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Mack Sennett - TCM Spotlight
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Remind Me

The Curtain Pole

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.

During the years 1908-1913, Griffith directed some 450 films--most of them one-reelers. A fair number were identified as "farces," but the exact figure is hard to pin down. Not all farces were self-identified as such, which leaves it up to interpretation: what is a farce? A common estimate is that Biograph made 150 or so comedies.

The biggest hit of these farces--and indeed the biggest Biograph hit of any genre--was The Curtain Pole (1909), Sennett's second (known) script and his most prominent role to date. That role found Mack cast as a clumsy idiot whose havoc knows no bounds. The film consists of just one joke--if you hold a long pole horizontally, it will wallop people in the head--but if you do the same joke over and over for 10 minutes, it becomes something superlative. This was the origin of American slapstick.

Which is not to say that it was original--this was what French slapstick already looked like. The Curtain Pole was a French-styled farce so far wide of the usual Biograph fare that the company's marketing team all but threw up their hands: "Here is a subject that simply defies description, so fast, furious and kaleidoscopic are the comic incidents presented to the spectator."

Griffith was a savvy enough businessman to keep making Curtain Pole-like farces, since audiences paid good money to see them, but he didn't much enjoy making them himself. Griffith thought such tawdry nonsense was beneath a serious artist, and his talents were better suited to directing domestic melodramas and adaptations of classic literature. He figured since Mack seemed to have a feel for this kind of thing, he could delegate the comedies to him altogether.

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: D.W. Griffith; Mack Sennett (uncredited)
Screenplay: D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett (writer); G.W. Bitzer (story)
Cinematography: G.W. Bitzer
Cast: Mack Sennett (Monsieur Dupont), Harry Solter (Mr. Edwards), Florence Lawrence (Mrs. Edwards), Linda Arvidson (Party planner/Woman on street), Clara T. Bracy, George Gebhardt (Man in top hat), Arthur V. Johnson (Man in bar/Vegetable vendor/Party guest), Jeanie Macpherson (Party planner/Nurse with buggy).
BW-13m.

by David Kalat

SOURCES:
Rob King, The Fun Factory.
Simon Louvish, Keystone.
Mack Sennett, King of Comedy.
Brent Walker, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory.

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