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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.
Meanwhile, Sennett couldn't quite figure out what Griffith was even talking about. Serious art? Are you kidding me? Griffith's films ran a scant ten minutes and made no allowance for the actors to ever even speak. You can "adapt" all the classic literature you want, but the absurd limitations of the form (at that time) were destined to undermine you. At least, that's how Sennett saw it. He thought Griffith's melodramas were already so pretentious as to border on the ridiculous--it wouldn't take much to push them over the edge.
By 1911, Sennett had completely assumed responsibility for Biograph's comedy output, and his debut as a director was a seminal thing called Comrades (1911). You might think that ten minutes is too little time to have very many ideas in play, but Sennett and his competitors would continue to strip-mine the ideas and images of Comrades for years afterwards.
It involves a pair of tramps--Mack Sennett and John Dillon. Call them Dumb and Dumber, a prototype example of endless comedy duos and pairings to come. They catch news of an impending visit by a foreign dignitary, and decide to impersonate him to break into high society.
The premise of lowlifes using stolen clothing and mistaken identities to infiltrate the world of the rich would prove to be a robust notion, prone to endless variations. Sennett was all but remaking Comrades as The Baron (1911) just months later; it would be repeated virtually infinitely thereafter. But beyond the specifics of this particular deception, the larger theme of have-nots versus haves became a defining feature of Sennett's silent comedy.
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, at the overwhelming silliness of life.
Director: Dell Henderson, Mack Sennett
Screenplay: Mack Sennett (story)
Cinematography: Percy Higginson
Cast: Mack Sennett (Mack), John T. Dillon (Jack (as Jack Dillon)), William J. Butler (Charles A. Franklin), Grace Henderson (Mrs. Charles A. Franklin), Vivian Prescott (The Franklin Daughter), Henry Lehrman (The Butler), Jeanie Macpherson (The Maid), Kate Toncray (The Housekeeper), Francis J. Grandon (Marmaduke Bracegirdle)
by David Kalat
Rob King, The Fun Factory.
Simon Louvish, Keystone.
Mack Sennett, King of Comedy.
Brent Walker, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory.