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 peculiar comedy sensibility ripples through these early films, but his empire truly took off once he started to develop a retinue of comedy stars deserving of the name. It's no slouch on the memories of Eddie Dillon et al to note that Sennett's reputation was not built on them--it was built on the likes of Mabel Normand.
Normand was once America's preeminent comedy star, until a fellow named Chaplin arrived at Sennett's door to challenge her title. In Katchem Kate (1912), Mabel plays a bored young lady eager for adventure, who enrolls in the Alert Detective School to become a private eye. There she learns such dubious tricks as the use of fake mustaches as disguises--an odd choice for a girl detective, but what are you going to do?
Thanks to her fake mustache, she manages to track an aspiring bomb-thrower to an anarchist's hideout. Her detective agency boss and a group of policemen try to come to her aid, but this sister's doing it for herself. No wonder audiences fell in love with her--this was the prototype of the "hero" comedies that would come to dominate the silent era.
As much as Katchem Kate makes Mabel Normand into a feminist heroine, the inflection of the approach was not indicative of the direction Sennett would take. The ineffectual cops who fail to save the day make Mabel look good--change this just a bit, and you could use the same material to make the cops look bad.
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: Dell Henderson
Cinematography: Percy Higginson
Cast: Mabel Normand (Katchem Kate), Fred Mace (Detective Agency Head), Jack Pickford (Money Thief at School), Vivian Prescott, Anthony O'Sullivan, Sylvia Ashton (Kate's Supervisor), Charles Avery (Detective School Pupil), Eddie Dillon (Detective School Pupil), Frank Opperman (Customer/Anarchist).
by David Kalat
Rob King, The Fun Factory.
Simon Louvish, Keystone.
Mack Sennett, King of Comedy.
Brent Walker, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory.