The popular 1907–9 American newspaper comic strip character Fluffy Ruffles was an iconic embodiment of contemporary American femininity between the eras of the Gibson Girl and the later flapper and “it” girl. This article discusses Fluffy Ruffles as a popular phenomenon and incarnation of anxieties about women in the workplace, and how she underwent a metamorphosis in the European press, as preexisting ideas of American youth, wealth, and liberty were grafted onto her character. A decade after her debut in the newspapers, two films—Augusto Genina's partially extant Miss Cyclone (La signorina Ciclone,1916), and Alfredo Robert's lost Miss Fluffy Ruffles (1918)—brought her to the Italian screen. This article looks at how the character was interpreted by Suzanne Armelle and Fernanda Negri Pouget, respectively, drawing on advertisements and the other performances of Negri Pouget to reconstruct the latter. The article is illustrated with drawings and collages based on the author's research.
Italian cinema in the 1910s: the thought conjures up images of epics set in antiquity … of the aesthetic decadence of the diva actresses … of the forzuto (strongman) character typified by Maciste.
But comedy was also an important genre, with comic actors like Marcel Perez (Robinet), André Deed (Cretinetti), Raymond Frau (Kri Kri), and Ferdinand Guillaume (Tontolini, Polidor) flourishing in the first half of the decade. Less attention has been paid to comediennes of the same era: the anarchic mayhem of Lea Giunchi; Nilde Baracchi as Robinette, comic partner of Robinet; Valentina Frascaroli, foil to André Deed; and the great Gigetta Morano, whose comedy tended more toward the situational than the slapstick (fig. 1).
Browsing the pages of contemporaneous Italian film magazines, a particular film with a fanciful title caught my eye: Miss Fluffy Ruffles, a cine-commedia starring Fernanda Negri Pouget! Further intrigued by its attractive adverts and the idea of Negri Pouget starring in a comedy, I decided to dig a little deeper.
The story of Miss Fluffy Ruffles starts in the United States, where a comic-strip character named Fluffy Ruffles burst into life in February 1907.1 Newspaper comics were big business in the first decade of the twentieth century: daily newspaper circulation in the United States doubled between 1892 and 1914, and comic supplements were commonplace by 1902. By 1908, 75 percent of Sunday newspapers were publishing comics.2 Fluffy's home was the Sunday edition of the New York Herald, a publication that had been no slouch in regard to comics: seminal strips like Foxy Grandpa (1900–22), Buster Brown (1902–11/1923), and Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–11) debuted in its pages.
Illustrated by Wallace Morgan and written in rhyming verse by Carolyn Wells (later by Charles Battell Loomis), Fluffy Ruffles quickly caused a sensation (fig. 2).3 The comic followed the travails of the good-natured Fluffy, who, having lost her inheritance, tries her hand at a variety of different jobs, but her efforts at working as a nurse, florist, window dresser, postmistress, tea hostess, et cetera are always derailed when flocks of nearby men are too attentive to her charms.
Fluffy Ruffles is an early example of a “working” woman in comics, even if she was far from a career woman, and her forays into the workplace were unsuccessful.4 From today's vantage point, this aspect of the comic seems almost laughably symbolic of male anxieties about women in the workforce. Yet despite the sexual harassment endured by Fluffy, women responded strongly to her character as a woman who was modern and independent, less ornate and sculpted than the Gibson Girl ideal, grounded in the everyday. Perhaps most of all, she was a fashion icon; women adored her look, adopting her outfit of a large-shouldered jacket and a long skirt, with a parasol in her hand and a big hat with feathers atop her head.
Although the hype was orchestrated by the New York Herald, 1907 and 1908 saw a genuine Fluffymania. In the summer of 1907, the newspaper held a contest to find the best Fluffy Ruffles in New York, offering a five-hundred-dollar prize, and that November, she was the subject of a book.5 Fluffy inspired multiple songs bearing her name, and Fluffy-branded lollies, dolls, and other products were sold (fig. 3). Most important were the many garments that were marketed via Fluffy: newspapers of the time include numerous adverts for suits, skirts, belts, and particularly hats bearing her name. People held Fluffy-themed picnics, charity sales, roller-skating competitions—it was even reported that at the Barnum and Bailey Circus, a newly born camel would be named Fluffy Ruffles.6 She inspired a short-lived comic strip parody, Muffy Shuffles (1908).7 And the craze even included a Fluffy Ruffles Broadway show starring Hattie Williams as the “energetic heroine” who visits England and France in the course of her adventures.8
Meanwhile, Fluffy herself had shifted gears. Near the end of 1907, the tone of the comic strip changed, moving away from the Fluffy-at-work concept toward a more general look at her adventures as a stylish and resourceful modern woman: she rejects suitors, tames a lion without trying, and captures a burglar.9 Later, in 1908, Fluffy visits “Erin's Isle” (Ireland), and then voyages to Paris, where she has great fun at the Bal Bullier: “Vive Floofy Roof!” the Frenchmen cry. The last instance of the strip, published on January 10, 1909, has the tagline “She Becomes Popular in Paris.”
Fluffy also reached Europe by other means. In 1908 she made her appearance in the pages of the Paris edition of the New York Herald, a European spin-off of the New York Herald proper.10 This iteration of Fluffy had declared to her Uncle Joe that she wanted to go to Paris—along with her brother William, French governess Sophie, and dog Teddy—in order to attain the renowned Parisian chic and “show them that nothing is more Parisian than a chic American.”11 In letters to her uncle back home, the lively Fluffy recounted her adventures in Paris, such as her visits to the couturiers of the Rue de la Paix. “It's heaven on earth,” she proclaimed.
The third way that Fluffy made a splash outside the United States was via reportage. Newspapers all over the world reported on the Fluffy Ruffles phenomenon, focusing on her free-spirited modernity, sportiness, and independence. The London Graphic described the attributes of Fluffy Ruffles thus:
“Fluffy Ruffles” is the name that has been given to the newest American girl, that queer product of civilisation and nature, the straight-backed, slim, independent, game-playing, self-sufficing young woman who has evolved a personality for herself… . The American girl is alive all over; she cultivates literature and art as well as games; she is a visible mass of vibrant energy; she is restless, indefatigable, a law to herself, a well-balanced flirt; she is pretty, practical, and knows exactly what she wants. In fact, she is “Fluffy Ruffles,” an epitome of ambition, strong will, supreme health and development, curiosity, and almost terrible vitality.12
Presumably influenced by her appearances in the Paris Herald, Fluffy was portrayed as rich in the European media. She was perpetually considered uniquely American in style, described by one newspaper as “the premier specimen of a very new feminine type, wholly American: the adventuress with money.”13 She was depicted as traveling often, and excelling at any number of sports, which she played frequently. Perhaps most of all, Fluffy was emancipated. One newspaper article stated: “La Fluffy Ruffles is en marche, not to find a master, nor in conquest of a servant, but in search of a partner.”14
Particularly in the foreign press, Fluffy was often compared to (and contrasted with) Charles Dana Gibson's Gibson Girl (fig. 4). Created in 1890, the Gibson Girl represented the ideal of American femininity for close to twenty years. She was courageous but dignified, independent but not disruptively so, sporty but elegant, feminine but not sexualized. She provided a noble yet modern ideal that felt thoroughly American.
Fluffy Ruffles was widely seen as the Gibson Girl's successor. La revue hebdomadaire declared, “La Gibson girl n'est plus! Vive Fluffy Ruffles!”15 In L'Action française: “She has dethroned the Gibson Girl, her elder sister.”16 In the Madrid newspaper La Época, a pseudonymous author describes “Miss” Fluffy Ruffles as “a type of real American girl, free, independent, sporty. She is less beautiful, less elegant and less decorative than the Gibson Girl. She is perhaps more common, more vulgar, more yanqui [Yankee]. And above all, she is newer.” Citing the French women's magazine Femina's quest for the ideal type of modern French girl, the author calls on Spain to identify its own modern maiden.17
The Italian media also covered the Fluffy Ruffles phenomenon. In April 1908, the journalist Ettore Marroni (writing under his pseudonym Bergeret) analyzed the Fluffy archetype, describing the differences between European and American women: “First and foremost, Miss Fluffy is master of herself… . But our women cannot be as free as Fluffy.”18 Although the overtones of the article are strongly paternalistic, it includes some interesting thoughts on the representation of women in popular culture in Europe versus America, as well as such gems as “Insects have antennae: Fluffy has la flirtation.” Writing again on Fluffy in La Stampa in May, Marroni is more emphatic about her dangerously independent nature.19 Marroni gave lectures on the Fluffy phenomenon in several cities in Italy, which were collected and published in book form.20
And yet when Fluffy Ruffles reached the silver screen, it was in Italy—though this would not happen for several years.21 In 1916, the talented young director Augusto Genina and the scriptwriter Lucio D'Ambra—in one of his first forays into the film world—brought the character to the screen in Miss Cyclone (La signorina Ciclone, figs. 5, 6).
Upending the peaceful life of the old Marquis de Sermont is the message that his endiablée niece Fluffy will shortly arrive on his doorstep. “I beg you to take my place while allowing her every freedom,” requests the Marquis's brother-in-law, warning, “You may find her a little too American, but think nothing of it… . It's simply her character, and a bit the effect of the education that I've given her.” The Marquis is apprehensive: “She's the most wild girl in New York,” he tells his friend, “so wild that she's known as Miss Cyclone.”
The French dancer Suzanne Armelle plays Fluffy as a free-spirited, charmingly impertinent madcap.22 Fluffy arrives from America with her retinue of dogs, cats, a giant servant, and her “seven deadly sins”: seven young millionaire admirers who do her every bidding and who are contractually obliged to all dress alike. She swans around the mansion, demanding plants, flowers, and a tripling of the number of household servants, and generally scandalizing her bemused uncle with her impudence. Later, Fluffy creates a sensation at the Bal Tabarin cabaret, where she performs a dance for an enraptured crowd and orders champagne for everyone, including the unreceptive and gloomy writer Claudio Barsac. The rest of the footage is not extant, but the plot follows Fluffy as she falls for this one man who is indifferent to her shenanigans, and turns the world upside down to save him after he is falsely jailed for theft and considering suicide.23
Genina's direction is elegant and polished, and Armelle is infectious and charming as this “jeune fille au tempérament excessif.”24 Reviews were extremely positive, commenting on the freshness and energy of the film and praising the work of D'Ambra and the young Genina. The Neopolitan journal Film described it as a comedy out of the ordinary, while a reviewer in La vita cinematografica of Turin was effusive, calling it one of the most perfect—perhaps even the most perfect—Italian film yet.25 It was even reported to have been greatly enjoyed by leading film diva Lyda Borelli.26,Miss Cyclone was a bona fide box office success and a huge breakthrough for Genina's career.27 According to Genina, no other film “made so much noise,” and it opened doors to him abroad.28 The film also benefited from an innovative publicity campaign whereby Fluffy Ruffles was presented as a real American millionairess who had come to Rome to find an Italian suitor; men reportedly flocked to the hotel where she was “staying,” and restaurants and other businesses got in on the act by announcing Fluffy as having patronized their establishments.29 Armelle's performance was also much praised: “Proof of her artistic talent”; “Unimpeachable”; delizioso (“the only adjective”).30 She is charismatic and confident in portraying this “folle fille d'Eve.”31 And Miss Cyclone is still highly enjoyable today.
In Miss Cyclone, the Fluffy character's independence and free spirit have been exaggerated to comedically egocentric heights. As such, this Fluffy is influenced by the European conception of the character much more than the relatively genteel American original; nor does Armelle's appearance in any way recall the distinctive appearance of comic-strip Fluffy. One reviewer notes the fact that in Miss Cyclone, we have a Frenchwoman playing an American, in a film set in France and made in Italy.32 One suspects that these degrees of foreignness were useful, or even necessary. For example, it was common for Italian diva films of the 1910s to be set in France or other locales, where morals were different and divorce was possible.
Miss Cyclone was only Medusa-Film's second film, following January 1916's The Survivor (Il sopravvissuto), in which Fernanda Negri Pouget had been directed by Genina. As can be seen in adverts, the role of Fluffy Ruffles was originally destined for Franco-Polish dancer Stacia Napierkowska, but when she and Genina clashed, the role went to Armelle, a virtually unknown actress championed by Medusa's owner, the Marquis of Bugnano. This raised the ire of Medusa's prima attrice Fernanda Negri Pouget, who had agreed to Napierkowska's appointment, but was displeased at being displaced by an unknown starlet. Negri Pouget promptly walked out of Medusa-Film, slamming the door as she left.33
But Negri Pouget would portray Fluffy Ruffles two years later. The above report of temperament is surprising, given that even as a leading lady, Negri Pouget was more character actress than movie star. Striking, with huge, expressive eyes and a cloud of hair, she was respected for her intelligence and versatility. A 1917 profile in the Neapolitan periodical Film asks, “What is it about her bizarre figure that arouses such admiration in the public? If passing her in the street, no one would notice her; on the screen, however, she arouses the greatest interest and the greatest curiosity. Maybe it's because she's truly a great actress?”34 Lucio D'Ambra later recalled Negri Pouget as something of an “anti-diva,” eschewing the beautiful poses of the diva actresses in favor of a “strongly felt and lively desire for a life of screen acting.”35
Negri Pouget is remembered today primarily as a dramatic actress, and her participation in blockbuster epic The Last Days of Pompeii (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, 1913) as Nidia, the blind slave girl, has tended to overshadow the rest of her career. However, as I discovered from my research, she also played comedic roles after the mid-1910s.36 The year 1917, just prior to Miss Fluffy Ruffles, saw a trio of successes for Negri Pouget at the Ambrosio studio. In the action melodrama serial Carriage no. 13 (Il fiacre n. 13) she played the supporting role of the madwoman Esther, but it was in her subsequent two films, for which she reunited with Augusto Genina as director and writer, that she took center stage. In Tomboy (Maschiaccio) she played Claretta, an independent and spirited tomboy; but her biggest role was as the title character in Firefly (Lucciola), the tale of an urchin of the dockyards who finds favor in society as a painter's model. Negri Pouget's sensitive, impish, and comic performance as the “strange girl” was both a popular and a critical triumph. In his 1919 publication Le nostre attrici cinematografiche, Tito Alacci cites Firefly as a breakthrough role for Negri Pouget, noting that she plays “disheveled young women” (fanciulle scapigliate) even better than younger actresses, which he ascribes to her “higher intelligence and more versatile spirit.”37 Therefore, at the time of Miss Fluffy Ruffles, Negri Pouget was well established as a resourceful dramatic actress who could also inject comedy into her performances, and something of a specialist in eccentric characters.
The publicity materials for Miss Fluffy Ruffles show Negri Pouget in a variety of guises: spectacled school matron type, stylish ingénue, girlish cat-snuggler. Playful cartoons adorn the adverts—a plane drops Miss Fluffy Ruffles leaflets from the sky; decorative female figures dance and float upward; a procession of babies carries placards for the film (fig. 7).
Was the film as much fun as it looks? Impossible to tell, as no copies are known to exist. Did the circumstances—an independent and short-lived production house, a well-regarded but non-A-list star—damn its survival from the start?38 Is the fact that it was a female-led comedy significant, or was the film's disappearance a random act of fate?
In the face of such lacunae, we must grasp at the fragments that remain. Traces of the film can be found in surviving historical materials, such as a writer in In Penombra admiring the performance of Negri Pouget—“The delicate actress whose nonchalance is entirely personal”—or a notice in Film looking forward to Negri Pouget in the role of Miss Fluffy Ruffles, “the novel that established a type and made her proverbial worldwide.”39
A précis published in Vittorio Martinelli's 1918 filmography gives some details of the plotline that Miss Fluffy Ruffles followed:
Fernanda is the wild niece of an impoverished duchess, who nonetheless has retained the eccentricities of her rank. When a Marquise, an old friend of the duchess, is looking for an English teacher for her son, Fernanda disguises herself as an old British governess and becomes Miss Fluffy Ruffles. His lessons start, but the Marquis doesn't want any of it, preferring to visit the café-chantants, where there is a performer who has turned his head. But Fernanda, who has taken a fancy to the Marquis, does not hesitate to reinvent herself again … and she'll stop at nothing to make sure that the Marquis falls in love with her in turn.40
Negri Pouget had an adept costar in veteran actress Mary Cleo Tarlarini, who played the role of the Marquise, but the other cast members are not notable figures in Italian silent film history; nor can much be said about director Alfredo Robert.41 I could not locate many reviews of Miss Fluffy Ruffles. The longest text is to be found in La vita cinematografica: this advertorial-esque piece is effusive in its praise, claiming that Miss Fluffy Ruffles is better than Firefly or Tomboy, as well as complimenting the photography, mise-en-scène, staging, et cetera. Negri Pouget's performance is praised for the wealth of emotions and “masks” that she brings to the character. Interestingly, the review mentions swift editing, so that “the viewer is not brought to the slightest moment of boredom,” and the scenes in the café-chantant also merit special mention.42 Conversely, in La rivista cinematografica, a reviewer deplores the photography and considers the film mediocre overall, but praises “the lively interpretation of the excellent Fernanda Negri Pouget.”43 Interestingly, Miss Fluffy Ruffles is consistently advertised as being after the novel by “W. [William] Hamilton,” but if a novel related to the Fluffy character existed, it has left no trace.44
Was Miss Fluffy Ruffles a hit? Contropelo refers to it as successful, and a reviewer in La rivista cinematografica indicates that it was a modest success.45 So while it certainly wasn't a smash like Miss Cyclone, it seems reasonable to assume that it did decently.
Still, many gaps remain. Negri Pouget's Fluffy seems to harken back to the job-hopping original Fluffy Ruffles—deliberate, or simply another mutation? I'm inclined to think the latter, given the big attitudinal shifts about women working that had occurred in the intervening decade. What does seem very likely is that Negri Pouget's performance would have differed greatly from Armelle's, not just because of the snub of Miss Cyclone, but also because of her very different screen persona. Likewise, the available plot details suggest a Fluffy of less wealthy caprice than Armelle's nouveau riche nightmare.
It's intriguing to imagine Fluffy Ruffles in the hands of an actress like Negri Pouget: spirited, eccentric, with a more gamine edge than that of Armelle. The best clues as to how Negri Pouget portrayed Fluffy come from her performance in 1917's Firefly (fig. 8).46 As the title character, Negri Pouget's appearance is striking: huge, lamplike eyes and a slightly turned-up nose beneath a dandelion-like cloud of hair; raggedy clothes, and legs bare from the knees down. The power of her eyes is considerable, but the diminutive Negri Pouget acts with her whole body: Lucciola is a true gamine, animated by boisterous and even insolent body language. Given a rose, she's bemused and stuffs it in her hair; receiving a cake, she hacks away at it and stuffs pieces into the mouths of her trio of admirers. Yet in certain scenes, such as when Lucciola goes to visit comrade and love interest Cencio in prison, she's girlish and demure; and after receiving a kiss from the painter France Salviati, she smooths her hands over her lips in wistful delight. It's a performance very different in register than that of most other leading ladies of the era; Negri Pouget often has the strange quality of appearing both youthful and elderly. One can tantalizingly speculate that she brought something similarly unique to Fluffy, drawing on her strange ability to be alternately gamine, girlish, and grandmotherly.
The surviving visual materials relating to Miss Fluffy Ruffles connote liveliness, amusement, a certain quirky energy. It's unreasonable to expect a lost classic, and undoubtedly Alfredo Robert's direction didn't match the quality of Genina's. But between the eccentric grace of Fernanda Negri Pouget and the whimsical character of Fluffy Ruffles, it's easy to imagine an engaging film (fig. 9).
Thus ends the cinematic voyage of Fluffy Ruffles, the modern American woman who attained greater heights of wealth and emancipation on the Continent, and who was incarnated on-screen by two talented actresses. “Un nom vif, léger, et qui ondule, n'est-ce pas? comme la plume trop excentrique d'un chapeau à panache! Fluffy Ruffles, Fluffy Ruffles!”47