Le Déséspoir De Pétronella
Int.: Sarah Duhamel; Prod.: Eclair 35mm. L.: 106 M. D.: 5′ A 18 F/S. Bn.
The comic series begin in France, around 1907, with Max Linder and André Deed at Pathé. In all, more than one hundred comic series (named after their main characters: Boireau, Onsime, Rigadin, Lonce, Max, Cretinetti, Robinet, Kri Kri, Gigetta, Lea, Rosalie, Lontine, Caroline, Cungonde, etc.) were produced in France and Italy between 1908 and 1914. The genre spectrum ranges from the grotesque centred on clowns to the drawing room comedy, with clowns playing mainly so-called common people: cooks, housemaids, shop girls, menservants, tradesmen and labourers.
The fat Sarah Duhamel (some thirty titles as Rosalie in 1911-1912 at Pathé Comica and some twenty as Petronella in 1913-1914 at Eclair) is a genuine clown; she works with her extravagant corporeality, emotional outbursts and grimaces that violate the boundaries of propriety and good taste. We do not know the names of the actresses who played Lontine (Pathé) and Cungonde (Lux). In her films, Lontine, an agingenfant terrible in a shift dress, destroys household after household in a mere five minutes – with water, fire or explosives. Cungonde’s appearance is mercurial; she can be a mousy old maid with beady eyes or an attractive, chic young woman. Cungonde, too, is frequently a housemaid.
In the glossy comedy Perret’s La perle, the bourgeoisie’s role models are an open secret. A professional pianist is unacceptable as a wife, but when she takes on the work of a housemaid out of love, serving the household, the man’s parents consent to the match.
In the German-speaking world the name “housemaid cinema” referred pejoratively to the allegedly sentimental and lowbrow films of the 1910s. Considering the servants on screen and in the auditorium, however, the destructive fury that girls and women unleashed in the comic series, suggests an interesting alternative interpretation of the term.