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Remembering Alice Howell

See previous post: “Comedy Actress Rediscovered: 'She Could Be Chaplin!' Q&A with Film Historian Anthony Slide.”

Could forgotten comedy actress really have been Chaplin?

  • The title of your Alice Howell book is She Could Be Chaplin! Could she really have been that big and influential? If so, why didn't that happen?

Perhaps I am guilty of a certain amount of hyperbole. The publisher and I were trying to come up with a good title for the book. We selected that title in part out of a belief that Chaplin's name on the cover would sell the book. But equally because throughout her career Alice Howell was described as a female Chaplin.

Consistently film reviewers and writers compared her work to that of Chaplin. Personally I don't believe she was in any way influenced by Chaplin, but there is definitely a similarity during the early years of both their careers as far as costume selection and basic comedy techniques are concerned.

Of course, later Chaplin proved his genius with his use of pathos and the continued sophistication in his comedy, whereas Alice Howell always seemed to continue along the same path she and Henry “Pathé” Lehrman had chosen for her in 1915.

Comedienne Alice Howell Pioneering comedy actress become filmmaker George Stevens' mother-in-lawAlice Howell: Pioneering comedy actress would later become filmmaker George Stevens' mother-in-law.

George Stevens' mother-in-law & real estate entrepreneur

  • In case the IMDb is accurate, Alice Howell's last film appearance was in the 1927 comedy short Society Architect. Did she quit films or did films quit her? Any idea as to why she never worked in a movie directed by son-in-law George Stevens?

The problem really is that Alice Howell didn't care that much about her screen career. She became a film actress and then a film star with one intent in mind, and that was to make money to invest in real estate.

As her daughter, Yvonne, pointed out, her mother was Irish-American and the Irish care about land. She wanted money to invest in land. And invest she did – very well. When she was not making films, she was handling her real estate investments and collecting rents. When she retired from the screen, she continued in that endeavor.

I have no idea if George Stevens asked her to appear in any of his films, but if he did, I suspect she would have responded in the negative. It would have interfered with her work as a real estate entrepreneur.

'An original' comedienne

  • What's your personal take on Alice Howell's comedy? How has it stood the test of time? Most of her movies are lost, but any available titles that film fans should look for?

I think she is an original. She may not be an auteur in the recognized sense of the word, but she was a female film pioneer with a characterization unique to her.

On screen, she was a “slavey,” defined as a maid of all work usually in a boarding house. In England, she would have been called a skivvy – a word I prefer. She was the definitive screen slavey, a role not totally unique to her but one she made her own.

Personally, I like her most in One Wet Night [1924], a later film from the 1920s, in which she is not a slavey but a housewife and she is not wearing her usually comic make-up or costume. I know it is a strange choice, but based on the accessible films it is one that I personally prefer.

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Previous Post: Comedy Actress Rediscovered: 'She Could Be Chaplin!' Q&A with Film Historian Anthony Slide

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