Sennett, Mack (1880-1960)

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Sennett, Mack (1880-1960)

In February of 1914, Mack Sennett's Keystone company released a comedy called Kid Auto Races at Venice, in which a young English vaudevillian who had recently joined Sennett's company of comedians appeared briefly in a battered suit of morning clothes and top hat. His name was Charlie Chaplin and the cameo gave birth to the most famous comedic creation in cinema history, "The Tramp." The very name Mack Sennett resonates with images of early pioneering Hollywood, when rickety, makeshift "studios" sprang up in dusty streets and directors in plus-fours and caps cranked out one and two-reel silent movies with primitive equipment. It was an era both rough and romantic, the earliest days of the Dream Factory when maids and chauffeurs, waitresses, shopgirls, and street sweepers flocked to find fortune, and when fame too often fell victim to scandal in the hothouse atmosphere of the closed film community. It was a time, too, when comedy, brilliantly suited to the technical limitations of the early silent screen, reached a peak of public popularity with stars such as "Madcap" Mabel Normand, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, and a host of others. It was to the acumen, imagination, and energy of Mack Sennett, who entered legend and history as the "King of Comedy," that they owed their rise.

Born Michael Sinnott in Danville, Quebec, the son of an Irish Catholic innkeeper, Sennett harbored unfulfilled ambitions to become an opera singer. At age 22 he was working as a laborer in Massachusetts when a chance meeting with actress Marie Dressler led him to New York and an introduction to producer David Belasco. Ignoring Belasco's advice to go home, he embarked on a minor stage career in burlesque and musicals until 1908 when he talked himself into film work at the Biograph studios in Manhattan. He graduated from supporting roles to leads, co-starring with many top leading ladies of the day from Florence Lawrence (the "Biograph Girl") to Mary Pickford and the irrepressible Mabel Normand, who played a profound role in both his professional and personal life for many years. Significantly for his education in the filmmaking process, many of Sennett's films at Biograph were directed by D.W. Griffith, for whom he also wrote some scripts. Driven by curiosity and a desire to learn, by 1910 he was directing shorts at the studio.

In 1912, Mack Sennett, now an experienced director with a pronounced facility for comedy and, with former bookies Charles Bauman and Adam Kessel as his business partners, formed his Keystone company in California. Several of his Biograph colleagues joined him, notably Mabel Normand, the most gifted comedienne of her time. The first ever Keystone program, released in September, 1912, consisted of two split-reel comedies, Cohen Collects a Debt and The Water Nymph, prototypes for the unrestrained style that became the keystone trademark. Thereafter, Sennett, something of a slave driver, worked at a furious pace, turning out a reel of comedy per week, and rapidly became the foremost purveyor of filmed comedy in America. The earliest Keystone movies were crude, haphazard affairs, largely improvised from the flimsiest of scripts, but they had enormous physical gusto and hilarious sight gags, a stable of major comic acting talents, and Sennett's impeccable sense of timing and skillful editing to control the finished product. Gradually, as the company expanded both its roster of actors, the length of its films and its prodigious output, the frenzied, freewheeling custard-pie-in-the-face-slapstick farce that was its trademark gave way to more carefully considered and controlled material, and the general chaos that prevailed was subjected to better organization.

Within two years, Sennett's Keystone Kops (or "Cops"), a bunch of inept, accident-prone policemen, were a national American institution in films that poked irreverent fun at the guardians of law and order; a little later they were joined by the famous Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties, a line-up of dizzy "sexpots" from whom several successful early female stars emerged in due course. In January 1914, Chaplin arrived, a total newcomer to film, at the invitation of Sennett, who had seen him on stage in Fred Karno's traveling vaudeville company. He stayed almost a year before being lured to Essanay by big money and more artistic freedom, but he made 35 films at Keystone, establishing himself not only as a star actor and creator of the Tramp, but also as a writer and director. He made several with Mabel Normand, and their partnership and his tenure with Sennett concluded with the six-reel Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914). Directed by Sennett, the film was unusual in that Chaplin and Normand played second fiddle to a star (Marie Dressler), and historically important in being the first feature-length comedy (90 minutes) to have been made anywhere in the world, exceeding the running time of any previous comic film by two-thirds.

Sennett, dedicated to an ever-increasing production schedule and to the editing process, and retaining final say over each and every film, hired several other directors to come in and make them. To the Kops and the Bathing beauties, he added the Kid Komedies series for children, pre-dating Hal Roach's famous Our Gang series by nearly ten years. In 1915, however, Keystone was absorbed into the new Triangle Film Corporation, which, with Sennett joining directors Griffith and Thomas Ince, could now boast a triumvirate of the American silent screen's most famous filmmaking names. Keystone retained autonomy within Triangle and benefited from larger budgets. Their productions became more polished, and their material more varied, with slapstick no longer the sole product. Humor was broadened to include what would now be called situation comedy, and a series of romantic comedies were made that provided star vehicles for the young Gloria Swanson. For all its seeming advantages, however, Triangle failed to live up to expectation and in 1917—at the cost of relinquishing the Keystone title—Sennett (following the example of Griffith and Ince) broke away and formed Mack Sennett Comedies, his own company releasing first through Paramount, and later Associate Producers and First National.

Living up to its name, the company continued to make two-reel comedies, but also produced several features, some showcasing Mabel Normand and comic Ben Turpin. Then, in 1923, he entered an association with Pathe that saw out the silent era. It was here that, continuing his gift for recognizing and nurturing talent, Sennett launched the career of the great comedian, Harry Langdon in a series of shorts. Throughout his career, Sennett adhered to assembly-line discipline and prodigious working hours (up to 18 a day), but to work for him as a writer or director was tantamount to attending a graduate school in how to make films. He hired Frank Capra to write gags for Langdon, and when the comedian left Sennett he took Capra with him.

The coming of sound toppled Mack Sennett from his throne as the King of Comedy, although he continued producing and directing for some years. He made low-budget shorts for the Educational studio, and produced some comedy shorts with W.C. Fields and a series of musical shorts with Bing Crosby for Paramount in 1932. At Educational in 1935, he directed The Timid Young Man, a short starring Buster Keaton (the only time they worked together), before retiring back to Canada, broke and alone. Mabel Normand, dogged by scandal and disillusioned in her long and stormy affair with Sennett that failed to lead to marriage, married actor Lew Cody in 1926 and had died of drug abuse and TB in 1930, aged 35. Their relationship is the subject of Jerry Herman's nostalgic musical, Mack and Mabel, first performed on Broadway in 1974 with Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters.

In 1937 Sennett received a special Academy Award "to the master of fun, discoverer of stars, sympathetic, kindly, understanding comedy genius … for his lasting contribution to the comedy technique of the screen, the basic principles of which are as important today as when they were first put into practice." Mack Sennett, the self-proclaimed King of Comedy, wrote his autobiography under that title in 1954 and died on November 5, 1960 in Woodland Hills, California.

—Peter C. Holloran

Further Reading:

Lahue, Kalton C. Mack Sennett's Keystone: The Man, the Myth, and the Comedies. South Brunswick, A.S. Barnes, 1971.

Sennett, Mack. King of Comedy. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1954.

Sherk, Warren M., editor. The Films of Mack Sennett. Lanham, Maryland, Scarecrow Press, 1998.