Greetings and welcome to…KEYSTONE MONTH!! (There are simply not enough exclamation points.) Let’s get this extended tribute to the comedy company started with some background and historic context (two of my favorite things!).
The French have always been ecstatic about the “surrealism” and the “poetry” of the early Sennetts, but one suspects that they are looking at them through the eyes of nostalgia, or via compilations of excerpts…Since there was no comedy tradition before Sennett, he was setting precedents rather than following them, and was entitled to make mistakes. Lack of subtlety was one of them, coupled with a tendency to rely on obvious slapstick rather than the more inspired sight-gag.
William K. Everson, American Silent Film
I have, in the past months, sat through dozens of Keystones and later Sennetts…without once being trapped into laughter. And so I must confess that Sennett seems to me not so much the King as the Carpenter of Comedy. He built the house. It is hard now to believe that he ever entertained friends in it.
Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns
For the longest time writing about the Keystone Film Company has been firmly entrenched along the lines of the above excerpts. It’s true that history books, critical essays, biographies of Keystone personnel, etc. all agreed that the early film comedy studio was important. They might even have said that it had huge historic significance. Certainly no one could argue that it didn’t provide a perfect training ground for countless one-of-a-kind film talents.
But the criticisms have held steady: Keystone comedies were vulgar and primitive. They moved too fast. They made no sense. The slapstick was too violent. The makeup was too grotesque. And, most grievous of all to arthouse-accustomed critics, they Lacked Subtlety.
Of course, the prints that have been circulating for decades were hardly evidence to prove anyone wrong–scratchy, blurry, choppy 16mm copies with screwed-up speeds and the occasional monstrous indignity of cheesy sound effects. Oh heavens, the sound effects. It’s no wonder that even such passionate advocates of silent comedy as Walter Kerr have found them unbearable.
But the tide has been changing in recent years. There’s a strong focus on restoring old comedies as close to their former glory as possible. The films themselves are more accessible than ever. YouTube and Archive.org are full of them, and a decent number of the prints are available in remarkably beautiful quality. Film historian Brent Walker released the jaw-droppingly detailed book Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory in 2010 (including details on every single one of its hundreds of films), and Cinemuseum’s The Mack Sennett Collection Vol. 1. set, packed with historically significant works, came out just in 2014.
I declare that it’s time, folks. It’s time to start seeing the Keystone Film Company for what it really was–not only a studio that was lucky enough to have a large stable on talent, but a studio whose films were self-aware, energizing, groundbreaking works of skillfully edited farce that made countless people laugh in the Edwardian era and are often just as funny today.
Oh yes, they’re still funny–all you need to do is take off your Cynical Jaded 21st Century Glasses and start learning how to love the Keystone Film Company.
Energetic, ambitious Irish-Canadian born Michael Sinnott (one day to change his name to Mack Sennett) had fallen for the stage early on. He dreamed of being a bass opera singer in his teens, acted on Broadway in his twenties, and before he hit his 30th birthday had entered “moving pictures” as an actor at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company.
He soon worked his way up to being assistant director beneath D.W. Griffith himself. Inspired by French films, Sennett’s Biographs would often explore his main love: comedy.
In 1912 Sennett left Biograph, lured away by the chance to have his own studio with full creative control. Adam Kessel and Charles O. Baumann, owners of the New York Motion Picture Company, had allied with the Mutual Film Corporation (one day to be the host of Chaplin’s greatest short comedies) and were already releasing westerns and other types of dramatic films. They wanted to release comedies, too, and figured that the ambitious and idea-stuffed Sennett would be the perfect man to put on the job.
And thus it was, on that third day of August in the year 1912 of our Lord, that the Keystone Film Company was officially incorporated. Sennett swiped a few Biograph actors for the new venture, such as Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling. They would soon migrate to sunny California, but in the meantime Sennett started making films right there in Fort Lee, New Jersey–practically the second he could.
What was the first Keystone film ever put on nitrate? Sennett himself said it was At Coney Island (1912), and it’s likely that one of the first was A Grocery Clerk’s Romance (1912). But we know for sure that the very first ones he ever released to theaters were the split-reelers Cohen Collects a Debt and The Water Nymph (1912), featuring Normand and Sterling. One involves a a secondhand clothier trying to dodge a bill collector, the other involves a girl flirting with her boyfriend’s father as a joke (I’m guessing you can figure out which one is which).
Later that same August Sennett took his crew out to Los Angeles to the hilly, rural community of Edendale. They moved into the former Bison studio at 1712 Allesandro Street, building stages open to the great outdoors with great white cloths strung overhead to diffuse the sunlight.
In no time at all they started churning out split-reel and one-reel films, starring Normand, Sterling, Fred Mace, and often Sennett himself (not out of vanity, but just so there’d be enough actors).
In first year or so, each little 5- or 6-minute split-reeler was usually produced in a day; a one-reeler took a day or two. One film, The Elite Ball (1913) took an outrageous four whole days. The titles of many of these quickie comedies are pretty self-explanatory: The Beating He Needed, The Flirting Husband, The Deacon Outwitted, A Life in the Balance. Normand had become an audience favorite very quickly, and her films often had her name in the title, starting with Mabel’s Lovers (1912).
In 1913, Keystone was becoming wildly popular. New actors were joining the lot, including Edgar Kennedy, Dot Farley, Charles Inslee, Mack Swain, Minta Durfee, Al St. John, and, most importantly, Roscoe Arbuckle. The studio began producing two-reelers, starting with The Fire Bug (1913). Sennett started creating units of directors so multiple comedies could be shot at the same time. Keystone products were a booming business.
By 1914 the studio had exploded into seven units (including one for “Keystone Kiddie” comedies). New actors included Harry McCoy, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Charlie Murray, Charles Parrott (aka Charley Chase), Slim Summerville and–cue the choir!–Charlie Chaplin. Charlie zoomed into nation-wide popularity so fast that Sennett soon let him direct–plus star in Keystone’s first feature, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914).
And thus, by 1915 Mack Sennett was one of biggest producers in Hollywoodland with the best comedy stock company in the business. He joined forces with Thomas Ince and former boss D.W. Griffith to create the Triangle Film Company. He also signed more actors, like Louise Fazenda and Polly Moran. He introduced the Bathing Beauties, who are synonymous with his company even today. Some of his best talents would soon leave him–Charlie was already at Essanay, Arbuckle would leave in 1916, and Normand would depart in 1918–but Sennett figured he could just sign new talents, like Ben Turpin and Gloria Swanson.
In 1917 Sennett signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. He renamed his studio “Mack Sennett Comedies,” whittled down the number of his units and focused on turning out only one two-reeler every two weeks. The “Keystone era” was at an end.
So up ’til now we’ve been discussing the technical facts of how Keystone was founded and run. But what about the films themselves? Today their whizzing action, seemingly haphazard plots and wild gesturing can look like something from another planet. How the heck do we find them funny today? Are they even accessible anymore?
Here’s some important historic context to help understand the Keystone “style”:
- The #1 secret is: Much of Keystone’s humor revolved around farce, not slapstick. As Brent Walker put it, “The deflation of dignity was Sennett’s chief rallying cry.” Sennett found nothing funnier than poking fun at melodrama, stage clichés, and polite behavior, and thus almost every imaginable element of a Keystone is pure, broad farce–with, yes, some slapstick thrown in.
- Audiences back then quickly picked up on satires of stage clichés, but some of it can seem baffling today. (In my opinion, this just adds to the fun.)
- Many of Sennett’s films were made with the working class in mind, since it made up the majority of movie audiences (along with immigrants).
- The “gesturing” is pantomime, which was used constantly. It takes a lot more skill than we realize. Use of it saved on title cards and helped immigrant audiences get in on the action (since many of them only spoke their native languages).
- All those goofy, over-the-top characters have meaning: buffoonish cops and other authority figures are funny because Sennett knew the lower classes would find it cathartic, philandering husbands were funny because they messed with standards of polite behavior, and so forth.
- Even the main characters were often naughty or buffoonish, the humor being in their getting away with outrageous behavior that wouldn’t fly in real life.
- The stars’ personalities were a major factor in Keystone’s success. Get acquainted with actors like Slim Summerville and Minta Durfee and start seeing them as real individuals, and you’ll have opened up a window to the Keystone world.
Need more? Here are common features of Keystone comedies and a few facts:
- Popular settings were saloons, tenements, hotels, kitchens, farms, and parks.
- Every type of person was made fun of at Keystone: cops, judges, businessmen, hicks, ethnic groups, mothers-in-law, husbands, wives…the list can go on.
- Makeup was often grotesque (black eyeliner, big mustaches, white faces) for several reasons. For one thing, it derived from comic stage makeup, much of which revolved around ethnic caricatures. A big mustache usually signaled that the comic was portraying a certain ethnicity (like “Dutch” or Italian). Ethnic humor declined in the mid-teens, but the mustaches remained. (I suspect that the Keystone Kops sometimes had them to hide the fact that the actors playing them would have other roles in the same films.) The eyeliner, exaggerated eyebrows and such also accentuated expressions.
- Ethnic humor, poking fun at Italians, Hispanics, the Irish, Jewish people, Germans, etc.–often to immigrant audiences who apparently could take a joke–was common on the stage at the time and was featured in many Keystones. E.g., Ford Sterling often played either a Jewish character (“Cohen”) or Dutch character (“Schnitzel”).
- Plots were reused and reworked endlessly, and often featured romantic complications. Popular plots involved two rivals fighting over a girl, innocents being caught in compromising situations, and henpecked husbands trying to get away from their wives.
- There were, indeed, writers who created scripts for the films, although improvisation was still encouraged.
- Keystone had excellent stuntmen, not always excluding its own main actors who were asked to risk life and limb for a few seconds of exciting footage. Supposedly the most popular item on the lot was plaster for patching up broken limbs. Chester Conklin later said, “When I think about the neck-breaking stuff we used to do and thought nothing of it, it makes me shiver.”
- A good number of films ended with a big chase scene, featuring quickly-edited shots and often a car full of Keystone Kops.
- Kops didn’t star as a unit, but were usually thrown into the climactic scenes. They were played by any actors that were handy.
- Rocks, bricks, and yes, cream pies were often thrown, but pies were a lot less common at Keystone than people think.
Back when I first started giving Keystone shorts a try (especially ones starring Arbuckle), I, too, thought they were impenetrable. (Of course, I’m the sort that thinks the very impenetrability of some old comedies is Awesome, but never mind.) The plots seemed to have no rhyme or reason to them and the films seemed edited by someone on speed. Then it began to dawn on me: the fault wasn’t Keystone’s. It was mine.
You see, they seemed overly fast and nonsensical simply because I wasn’t used to having to pay such close attention. After all, these are the days when we half-listen to a disc of Friends as it plays in the next room.
When I rewatched Keystones, paying close attention to the nuances of each performance and making an effort to follow the plot, I realized two things: A), hey, there really are plots and they’re set up pretty well, and B), it really does make sense. Everything has a cause and effect, and much of the humor depends on getting acquainted with the different actors and their characters–rather like how The Office and Arrested Development are five times funnier once you understand everyone’s quirks.
Not long ago I saw that David Robinson, in his book Chaplin: His Life and Art, had already had similar thoughts and had expressed them far more eloquently. So I’ll let Mr. Robinson share his words of wisdom:
It is true that to our unaccustomed vision, a Keystone comedy at first presents only a blurred impression of breakneck speed, running, jumping and wild gesticulation. If we take the trouble to view these films patiently, more times than once, and try to adjust to their pace, much more emerges…We have no means of knowing whether the audience of the day, by familiarity and enthusiasm, had developed more acute perceptions of the form than we are able to apply. Were they able to see, instantly and at first viewing, beyond the initial impression of aimless running, jumping, assault and mugging? Was this why they found the Keystone pictures funnier than Walter Kerr could half a century late, and followed them with such enthusiasm?
If you’re liking this so far but are still muttering: “those chase scenes are still, like, really fast,” let’s end with a few reasons behind the “frenetic” slapstick Keystone style of filming:
- The faster speed was common to many early films, and was deliberate. It gave the film extra energy and pep. It’s been speculated that actors adjusted their performances to suit these speeds.
- The editing, especially of chase scenes, can seem chaotic at first, but don’t let that fool you–it’s amazing for its time. If you pay attention you can see the care that went into matching scenes and keeping the action moving smoothly. When you count how many shots would be used per minute of film, it’s incredible to realize that they were made back in the days when editing was done with the naked eyes and some scissors.
- A lot of editing utilized cross-cutting, the technique D.W. Griffith used to famous effect in films like The Birth of a Nation (1915). Some films, like Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915), would use cross-cutting so well that the film switched between five different characters without disorienting the viewer.
The Keystone Film Company was something special. Yes, we associate it today with all the old clichés, whether they were actually in the films that often or not: custard pies, banana peels, pratfalls, et al. But it was much more than that.
It was, in a sense, a very “by and for the people” sort of studio. Sennett insisted on appealing to the common man; many of his actors were from ordinary, blue-collar backgrounds themselves. There was no fuss or pretentiousness about Keystone–you can sense this through your flatscreen TVs or computer screens even today.
Some Keystones can only be seen via sad, old, scratchy 16mm copies–but those that survive in good quality retain all of their freshness, energy, and naughty mischief.
Film fans, I urge you–give Keystone a try! Embrace the silly mustaches, the pantomime, the silly sight gags! After all, these were the films that used to crack up your great-grandparents.
You’ll be gaining some insight into comedy filmmaking along the way. The studio influenced every comedian that followed it, shaped the language of film slapstick and pioneered the use of farce. And even today, 100 years later, it still has so much offer.
My main source for this post, and all the others for Keystone Month, is Brent Walker’s masterpiece Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. This exhaustive, minutely-detailed work covers every aspect of Keystone, including biographies on everyone who ever set foot in the studio and the definitive filmography of the 1000+ comedies. It’s basically the Keystone Bible.
Fowler, Gene. Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett. New York: Covici, Friede, 1934.
King, Rob. The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2009.
Massa, Steve. Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2013.
Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1985. Pages 111-2.
Watson, Coy, Jr. The Keystone Kid: Tales of Early Hollywood. Santa Monica, CA: Santa Monica Press, 2001.
Various pokings around on IMDb and Wikipedia, as everyone does.
Historian James L. Neibaur wrote reviews of each film on the Sennett Collection, which I found very helpful–you can access all his reviews here.