The camera’s rolling for comedienne Olga Svendsen

Everyone knows Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. But what about the comediennes of silent cinema, who also entertained millions of spectators around the world? Prof. Dr Ulrich Rüdel explains that, “particularly in the case of female comedians, many gaps in film history still exist.” For that reason, jointly with silent film expert Steve Massa and in cooperation with the Danish Film Institute, the HTW researcher would like to fill in one of these blanks. They have selected two short films featuring Danish comedienne Olga Svendsen for the famous Silent Film Festival in Pordenone, Italy, in the hope of encouraging her rediscovery.

A Copenhagen chase comedy

“Their Silver Wedding” is the name of one of the two films in which the actress is featured. The plot can be summarized quite quickly. On the morning of their wedding anniversary, the married couple still hugs and kisses, but then they get into a heated argument, with the lady of the house, portrayed by Olga Svendsen, eventually leaving the house in tears and rushing off. This is when a lawyer enters the scene with a cheque from an uncle in Chicago made out for 25,000 kroner, but only to be cashed on condition of a proven, peaceful and happy marriage. Thus, the master of the house desperately tries to find his wife to put things right. The film thus leads to “a nicely staged and photographed chase through Copenhagen”, as Prof. Dr Rüdel notes in the festival catalogue.

Screenings with live music

The PhD chemist is an expert in film restoration working in the degree programme, Conservation and Restoration/Field Archeology. He has appreciated silent films since childhood. Prof. Dr Rüdel explains what appeals most to him about the form: “The visual nature of both humour and plot, which do not rely on language, the explicit physicality and sometimes rather crude humour, where bricks or cream cakes can fly.” The Pordenone Silent Film Festival is an annual date in his calendar. It is considered the most important international event in the field. There, each October, everything revolves around the first thirty years of film history, when cinema still worked without spoken words. However, it wasn’t truly “silent” cinema at all, as silent films were usually shown with live music, as indeed they still are today, such as at the festival. Sometimes solo pianists play, on other occasions ensembles may improvise or revive historical precedents, such as using drums for slapstick car chases, and so forth.

“More comediennes than you’d think”

In recent years, more attention has also been directed to women in silent comedies. “There are more comediennes than you’d think,” says Prof. Dr Rüdel. Those who shall seek, shall find - for example delightful Olga Svendsen, who appeared in over 70 film productions between 1911 to 1936, including many silents. According to Prof. Dr Rüdel, her oeuvre is certainly worth rediscovering, even if the Danish actress cannot claim to have undermined gender stereotypes or patriarchy, as did the so-called “Nasty Women” of early comedy rediscovered to great acclaim by female curators a few years ago - “cheeky” ladies who dare to organise strikes, bake inedible desserts or electrocute policemen, among other things.

Olga Svendsen - a precursor to Miss Marple

“Women in silent comedy are often very funny," writes Prof. Dr Rüdel in the catalogue.  This is certainly true of matronly Olga Svendsen, playing a warm-hearted character, anticipating later character comediennes like Margaret Rutherford of “Miss Marple” fame. Says Rüdel, “we hope this second deep dive into well-known and unknown depths and deviations of silent comedy proves inspiring in these troubled times, and leaves you wanting more.”

New Discoveries waiting to be made

At the Festival, the films featuring Olga Svendsen will be shown in the series “The Origins of Slapstick”, made possible by the fact they have been digitised by the Danish Film Institute. This process protects the valuable originals, as showing these would be dangerous for the fragile and indeed inflammable films. Several hundred accredited visitors are expected in Pordenone. All the films are shown in the same theater, typically starting at 9.00 a.m.; attendees not watching a movie at a given time are most likely to be found chatting about film in the café across the street, discussing the latest finds. “New discoveries are indeed still happening,” says Prof. Dr Rüdel. And this holds true even though although the festival, which was founded in 1982, has ironically now existed for a time period extending beyond what the actual silent film era lasted, which eventually came to an end after about 30 years with the advent of talking pictures.

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