Building film's frame; Mack Sennett set the foundation for Hollywood
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 14 April 2009)

In 1914, when Mack Sennett was planning a comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance, he and two colleagues wrote a three-page plot outline during a long, boozy evening. Then, as Sennett wrote in his memoirs, they "sent it up to the boys in the gag room with orders to make with the funny business."

That sounds as if he's describing a manufacturing process, which he was. Mack Sennett (1880-1960), the Quebec-born director who became a silent-movie mogul in Hollywood, industrialized American comedy and made himself the first modern technician of laughter. His successful approach to slapstick imitated the industrial world that came to life early in the 20th century.

Sennett arrived shortly after "the father of scientific management," Frederick Winslow Taylor, rationalized manufacturing systems. While Sennett was making his early films, Henry Ford was learning the uses of a conveyor belt. Sennett brought an efficiency expert's eye to silent comic shorts, eventually producing about 1,000 of them for his Keystone Film Company.

But technology was more than a device for effective filmmaking. It also provided rich material for scripts. Sennett saw elements of fantasy buried within the new devices that were swiftly changing the world -- cars, telephones, buses, etc. While Europe was inventing surrealism through paintings and avant-garde films, Sennett was creating its hectic lowbrow comedic equivalent, a style that dissolved time and space, then reconstituted them in original and unexpected forms.

His responses to the young century, and the public's responses to his films, are the subjects of a searching and briskly authoritative history, The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture (University of California Press), by Rob King, who teaches film at the University of Toronto.

Change incubates comedy, King argues. When newly emerging social patterns conflict with tradition, humour translates conflicts into jokes. Sennett ran the Keystone Company from 1912 to 1917, during a cluster of social changes: the waning of genteel culture, the New Woman, urbanization, the rise of a managerial class.

As King sees it, Keystone redefined slapstick as a form attuned to the values of the working class.

It reoriented American culture, as much by its emphasis on mechanical contrivances as by its exploitation of female bodies through Sennett's renowned Bathing Beauties. It also introduced major stars, including Fatty Arbuckle, Harry Langdon, Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin (who devised the look and character of the Tramp for a Keystone film).

Sennett enjoyed defying authority. Theodore Dreiser, a novelist well acquainted with the working class, loved Sennett's ability to amuse the masses while drawing on them for character types -- "pie-throwers, soup-spillers, bomb-tossers, hot-stove-stealers." Custard-pie throwing began in 1913 on a Sennett movie set when one of his stars, Mabel Normand, expressed her annoyance at Ben Turpin's's leering by throwing a piece of pie at him during a shot. Soon custard-pie warfare was a signature of silent comedy.

King suggests that workers who resented the rigid efficiencies of the new industrial order found relief in watching the unfolding disorder of slapstick with its "cheerful proclamation of the values of disorder and spontaneity." As Sennett wrote, "Our specialty was exasperated dignity and the discombobulation of Authority."

But Sennett's career was short. His status was shrinking even before talkies upended the silent world. He produced little that was impressive during the 1920s and early 1930s, announced his retirement in 1935 but nevertheless kept predicting his imminent comeback. In 1960, he announced plans for a Sennett TV series, just months before he died.

He left his mark on the English language. The doltish Keystone Kops inspired criminals to call ordinary police "keystones," a derisory term that's since appeared in several crime novels. A stronger Sennett influence appears whenever someone says, "Cut to the chase." In scores of Sennett films, everything that happened led up to the climactic chase scene (usually featuring the Kops). That phrase became part of Hollywood language: One screenwriter put a sign on her office wall, "When in doubt, cut to the chase." Eventually, the term entered general conversation. In recent years, it's been spoken by people who may never have heard Sennett's name.

It's the chase itself that constitutes Sennett's chief gift to the film industry. King notes that the earliest surviving Sennett film showing a chase (many of his films were carelessly destroyed, like countless other silents) is The Man Next Door, made in 1913. It shows Sennett combining "clumsy cops with the parallel-editing conventions of film melodrama." Sennett learned parallel editing (for instance, cutting back and forth from shots of a maiden tied to railroad tracks and shots of an oncoming train) from his first boss and mentor D. W. Griffith, whom he served as actor, writer and director.

Sennett called chase scenes "the essence of our comedy." He and his writers devised for the Keystone Kops chases filled with increasingly bizarre near-death accidents, leaving behind a landscape littered with debris. It was something only the movies could provide; neither vaudeville nor the legitimate theatre could approach it.

Working on a tight budget, Sennett discovered with delight that public streets provided the cheapest as well as the best backgrounds. He believed, with good reason, that hot pursuit involving any form of automotive transport could produce a kind of ecstasy in audiences, particularly if combined with trains and even horse-drawn wagons -- and why not handcarts, motorbikes and bicycles as well? Sennett and his writers, directors and editors learned how to build a scene with faster and faster inter-cutting.

The chase as a part of the movies far outlasted Sennett. Rather than waning when he did, it became even more influential, installing itself in comedy after comedy. In 1963, when Stanley Kramer set out to make a star-studded and expensive version of slapstick, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the result was a feature-length chase scene. At the same moment the elaborate, inventive chase was moving over into thrillers -- the James Bond series, beginning in 1962, then Bullitt in 1968 and The French Connection in 1971. Today, half a century after his death, 75 years after his career effectively ended, every moviegoer knows the basic structure of Sennett's central invention. Through the elaborate engineering of his chase scenes, he wrote himself into the DNA of Hollywood. He's never ceased to cast his shadow over the movies and perhaps he always will.

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