Prod.: Pathé 35mm. L.: 17 M. D.: 49” A 18 F/S. Bn
At the end of their films, after wild chase scenes, Tilly and Sally hasten to a sickbed or a piano and pretend to be good girls, throwing off their pursuers and evading punishment. But not before having done all the things young girls should not – running away, dressing as boys, deliberately getting dirty, wreaking destruction, playing nasty pranks, ruining parties, stealing a fire truck and taking it for a joy ride – and enjoying themselves thoroughly.
The unfettered sisters Tilly and Sally, heroines of the British series Tilly the Tomboy produced between 1910 and 1915, are close kin to the cheeky children of pre-1910 cinema, whose escapades also usually went unpunished. Alma Taylor and Chrissie White, both born in 1895, began very young at the Hepworth Manufacturing Company and became among the most popular stars of the British film. The Tilly films also enjoyed international success, thanks not just to the winning leads (who in Germany were called Lotte and Mitzi), but also, as the few surviving examples show, to their wonderfully fresh photographic style and the exuberant direction of Lewin Fitzhamon whose lightness of touch with comedy made him one of Hepworth ‘s star directors. Among the wild fauna of 1910s series we also find the only surviving episode of The Exploits of Three-Fingered Kate (1909-1912), with Ivy Martinek as the eponymous heroine, leader of a criminal gang (that, too, was imaginable in those days) and if she is not quite a comedienne, the series is quite definitely ‘tongue in cheek’.
The struggle by women for release from their second class status took a new more violent direction after 1908 with the appointment of the anti women Herbert Asquith (father of the famous film director Anthony Asquith) as Prime Minister. This was the decade in which the fight was fought and the cinema not only recorded the serious, actual side of this bad behaviour but also worked through the implications of women’s emancipation in its comedies. So Tilly and Sally did whatever took their fancy; which did not include piano lessons and tending the sick. And when the First World War broke out in 1914, although the sisters did occupy traditional roles such as nursing the wounded, the well-organised women of the Movement made such an impact that they could never be ignored again.
Mariann Lewinsky, Bryony Dixon