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The Manicure Lady
Remind Me

The Manicure Lady

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.

Mack directed and starred in the 1911 short The Manicure Lady, which ambles along for most of its trim running time as a gentle melodrama, a snapshot of American life, until it spins into frantic violence out of scale to what seems to be at stake. Mack plays a mild-mannered barber, who shares shop space with a comely manicurist played by Vivian Prescott. This lady is raw sex appeal, so potent that jealous wives will thunder into the shop to forcibly extract their husbands from such temptation. The gimmick here is that Mack is also jealous of this attention to the woman he loves, but can't bring himself to tell. He's dragging razors along the throats of his clients, distracted by boiling rage at the way men fawn over his sweetie. It's a recipe for disaster.

Enter the rival, Eddie Dillon, a wealthy fob. How can Mack hope to compete? He'll compete with slapstick, that's how! He chases them down the street, barges into their speeding car to pummel the boy and all but rape the girl. But for all the furious energy of this finale, some of the most potent satire comes earlier, in a Griffith-style cross-cutting juxtaposition of Mack's lonely lunch at a crummy diner versus Eddie Dillon's upscale restaurant date with Vivian. She nervously reads her menu right to left and warily eyes the multiple tuxedoed waiters standing at attention to her exclusive service. Meanwhile Mack suffers the indignities of a dismal 10 cent meal in a rundown shack. There are two Americas, and all the social mobility in the world won't make it possible to cross between these classes with ease--but the movies can jump across boundaries with a single cut.

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.

Producer: Percy Higginson
Director: Mack Sennett
Screenplay: Edwin August (story)
Cast: Mack Sennett (The Barber), Vivian Prescott (The Manicure Lady), Eddie Dillon (The Rival), Kate Bruce (First Customer's Wife), William J. Butler (Maitre D'), Verner Clarges (First Customer), Guy Hedlund (Third Customer), Grace Henderson (Lunchroom Hostess), Florence La Badie (The Rival's Girlfriend), Claire McDowell (Lunchroom Hostess).

by David Kalat

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