Sennett Defines Slapstick Comedy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mack Sennett founded Keystone Studios in a rural Southern California community soon to be known as Hollywood, where he assembled and trained a group of comedians in a frenetic style of comedy known as slapstick.

Summary of Event

After serving a four-year apprenticeship at New York’s Biograph Studios, Biograph Studios where he acted in, wrote, and directed short films under the guidance of D. W. Griffith, Griffith, D. W. Canadian-born Mack Sennett broke with Biograph and founded Keystone Studios in August, 1912. Sennett had followed Griffith to Southern California when Griffith moved his faithful troupe of actors and technicians west from Biograph’s New York studios in January of that year. When he left Biograph, Sennett took with him three of his own faithful followers: his girlfriend, Mabel Normand, who became the first great female comic actor of the silent screen; comedian Ford Sterling, who became Keystone’s first comic screen villain; and technician Henry “Pathe” Lehrman, Lehrman, Henry who became one of Sennett’s early comedy directors. Motion pictures;slapstick comedies Keystone Studios Slapstick comedy [kw]Sennett Defines Slapstick Comedy (Aug., 1912) [kw]Slapstick Comedy, Sennett Defines (Aug., 1912) [kw]Comedy, Sennett Defines Slapstick (Aug., 1912) Motion pictures;slapstick comedies Keystone Studios Slapstick comedy [g]United States;Aug., 1912: Sennett Defines Slapstick Comedy[03140] [c]Motion pictures;Aug., 1912: Sennett Defines Slapstick Comedy[03140] [c]Entertainment;Aug., 1912: Sennett Defines Slapstick Comedy[03140] Sennett, Mack Normand, Mabel Sterling, Ford Chaplin, Charles Arbuckle, Roscoe Langdon, Harry

While at Biograph, Sennett had learned valuable lessons in cinematic technique from Griffith, especially in the pacing of one- and two-reel films. Sennett had learned to build suspense and excitement by increasing the frenetic intensity of a film’s action with the use of quick-cut editing, leading to a spectacular, emotionally intense finale. He realized that by burlesquing Griffith’s morally simplistic, melodramatic story lines with exaggerated, melodramatic plots of his own and by peppering his stories with wildly kinetic, roughhouse brawling and spectacular stunts, he could produce a type of film that used Griffith’s commercially successful and cinematically innovative dramatic style for comedic effect. At that time, no film studio was specializing in comedies. Sennett was aware of the major film studios’ reluctance to indulge in comedy; by forming Keystone, he hoped to cash in by filling this void.

Sennett’s estimation that a wide untapped audience existed that would support his venture into screen comedy proved to be accurate. Although his first one-reel comedies were quite primitive—filled with hackneyed plots borrowed from melodramas, lowbrow comedy routines borrowed from burlesque, and horribly exaggerated, hammy acting by all cast members—they were amazingly successful. In his later films the production values improved and the acting became slightly less exaggerated, but the content remained basically the same: wild, chaotic comedy exploits with surreal, out-of-control action sequences delivered at a frenetic pace that increased in intensity as the films careened to their spectacularly frenetic finales.

The typical plot of a Keystone comedy revolved around a simple boy-girl relationship, with a rivalry for the girl’s affections leading to all sorts of madcap confrontations, with the mayhem escalating in intensity as the film progressed. The climax of each film usually involved a wild chase, with legions of figures racing across the screen until the rival was defeated or a penultimate stunt was executed. Sennett himself directed many of the comedies and even appeared in several of them, usually in minor roles playing dim-witted rubes. He was not personally involved in every film’s production, but he screened, critiqued, and edited nearly every film produced at Keystone in order to ensure that his comedic formula was well maintained.

In addition to developing a strongly personal approach to screen comedy, Sennett had a knack for spotting new talent. Mabel Normand, his sweetheart from Biograph, with her fearless approach to staging death-defying stunts, her expressive range of emotions, and her creative exuberance, developed into one of the most gifted female comic screen actors of all time. When Sennett saw Charles Chaplin playing a drunk on a vaudeville stage, he signed the actor to an exclusive film contract, even though Chaplin had no training in film comedy. When Sennett spotted Harry Langdon in a vaudeville troupe, he believed so strongly in Langdon’s potential that he assigned two of his best writers—Frank Capra and Harry Edwards—to work exclusively with Langdon. At first reluctant to sign Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Sennett eventually gave Arbuckle near-total creative control over his films, letting him direct as well as star in his own two-reelers and eventually putting both Arbuckle’s nephew and Arbuckle’s dog on the payroll. Over the next several years, Sennett also gave other struggling newcomers their first big breaks in films, including such talented individuals as Chester Conklin, Ben Turpin, Slim Summerville, Charley Chase, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, and Carole Lombard.

Significance

While insisting that each Keystone film adhere to his formulaic, slapstick approach to comedy, Sennett also encouraged the cast members and crews on his films to invent and improvise the most outrageously creative variations to his basic approach. It was because of his tolerance for the bizarre and the spontaneous that Sennett and his troupe were able to develop such pioneering slapstick ingredients as the pie-throwing melee, the bumbling Keystone Kops, the Kewpie doll-like bathing beauties, the use of wildly surreal, cartoonish action sequences, and the use of nonstudio locales and actual events (including fires, parades, and amusement parks) as settings for his comedies.

Sennett was also the first to produce feature-length comedies, the first of which, the hugely successful melodramatic burlesque Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), Tillie’s Punctured Romance (film)[Tillies Punctured Romance] featured nearly every comic he had working for him at the time. Later, after Sennett had joined with D. W. Griffith and producer Thomas Ince to form Triangle Studios, Triangle Studios Sennett produced features starring Mabel Normand that included Mickey (1918), Molly O’ (1922), The Extra Girl (1923), and Suzanna (1923)—all of them box-office successes. When Griffith eventually left Triangle, Sennett founded Mack Sennett Studios Mack Sennett Studios and continued producing two-reelers and features films into the late 1920’s.

Sennett was a savvy, extremely cost-conscious businessman. At the peak of his popularity, his studio churned out, on the average, one two-reel comedy per week. When the public demand for his comedies exceeded his output, Sennett met the demand by reediting his films—taking, for example, the first reel of one film, combining it with the climax from another film, and releasing the hybrid version under a new title as a new two-reeler.

As a result of Sennett’s phenomenal success as a pioneer of screen comedy, his style was heavily imitated. Some of his fiercest comedy competitors were his own former employees: Lehrman and Sterling left Keystone to form their own company, which produced copycat comedies that proved to be nearly as popular as Sennett’s. Hal Roach, Roach, Hal along with another former Keystone employee, Harold Lloyd, Lloyd, Harold founded Hal Roach Studios and applied many of the Sennett techniques to his comedies, encouraging Lloyd to develop a Chaplin-inspired character called Lonesome Luke. Ironically, the amazing stunts and frenetic pacing found in Sennett’s comedies were eventually adapted for many dramatic films produced during Sennett’s heyday.

At the same time Sennett was encouraging his employees to develop unique variations on his proven approach to screen comedy, however, he was also discouraging individuals who veered away from this approach. Sennett had some of the greatest film talents of all time working for him, and all eventually left because of his stifling insistence on adherence to his comedic philosophy (and his insistence on paying his talented employees as little as possible). Although he became known as the “King of Comedy,” a more accurate title for Sennett would perhaps have been the “Carpenter of Comedy,” a phrase used by film historian Walter Kerr to describe Sennett’s contributions. Still, it is impossible to dismiss Sennett’s influence, not only on early silent comedy but on sound comedy as well. The classic screwball comedies of the 1930’s, the slapstick routines of such roughhouse comedians as Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, and the Marx Brothers, comedy extravaganzas such as Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) and Blake Edwards’s The Great Race (1965), and the films of such disparate talents as Preston Sturges, Jerry Lewis, and Mel Brooks all owe a debt to Sennett.

Sennett himself continued to produce successful comedies and to develop—and then alienate—talented film newcomers well into the early days of sound films, encouraging such performers as W. C. Fields and Bing Crosby to apply their talents to film. After merging his studio with Paramount in the 1920’s, Sennett was wiped out financially by the stock market crash of 1929. He subsequently became a producer and director at Educational Pictures, a studio known for hiring Hollywood has-beens. In 1939, he appeared as himself and acted as technical adviser (along with Buster Keaton, the only major silent-film comedian Sennett did not discover) for the film Hollywood Cavalcade (directed by Irving Cummings), which was based loosely on Sennett’s experiences as a pioneer comedy producer and on his relationship with Normand.

Sennett’s style has been called primitive, vulgar, lowbrow, crude, and chaotic. He has been called a penny-pinching tyrant and criticized for refusing to recognize the individual talents of the many creative people who worked for him, forcing them to adapt to his own formulaic style or face expulsion. Sennett, however, can never be faulted for his bold decision to leave the most prestigious film studio of the early twentieth century, Biograph, headed by the most innovative American filmmaker of the period, D. W. Griffith, to found a film studio dedicated to producing comedies. It was a venture that his contemporaries viewed as insane and doomed to fail, but it provided the birthplace of a new type of screen comedy and the training ground for some of the greatest film talents of all time. Motion pictures;slapstick comedies Keystone Studios Slapstick comedy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fowler, Gene. Father Goose. New York: Covici, Friede, 1934. Largely anecdotal biography of Sennett discusses his life and career in a very informal, humorous style. Fun to read, but should not be taken as a factual account of Sennett’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fussell, Betty Harper. Mabel. 1982. Reprint. Pompton Plains, N.J.: Limelight, 1992. Biography of Normand—Sennett’s on-again, off-again girlfriend—contains many details of her stormy relationship with Sennett as well as in-depth descriptions of the founding of Keystone Studios.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns. 1975. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1990. An excellent examination of silent-film comedy, with an emphasis on the comedic contributions of Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon, and Lloyd, all of whom—with the exception of Keaton—worked for Sennett at some point during their early screen careers. Also presents a somewhat unflattering critique of Sennett’s slapstick approach to screen comedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lahue, Kalton C. Mack Sennett’s Keystone: The Man, the Myth, and the Comedies. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1971. Provides a detailed overview of Sennett’s life: how he founded Keystone, his contributions to film comedy, and the many talented individuals who worked for him.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Louvish, Simon. Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 2003. Discusses both Sennett’s life and the lives and careers of many of the performers who worked for Keystone Studios. Uses scripts and other documents to place Sennett’s career in the context of its time at the beginnings of the motion-picture industry. Includes illustrations, chronology, bibliography, and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pratt, George C., ed. Spellbound in Darkness: A History of the Silent Film. Rev. ed. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973. A compilation of articles, reviews, and profiles written during the silent-film period. Gives a detailed history of silent film from its inception to the advent of sound. Contains several reviews of Sennett-produced films plus a lengthy interview with Sennett conducted by novelist Theodore Dreiser, who was a big fan of Sennett’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, David. From Peepshow to Palace: Birth of American Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Provides an overview of the history of American film between 1893 and 1913. Includes 175 black-and-white and 16 color illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sennett, Mack, with Cameron Shipp. King of Comedy. 1954. Reprint. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1990. Shipp, a journalist, interviewed Sennett over a two-year period and also interviewed many of Sennett’s former employees. The result is a wonderful, although not strictly factual, account from Sennett’s point of view of his struggles to found his own film studio, his dealings with some of the famous talents he helped to discover, and his relationship with Mabel Normand.

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