I’m a silent film buff. I love the early, sometimes raw but ever imaginative and experimental early films. Today is Mack Sennett’s birthday (1880-1960), known as the “King of Comedy” whose more than 1000 films pushed the limits of filmic language and social propriety. Mack Sennett and his troupe created the Keystone cops, pie-throwing, the long and complicated chase scene, as well as bringing slapstick comedy to its pinnacle.
The early days of film as was promoted and directed by Mack Sennett, were filled with imagination, experimentation, performance art (before the concept even fully emerged in the 1960s), and lots of improvisation. He helped to generate the artistic environment where any creative risk was worth taking.
There is a story that Mack Sennett and his actors would check out what was happening on any given day—parades, fairs, exhibits and then decide to “crash” the event, improvise the narrative, and film the whole thing. One story (perhaps a Sennett myth) explains that the Keystone cops were invented when there was a Shriners’ parade which Mabel Normand and a Russian cameraman visited. Normand carried a small doll wrapped in a blanket and walking down the middle of the parade in the opposite direction from the Shriners, pointed her finger at various members of the Shriners asking them if they were the father of her child. Finally at the end of the parade a small meek Shriner was greeted with, “Yes, you. You are the father of my child.” He freaked out and began to run away from Normand who continued to chase him down the street. Eventually the police began to chase her. She zig-zagged from one side of the street to the other as she chased the Shriner. The Russian cameraman wanting to get all this shot thought that by slowing his cranking of the camera he would save film. Of course, what this meant was that when this footage was shown it was speeded up. A lot. The Keystone cops were born.
Mabel Normand in an attempt to get Ben Turpin to laugh (or some claim she was just annoyed with Turpin), picked up a custard pie that some workmen had left on a table. She threw it at his face. The rest is history. It was Sennett who recognized the slapstick value of pie throwing. And he also recognized the value of Mabel Normand with whom he had a short and tumultuous relationship.
Sennett trained many film stars of the early 20th century including: Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbunkle, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, Bing Crosby, Gloria Swanson, W.C. Fields and many others.
In commemoration of the stunning work and creative genius of Mack Sennett, the following video created by Sennett parodying his making of comedies, as well as revealing a few filmic techniques, is shown below. In fact Sennett, the white-haired gentleman at the desk in the beginning, plays himself as the head of the studio.
Here’s to the free spirit of the early filmmakers who helped to push and stretch the boundaries of art and by doing so gave us powerful tools for telling stories, making meaning, and having a good laugh.