernova stars out of the ladies who could give—and take—a beating.
“King of Comedy” Mack Sennett founded his Keystone Studios in 1912 in what is now known as Echo Park, and was responsible for igniting the careers of Chaplin and Lloyd, as well as those of Gloria Swanson, W.C. Fields and Fatty Arbuckle. Famous for his crazy car chases and custard-pie collisions, Sennett also knew that women were funny. Normand (who would eventually own her own film studio and production company) was his first major female star, and he soon corralled more laughable ladies, propelling them to the heights of slapstick cinema and into the hearts of millions.
Marie Dressler and Polly Moran began their careers with Sennett in the early Teens, with vaudeville and Broadway veteran Dressler starring in the titular role in Tillie’s Punctured Romance opposite Chaplin and Normand. Based on Dressler’s Broadway hit Tillie’s Nightmare, the film was the first full-length feature comedy as well as a smash, and Dressler slyly reported that it was she who cast Chaplin as her leading man, saying she was “proud to have a part in giving him his first big chance.”
Meanwhile, Polly Moran was working for Sennett as one of his “Sennett Bathing Beauties,” a chorus of provocatively-clad women who the director used for silent comedy shorts (and which included Normand, Gloria Swanson and Carole Lombard). Moran was more interested in farce than flirting, however, and under Sennett honed her style as the mad-capped big mouth for which she would later be known. In fact, she would eventually be touted as the funniest lady of the silent era, second only to Louise Fazenda.
Moran appeared in 56 silent shorts between 1913 and 1929, including Dangerous Females with Dressler, and was best known for her six-episode Cactus Nell series in which she plays a haphazard yet wily lady sheriff. She was also securing bit parts in feature films, appearing in The Scarlet Letter with Lillian Gish and Flesh and the Devil with Greta Garbo—both in 1926—and London After Midnight with Lon Chaney the following year.
By 1927, talking pictures had begun their takeover, and Dressler and Moran signed with MGM for their first feature film together—and last silent—The Callahans and the Murphys, a rowdy comedy written by Frances Marion that came under fire for its stereotypical depiction of the Irish as drunks. Dressler and Moran would survive, however, re-teaming the next year in Bringing Up Father, and with Caught Short, a humorous take on the stock market from 1930, they would become one of Hollywood’s top comedy duos.
The beauty parlor spoof Reducing, and Politics, the story of two women fed-up with corrupt politicians who decide to run for office themselves, garnered them more praise, and in 1932 Dressler and Moran appeared in their final film together, the run-on-the-bank comedy Prosperity.
Dressler had won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1931 for her performance in Min and Bill, and thanks to her riotous films with Moran, was Hollywood’s top film star until her death in 1934. Moran had also established herself in her own right, receiving raves for her performance in The Passionate Plumber, alongside Keaton and Jimmy Durante, but after Dressler’s death, she found work hard to come by and was soon relegated to low-budget B-movies.
Moran finally retired from acting in 1940 and moved to Laguna Beach with her husband and adopted son Jack, where the yuckster again poked fun at politics by running for the Laguna Beach City Council on a “Pro-Dogs” platform. She didn’t win the seat (so much for local humor!), but she did win over more fans, and in addition to her presence in the community, kept up an active Hollywood social life.
In 1949, Moran was lured back to the studios for a brief appearance in the Ruth Gordon-Garson Kanin-penned battle of the sexes comedy Adam’s Rib, directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn and Spence Tracey. Hers was a bit part as a witness on the stand, and Moran delivers like a pro, but she felt otherwise. In an interview shortly after the film premiered, she recalled the shock at seeing her appearance in the rushes. “I worked in the picture two days before I got a real look at myself,” she said. “After that, I never went back.” (Her other bit part as mother of the bride in Red Skelton’s comedy The Yellow Cab Man had been filmed earlier and was released the following year.)
Polly Moran spent her remaining years with her family, enjoying the Laguna Beach landscape and locals, and passed away in 1952 from a heart condition at the age of 68. It was a quiet end to one of Hollywood’s loudest talents, and while her name is never touted when discussing the legends of comedy, all of whom are considered to be men, Moran’s film clips live on in the digital universe where they’ve garnered her legions of new fans. Fans who see her not as an exception to the rules of comedy, but as someone who helped write them.