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He was the Roger Corman of comedy: a misery skinflint with extraordinary ability to identify and nurture talent, who became the premiere jumping-off point for more superstars than anywhere else. The litany of film greats who started their careers with Mack Sennett, even if they went on to achieve greatness elsewhere, is astonishing--not to mention all the has-beens and already-ares who cycled through his orbit as well.
But Mack Sennett's films remain difficult territory for film fans. Call him the King of Comedy if you wish, but a great many of his productions fall flat to today's audiences, or require a patience or mindset that only the most dedicated fan can muster.
One of the reasons Sennett's earliest comedies feel foreign to modern audiences is that we have grown accustomed to looking for something that wasn't there yet.
The kind of silent comedy that developed in Sennett's wake was oriented around "hero" comedians--the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton, whose personality served as the organizing principle of the films around them. Sennett's comedies played by a different set of rules, and often acted as parodies of a particular style of melodrama as popularized by Biograph Studios. To understand Sennett's slapstick, you have to start with D.W. Griffith's dramas.
Mack Sennett, born Michael Sinnott, signed up with Biograph in late 1907 as an actor. They paid him $5 a day, and he was glad of it--the boy wanted more than anything to be a serious actor, and here he was now a regular player at the world's premiere movie studio. He arrived at around the same time as D.W. Griffith, who quickly ascended to the spot of "Director-General." Griffith took a shine to Sennett and helped nurture his career along--giving Mack opportunities both in front of and behind the cameras. For example, The Lonely Villa (1909), hailed as the first full-blown example of Griffith's "cross-cutting," was scripted by Mack. But Sennett and Griffith were operating on wholly different levels. On long walks together, Griffith would elaborate on his theories of how cinema should evolve, how he could use cinematic devices like editing to elide the less important bits so as to fit longer stories into the available running time, how he could use other devices like close-ups to emphasize the good bits. In these same walks, Sennett merely kept harping on how funny cops could be.
Sennett's farces, first at Biograph and then later at his own studio Keystone, differed little from the Griffith template. He used the same situations, the same character types. But he would exaggerate everyone into some ludicrous extreme.
And in so doing, Sennett unwittingly stumbled across his own brand of art. In those early experimental days at Biograph he laid seeds that he would continue to cultivate over the coming decades. In the 1909 short Those Awful Hats, Sennett plays an irate movie-goer driven to distraction by the outsized hats worn by women seated in front of him. It's a simple, even simplistic, joke, but it has a recursive element: a movie comedy about the experience of watching movies can't help but fold real-life into onscreen events. What happens if, while watching this movie, there happens to be someone in front of you wearing a giant hat? Which part is funnier--the thing happening to you, or the simulacrum of it in the movie?
Mack must have gotten this stuck in his head, because he returned to the idea repeatedly, with ever more meta-textural variations. The 1913 short Mabel's Dramatic Career finds Sennett once again in the audience of a film, this time unable to distinguish between the fictional perils of Mabel Normand onscreen and genuine calamities calling for immediate action. This setup--about rubes unable to parse out fact from fiction--proved to be a more versatile comic notion than just ladies with big hats. Mack later produced A Film Johnnie (1914) with Charlie Chaplin taking the role of the fool in the audience who can't tell the movie is fictional, and A Movie Star (1916) with Mack Swain attending his own film and provoking confused pandemonium amongst the audience around him.
With a Kodak from 1912 plays with these same obsessions about the juncture between film and reality. Edward Dillon and Vivian Prescott play the household servants to a wretched couple (Fred Mace and Kate Bruce). The husband flirts with the maid and jealously worries about his wife, the wife flirts with the butler and jealously worries about her husband. Nobody is happy. The wife fires the maid, to punish hubby, and he fires the butler, to punish wifey. The ones really punished by all this nonsense, the servants, plan a clever revenge. They grab a camera, arrange to flirt with their respective former employers, take compromising photos, and blackmail them.
And this comedy about class warfare and blackmail depends on some simple assumptions--that what happens on film is much more powerful and lasting than anything else. If it has been photographed, it must be true.
The Keystone template as it now emerged was this: a mischief-maker causes some havoc, and the Kops descend on him to restore order. The mischief-maker could be any force of selfish wickedness--a Ford Sterling, for example. But the reason these old shorts seem so odd to us today is we're accustomed to looking for something that wasn't there yet--we've become inclined by the later development of slapstick comedies to expect our identification and sympathy to align with the star. But there's no reason to root for Ford Sterling--he's a bastard. The point isn't to root for him, but to revel in the catharsis of absolute social disorder. Authority is defied, social norms violated--this is rebellion, packaged as entertainment. This is rock and roll, circa 1914.
I mean that--the appeal of slapstick comedy was for its era comparable to the safe rebellion of rock and roll. It was a way of rebelling against a system that you actually still had to live and function within. Few rockers ever really dropped out--fewer still their fans--which is why they now seem so odd in their 60s and 70s as establishment figures. They sold the illusion of rebellion.
Sennett gave audiences a space to gather in mixed groups, mingling classes and races and genders, and laugh in communion at the foolishness of authority figures, at the absurdity of social graces, and at the overwhelming silliness of life.
Director: Mack Sennett
Screenplay: George E. Glaser (story)
Cinematography: Percy Higginson
Cast: Edward Dillon (The Secretary), Vivian Prescott (The Maid), Fred Mace (Mr. Hobbs), Kate Bruce (Mrs. Hobbs), William Beaudine (Man in Park).
by David Kalat
Rob King, The Fun Factory.
Simon Louvish, Keystone.
Mack Sennett, King of Comedy.
Brent Walker, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory.