Today, August 3, is the 103rd anniversary of when Keystone was officially incorporated on paper. Let’s celebrate by examining the life of the laugh company’s founder, Mack Sennett!
[Edit: I’m proud to say that this is also my 100th post! Woo-hoo!!]
Of all the bona fide legends of the silent film era–which include Eric von Stroheim, D.W. Griffith, George Méliès, Abel Gance, et al.–one of the most important is comedy pioneer Mack Sennett. Most people recognize his name, but the man himself is a bit elusive. What’s the story behind this person whose studio produced over a 1,000 films back in the early days of Hollywood?
The Irish-Canadian Michael Sinnott was born January 17, 1880 to immigrant parents John Frances and Catherine Foy Sinnott. He had three younger siblings: John, George and Mary. He later recalled his boisterous relatives jigging and arm-wrestling at wakes. When Michael was a teenager the family moved to Connecticut where his father found work as a contractor. Sennett himself got a job in an iron works, a blue-collar occupation that he proudly recalled for the rest of his life. The family then moved to Northampton, Massachusetts.
Having the théâtre in his blood early on, Sennett nursed an ambition to become a bass singer in the Metropolitan Opera–a lofty profession for someone who later became known for his comedians with goofy mustaches. His mother Catherine paid for singing lessons, although he later insisted that not only she but the family lawyer and future president Calvin Coolidge tried to talk him out of his dream.
Many accounts of Sennett’s early life revolve around his colorful bending of the truth (cheerfully backed up by his employees). He insisted that he got his start in show business when Coolidge himself sent a letter to popular theater star Marie Dressler, who then urged Sennett to contact powerful Broadway producer David Belasco. He was maybe less eager to share that his stage debut was as a chorus boy in the 1902 show “King Dodo” at the Bowery Theater in New York. This humble break into the world of applause and encores abruptly ceased when he was fired for accidentally tripping the show’s star, Raymond Hitchcock (Sennett would get the last laugh since Hitchcock would work for him one day).
Sennett then entered the exciting world of Broadway as a chorus member. Always eager to play up his blue-collar background, Sennett would later say that Broadway was “as far removed from anything in my experience as Versailles from a general store in Vermont.” He appeared in plays such as “A Chinese Honeymoon,” “Mlle. Modiste,” and the curiously titled “Piff! Paff!! Pouf!!!” He supplemented his income by modelling for postcards, usually in quaint Western outfits along with female models, and indulged his love of singing in a church choir and as part of a quartet. In 1907 he received his first credited Broadway role in “The Boys of Company B,” proudly occupying the fourteenth billing.
On his birthday in 1908, Sennett decided to try out the moving picture business by joining the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company as an actor. He would be paid $5 a day. It would prove to be the best birthday present to himself he’d ever get.
Sennett acted in number of bit parts and supporting roles, but this wasn’t enough for his lively imagination. In time D.W. Griffith allowed him to start writing stories for films. Naturally, his first story for the austere world of Biograph was Monday Morning in a Coney Island Police Court (1908), a comedy split-reeler where a judge deals with a number of funny miscreants. Some of Sennett’s finest efforts were The Lonely Villa (1909) and The Curtain Pole (1908). The latter, although directed by Griffith, could only have been written by Sennett. In this short comedy a grotesquely made up “Frenchman” (played by Sennett himself) ends up being the blundering subject of a huge chase scene involving everyone in town.
In 1911 Sennett began directing at Biograph, where his specialty simply had to be comedy. His first effort was Comrades (1911). Biograph actress Mabel Normand would start working with him around this time too, appearing in his short The Diving Girl (1911)–hints of the Bathing Beauties to come.
Then the heavens opened and offered an opportunity of a lifetime to Sennett. Adam Kessel and Charles O. Baumann of the New York Motion Picture Company were looking for someone to helm a new studio. They already were producing westerns, dramas, and Civil War films, and all they needed were comedies. Sennett would give them those comedies.
And so, after swiping Mabel Normand and actor Ford Sterling, Sennett created his Keystone Film Company, headquartered in the L.A. suburb of Edendale. It was an idyllic, hilly area of nondescript farms and stores, but it would be the setting for literally hundreds of comedies that would influence every comedian who came after them.
From the get-go Sennett’s films centered around farce. He had been in love with farce since attending burlesque theaters. He later talked enthusiastically about the effect the bawdy “German-dialect comedians” and “cops and tramps with their bed slats and bladders” had on him:
Their approach to life was earthy and understandable. They whaled the daylights out of pretension. They made fun of themselves and the human race. They reduced convention, dogma, stuffed shorts, and Authority to nonsense, and then blossomed into pandemonium…as a thoroughly accredited representative of the Common Man…I thought all this was delightful.
This description certainly fits Sennett’s comedies to a “T.” In dozens upon dozens of films he would poke fun at authority figures, high society folk, “hicks,” ethnic groups, Victorian melodramas–even the sacred institution of marriage, all with the added thrills of chase scenes and zany special effects. In 1913 he would directly satirize Biograph films that were in circulation. Once he explained: “We never make fun of religion, politics, race or mothers. A mother never gets hit with a custard pie. Mothers-in-law, yes. But mothers, never!”
In Sennett’s comedy world dignity served only to be deflated and respectability was gleefully taken down a few pegs. Sennett felt that the mostly blue-collar audiences would enjoy this type of cathartic humor–and he was right.
Keystone shorts became big hits with the public; everyone knew his “Keystone Kops” and in time the “Bathing Beauties” became synonymous with the studio too. The popularity grew so much so that Sennett had to turn his studio into a veritable “fun factory” to keep up with the demand. In the beginning, he would appear in his own films if not enough actors were handy. Within a few short years he would have up to 15 directorial units all working on films at once.
He signed as many bright new comedy stars as he could, including those who had lofty Broadway pedigrees. If any actors left the fold, Sennett took chances with new talent–and he was always right about them. Stars from Charlie Chaplin to Harry Langdon would learn the ropes of film comedy at Keystone. Editor Stuart Heisler said, “He had the capacity to pick and train people; he could tell very quickly whether a person really had it or not.” Actor and director Eddie Sutherland said, “I think Sennett is the greatest pick of talent there’s ever been in the motion picture business.”
Sutherland also added: “We were all scared to death of Sennett.”
As writer Brent Walker stated, “It seemed that he often liked to keep his employees on their toes, not knowing whether he was serious or not.” Sennett gradually transitioned into being the Grand Supreme Overseer of all production, even building a small “tower” office with views over the whole lot. Few details escaped him, even in the editing room–if he suspected that actors had tried to wheedle the editors into including more shots of them, he would call out. “What do you have that close-up in there for?”
But Sennett certainly had his soft side. He had a keen sense of fun; gags that he found funny were rewarded with hearty, sincere laughter. Any actors who left the lot–even if they had been fired–would always be welcomed back with no hard feelings. People who were hard up financially could be secure that Sennett would give them a loan, no questions asked.
Coy Watson Jr., whose father worked at Keystone for years as a prop man and special effects wizard, recalled a time in his boyhood when he and his friends were pretending that they were filming movies outside the studio. The King of Comedy was cruising by in his Rolls Royce when he stopped, got out, and joined in the fun, pretending to direct a scene for them. “I sometimes heard it said that Mack Sennett was a stern, hard-to-please man,” Watson Jr. said later. “We kids didn’t think so. Many times during the 40 years that followed, I talked with Mr. Sennett and always found him to be the same man I’d known as a boy–a real gentleman, good-hearted and great guy!”
While not nourishing irreplaceable talents or presiding over mind-boggling numbers of films, Sennett devoted his extra energies to exercise and sports. Every morning he went for a five-mile run near the studio, ending with a soak in his tub and massages. He was a big fan of boxing, attending many of the matches in town. At the end of his long days both in and outside the studio he went home to the Los Angeles Athletic Club. He never married, although he reportedly had a long romance with Mabel Normand. She supposedly left him after discovering him trysting with Mae Busch, although the truth of the matter seems to have been buried under layers of hearsay.
On the business end, Sennett made some shrewd decisions and some that simply didn’t work out. In 1915 he made Keystone part of the Triangle Film Corporation, which distributed films by D.W. Griffith, Thomas H. Ince and Sennett himself–the three biggest producers in Hollywood by that time. In 1917, with many of his biggest stars leaving him, he decided to become independent and rename his studio Mack Sennett Comedies. In the mid-20s the Pathé Exchange would distribute his films but suffer from increased competition. Still, Sennett’s films remained in high demand throughout the ’20s, to the point where he built a brand new lot in Studio City in 1928.
Sennett made an easy transition to sound, making the very first talkie short and even doing some experiments with color film. Sadly, by that time the Great Depression began to hit his business hard. In 1933, Sennett had to declare bankruptcy.
The year 1934 had its definite ups and downs. Sennett was in a car wreck which put him in the hospital and killed his friend Charles E. Mack. Mutual friend George Moran would sue Mack’s wife, who had been driving, and not long afterwards Sennett would sue her as well. Both cases were decided in Mrs. Mack’s favor. On the bright side, Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett by Gene Fowler was published. Although full of errors and Sennett’s own mythologizing, it brought him renewed attention and respect during a very tough year.
One of his last directorial projects was The Timid Young Man (1935), starring Buster Keaton. Following this, Sennett went into semi-retirement. In 1938 he received a “special achievement” Oscar. Over the next twenty years he made personal appearances, took part in comedy compilations and documentaries, and did the occasional cameo. In 1954 he appeared on This Is Your Life, proving himself to be a delightful ham. Much of his spare time was spent on Hollywood Boulevard, where he lived in the Garden Court Apartments. He and D.W. Griffith were regulars at Roosevelt’s Cinegrill. “They’d just sit over there in the corner, and watch the dancers and eye the young women as they went to their tables,” one bartender remembered.
On November 5, 1960, not long after getting urological surgery, Sennett died from a heart attack. His funeral at the Blessed Sacrament Church on Sunset Boulevard was attended by many of his old studio employees and friends in the industry; his only surviving family member was his brother John.
It’s hard to overstate how important Mack Sennett is to the world of film comedy. His determination and dedication resulted in a studio that set new standards. Elements of the “Sennett style” would followed, in some degree, by every major comedian. His influence on the use of slapstick, sight gags, and characterization has extended through the decades all the way to this very moment.
And it can be said that anyone who loves to unwind with a funny movie at the end of a long day owes a great deal to the “King of Comedy.”
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.
Walker, Brent E. Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.
Watson, Coy, Jr. The Keystone Kid: Tales of Early Hollywood. Santa Monica, CA: Santa Monica Press, 2001.