Mack Sennett was one of the key figures of the silent film era. He was an actor, writer, director, producer, deal-maker and star-maker. Hell, he was a full-blown studio at the pinnacle of his career. He was nothing less than a force of nature. Looking at Mabel Normand’s filmography by itself, there are scores and scores of films they made together showcasing her. When one takes into account that Mack was simultaneously supervising dozens of other Keystone productions showcasing other comics, and on many occasions directing and acting in them, the output was staggering!
He started as a devoted student and employee of D.W. Griffith, only to outgrow his short pants, but not before he made his mark with the master. Sennett was the comedy mask to Griffith’s mask of tragedy. If you were a dramatic actor, Griffith’s was your school. If humor was your game, you enrolled at Sennett’s komedy kollege. Even if you weren’t a comic, Mack would try to make you one anyway. Just ask screen diva, Gloria Swanson, who began her early screen career as a Sennett bathing beauty. Mixing la Swanson and custard pie? Indigestible! To her credit, Swanson was versatile enough to take a pratfall or be the Grand Dame. The problem was Sennett was forever laminating the two types together.
The Sennett style was fast and furious, crude and crazy – slapstick with a 2 x 4. The Sennett uniform: slap shoes and rag-tag garb for the perpetrators, tuxedos and top hats for the dignified victims and false facial hair all around were de rigeur for the men. For the women: bathing costumes, evening gowns or fancy frocks with impossible hats – all designed for water hose and custard pie target practice. Believe it or not, Mack Sennett did influence the tides of fashion through his artful and liberal application of his Bathing Beauties – one of his more inspired creations.
The Slave Driver
Sennett was colorful – he was loved, reviled and envied. He was a slave driver of epic proportions. Ben Turpin, the famous cross-eyed comic, managed to finagle shorter working hours (under 18 hours a day!) by telling Mack that he would be glad to work the long hours, but that the eyes would go straight at 5 o’clock. An amused Mack gave in to Turpin’s demand.
A victim of Mack’s overseer qualities was former gag writer Tay Garnett (who was later to become an esteemed director), who worked for Sennett in the mid-1920s. His description could very well be applicable to the Sennett factory of the mid-1910s.
And so I went to work in the old Sennett “Tower,” otherwise known as the Snake Pit, on the third floor of a frame office building that had once been painted white, but was recovering rapidly. The Sennett lot always looked like the last battlefield in a conquered country…. Over the years the Sennett “Tower” came to be regarded as the greatest school for film writers that ever existed in Hollywood. Incidentally, when the stairway from second to third floor had to be renovated, a trusted carpenter accepted a twenty-dollar token of appreciation, and built one riser about half an inch higher than the others. Sennett, tiptoeing up the flight to catch his brain factory dawdling, inevitably tripped over that high riser, alerting us. Pressure pays off: in the forty seconds between Sennett’s stumble and his arrival at our door, some of the greatest nonsense ever put on the screen was conceived.
– from Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights by Tay Garnett, with Fredda Dudley Balling (Arlington House, 1973)
Frank Capra was also a young gag man at the beginning of his career who worked with Garnett at the Sennett lot. One time, Mack was in a tizzy and demanded some quick-fire gags for star Ben Turpin from these two hotshots. Sennett was on his way up those stairs and the creative process had dried up. Thinking fast, Capra tossed the hot potato onto Garnett’s lap to pitch to the boss:
“Well Mack, we can always fall back on that old ‘Standard-Sennett-Scene-Plot.'”…
“What the hell is the ‘Standard-Sennett-Scene-Plot?'” growled the Old Man around his cigar. It was not a smoking cigar, it was an eating cigar…
“…Well, there’s this vine-covered cottage with a white picket fence around it. Inside there is a sergeant’s desk in a police station. On the floor above is the firehouse with the inevitable pole descending into the basement, where there’s a bakery with a huge vat of dough, just waiting for the comic, and the whole damn mess is located on the end of the Santa Monica pier!”
– from Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights
The Talent Spotter
The “Old Man” couldn’t find the humor in having every old Keystone plot mashed into his Irish pan like a soggy custard pie. Garnett was fired… Again. And again. And again. Mack, being the forgiving type, especially when it came to money-making talent, would always rehire his errant writers, technicians and actors. He had a knack for spotting the embryonic talents of funny people, many whom became stars. Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon, Slim Summerville, Stan Laurel, James Finlayson, Charley Chase, Edgar Kennedy and Al St. John all passed through Sennett’s komedy kollege. Harold Lloyd passed through briefly in 1915 on his way to the creation of the “man with the glasses.” The only comic great who never set a professional foot on any of Sennett’s lots during the silent era was Buster Keaton. However, he did start his screen career with the second greatest graduate of Keystone Kollege, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (the first, of course, was Chaplin). The ladies, who became just as enormously popular, like Gloria Swanson, Marie Prevost, Phyllis Haver, Louise Fazenda, Alice and Marceline Day, Carole Lombard, Marie Dressler and Mack’s beloved Mabel Normand, also cut their screen comedic teeth with Sennett. All would eventually leave Mack for greater fame and money (which Mack was often loathe to let loose of).
Mack went through many changes from a business standpoint. Like a millionaire adventurer who has won and lost his fortune many times over, Mack would always rise up like the phoenix from the ashes. When he lost Keystone in a deal gone bad, he went on to create new production companies with new names. His dream would not be sidelined by anyone or anything. If he waited long enough, things would go his way again. Even Mabel came back after “leaving for good.” He continued to make his movies well into the sound era, and was a regular fixture in the Hollywood community. Mack never lost the moniker “The King of Comedy.” All the greats recognized this. This recognition has placed the name of Mack Sennett in the golden annals of Hollywood history for all time.
Born January 17, 1880, in Danville, Quebec, Canada
Died November 5, 1960, in Woodland Hills, CA