top of page

Cinema’s First Nasty Women

Le Désespoir de Pétronille

“The perils and pleasures of female millinery provided a fertile subject for

silent film representation: hat-themed films ranged from absurdist comedies,

to ethnographic actualities, to moral melodramas.” (Hennefeld, 2016)

How do you make the music funny when the film is about a woman who is repeatedly trying to commit suicide? Sarah Duhamel, the slapstick comedienne who played the role of Pétronille, is hilarious as she wears her feather hat all the while she is trying to do herself in because she thinks her lover has broken their engagement. Discussing the project, my scoring partner, Aaron, and I agreed that this comedy was both a parody and a social commentary about the women of the day who believed that their lives depended upon getting married. Our idea for the score was to reflect Pétronille's every exaggerated emotion but, at the same time, keep the music light.

Fortunately, none of Pétronille’s attempts were successful, but not for want of trying! Everything from igniting a bomb to blow herself up (the matches didn’t light) jumping out a window, (she landed on a feather mattress), purchasing a gun and taking it to her head (the gun had no bullets, a little fan popped out) and finally, climbing into a tree to hang herself (her hat made it look like she was a bird, her lover was the hunter stalking with a gun, but she fell out of the tree unharmed). We decided not to go into minor keys during these scenes but, instead, slowed the tempo down to build suspense before the surprise pratfalls and practical jokes. At that point we immediately resumed the bouncy melody, inspired by the popular music of the time, that we had devised for most of the film.

One of my favorite parts is toward the end when she is up in the tree and the hunters are approaching. All you can see are the bird feathers of her hat. At that point, I improvised a silly little violin trill to indicate the flirtatious, “come hither” mood of the feathers moving in the branches. After doing some research on the popularity of hats during the early 1900s, I learned that this joke had a double entendre. There were many complaints from people at the time about the huge women’s hats being worn in theaters, covering up the screen!

Rebecca Sabine


work cited:

Hennefeld, Maggie. “Women’s Hats and Silent Film Spectatorship: Between Ostrich Plume and Moving Image.” Source: Film History, Vol. 28, No. 3, Objects, Exhibition, and the Spectator (2016), pp. 24-53 Published by: Indiana University Press

12 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page