When teenage mischief-maker Léontine is hired to deliver a stylishly oversized hat to a milliner’s customer, she takes the opportunity to appropriate the item and take revenge on the rightful owner when they try to recover it.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
Always in and out of trouble, but mostly always in…
The silent era is often praised as the golden age of movie comedy but retrospectives have leaned heavily male and the canon of stars almost exclusively made up of men. The tide has been turning in recent years as audiences have rediscovered the comedic genius of Mabel Normand, Marion Davies and Alice Howell, but there are still hundreds of films featuring funny women waiting for their own renaissance.
The French Léontine series has been treated rather shabbily by history. A great many stars have lost films but Léontine is a lost name. We do not know the identity of the actress who brought this teenage hoyden to life, despite determined efforts on the part of historians and comedy devotees.
Between 1910 and 1912. Léontine delighted audiences and horrified her victims with a series of malevolent pranks. Léontine Becomes an Errand Girl is from 1910 and, as one of the earliest entries, is a bit less extreme than what was to follow. But a more subdued Léontine was still more than France could handle.
This brief picture starts with Léontine employed by a milliner. Her mission: deliver a large and extravagant hat to its new owner. Léontine quickly opens the box and appropriates the hat, tossing her own small, age-appropriate hat into the box in its place and boldly wearing it right into the customer’s house. She pulls faces at both maid and mistress and accepts a five-franc tip for delivering a tiny, used straw hat. When she is pursued for her theft, she uses a trapdoor to rid herself of her victims before having her grand hat reclaimed by her boss.
It’s worth noting that Léontine’s destructiveness was part of a popular entertainment tradition of the time: a monstrous child whose machinations were viewed as hilarious antics. More often associated with boys, there was still plenty of room for girls like Baby Peggy and Mary Pickford. Supernatural monkey business was the realm of Gladys Hulette, who played a vindictive pyromaniac pixie in Princess Nicotine and Puck in Vitagraph’s short version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream before moving on to grownup roles in features.
On the boy side, Peck’s Bad Boy was the most popular American version of the horrible, pranking child and he and Léontine would have given one another a run for their money. Bout-de-Zan, another French mischief maker, tended to use animals in his antics, from elephants to crocodiles. In fact, one hallmark of the monster child genre was their use of tools and technology to make their reign of terror all the more effective.
Peck’s Bad Boy made use of both itching powder and railway handcars. Mary Pickford terrorized the local population with a slingshot, which she used to shoot rocks and smash toes, in M’Liss. Léontine’s weapons ranged from a simple length of twine to running water to an electric battery. That said, seeing a girl engage in these antics, reframing “boys will be boys” as “girls will be girls” and letting the junior terrorist (mostly) off the hook, hits differently. Historically, girls have been held to higher behavior standards (or at least be precocious for a good cause, as was the formula for Shirley Temple pictures) but not Léontine and her fellow girl monsters. “Sugar and spice and everything nice” need not apply.
(The monster child has survived, notably in the funny pages with Dennis the Menace and Calvin and Hobbes both still beloved and the slightly more forgotten Little Lulu, who can be seen as Léontine’s American heir. The Problem Child series was a definite throwback to an earlier era, as was Home Alone and its sequels, though the malevolent child in the latter case was most definitely provoked. A great many modern film interpretations are generally coed, often supernatural or fantastical, and played for horror: The Bad Seed, The Omen, Orphan, The Good Son, M3GAN, etc.)
Léontine Becomes an Errand Girl is also interesting in its lampooning of the then-current fad for enormous hats. Women’s hats had been growing in size since the 1890s and they were truly mammoth by 1910 before deflating during the Great War. As with any extreme fashion, they were subjected to tutting and mockery with one newspaper caricature caption musing that women would crumble under the weight of their hats.
On the screen, D.W. Griffith used Those Awful Hats to turn oversized headgear into a moral cause and inflicted violent revenge via crane on the women who refused to buckle under and remove them in a movie theater. (All top hat-wearing men were spared.) Danish pioneer Viggo Larsen took a more subtle and interesting approach in A New Hat for the Madam, making large hats and hobble skirts a symbol of modern enslavement to social mores, and showing the wacky consequences wreaked on men and women alike.
In the case of Léontine, the large hat symbolizes the kind of mature luxury that she as a teenage girl could never lawfully access. Léontine borrowing the hat and then defiantly wearing it in front of its rightful owner is the equivalent of a modern teenager appropriating a Birkin bag and red bottom heels. The film claims to have taught everyone a lesson but did it? Léontine gets off scot-free, losing her ill-gotten hat but keeping her tip and leaving her victims in chaos.
(The title cards could very well be a more modern addition. The only surviving print of this film is a 9.5mm home edition and these were subjected to retitling, either professionally or on a more amateur level. In any case, the visual story certainly does not support any kind of moral. I also wonder if the scene of Léontine’s wild escape from her pursuers, hinted at in the titles, was present in the full-length film but then cut. The people responsible for cutting down films for home and school release sometimes made unfathomable decisions, such as cutting all the war scenes from the German epic Theodor Körner, lest they excite young viewers too much.)
Despite its abbreviated runtime, Léontine Becomes an Errand Girl is an utter delight. Its heroine would become more chaotic as time passed but I very much enjoyed the simple pleasures of her purloined hat and trapdoor. Here’s hoping that she is one day identified and offered her rightful place in the canon of early comedy.
Where can I see it?
Included in the Cinema’s First Nasty Women box set along with a whopping fourteen additional Léontine shorts. A real treasure trove for fans of French comedy. The film is enhanced by a score from Naomi Geena Nakanishi.
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