Mack Sennett
Black and white portrait photograph of Mack Sennett in 1916. He is dressed in a jacket, shirt and tie and is looking into the camera.
Born
Michael Sinnott

(1880-01-17)January 17, 1880
DiedNovember 5, 1960(1960-11-05) (aged 80)
Occupations
  • Producer
  • actor
  • director
  • studio head
Years active1902–1949

Mack Sennett (born Michael Sinnott; January 17, 1880 – November 5, 1960) was a Canadian-American producer, director, actor, and studio head who was known as the "King of Comedy" during his career.[1]

Born in Danville, Quebec,[2][3][4][a] in 1880, he started in films in the Biograph Company of New York City, and later opened Keystone Studios in Edendale, California in 1912. Keystone possessed the first fully enclosed film stage, and Sennett became famous as the originator of slapstick routines such as pie-throwing and car-chases, as seen in the Keystone Cops films.[5] He also produced short features that displayed his Bathing Beauties, many of whom went on to develop successful acting careers.[6][7]

After struggling with bankruptcy and the dominance of sound films in the early 1930s, Sennett was presented with an honorary Academy Award in 1938 for his contributions to the film industry, with the Academy describing him as a "master of fun, discoverer of stars, sympathetic, kindly, understanding comedy genius".[8]

Early life

Born Michael Sinnott in Danville, Quebec,[2] he was the son of Irish Catholic John Sinnott and Catherine Foy. His parents married in 1879 in Tingwick, Quebec and moved the same year to Richmond, Quebec where Sinnott was hired as a laborer.[9] By 1883, when Sennett's brother George was born, Sinnott was working as an innkeeper, a position he held for many years. Sennett's parents had all their children and raised their family in Richmond, then a small Eastern Townships village. At that time, Sennett's grandparents were living in Danville, Quebec. Sennett moved to Connecticut when he was 17 years old.[9]

He lived for a while in Northampton, Massachusetts, where, according to his autobiography, he first got the idea to become an opera singer after seeing a vaudeville show. He said that the most respected lawyer in town, Northampton mayor (and future President of the United States) Calvin Coolidge, as well as Sennett's mother, tried to talk him out of his musical ambitions.[10]

In New York City, he took on the stage name Mack Sennett and became an actor, singer, dancer, clown, set designer, and director for the Biograph Company. A distinction in his acting career, often overlooked, is that he played Sherlock Holmes 11 times, albeit as a parody, between 1911 and 1913.[11]

Keystone Studios

The Mack Sennett Keystone Studios in 1915

With financial backing from Adam Kessel and Charles O. Bauman of the New York Motion Picture Company, Sennett founded Keystone Studios in Edendale, California – now a part of Echo Park – in 1912. The original main building which was the first totally enclosed film stage and studio ever constructed,[1] is still standing, as of 2023.[12] Many successful actors began their film careers with Sennett, including Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Roscoe Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Raymond Griffith, Gloria Swanson, Ford Sterling, Andy Clyde, Chester Conklin, Polly Moran, Louise Fazenda, The Keystone Cops, Bing Crosby, and W. C. Fields.[13][14]

"In its pre-1920s heyday [Sennett's Fun Factory] created a vigorous new style of motion picture comedy founded on speed, insolence and destruction, which won them the undying affection of the French Dadaists…" —Film historian Richard Koszarski[15]

Dubbed the King of Hollywood's Fun Factory,[16] Sennett's studios produced slapstick comedies that were noted for their hair-raising car chases and custard pie warfare, especially in the Keystone Cops series. The comic formulas, however well executed, were based on humorous situations rather than the personal traits of the comedians; the various social types, often grotesquely portrayed by members of Sennett's troupe, were adequate to render the largely "interchangeable routines: "Having a funny moustache, or crossed-eyes, or an extra two-hundred pounds was as much individualization as was required."[17][15]

"It is an axiom of screen comedy that a Shetland pony must never be put in an undignified position. People don't like it...immunity of pretty girls doesn't go as far as the immunity of the Shetland pony...you can have her fall into mud puddles. They will laugh at that. But the spectacle of a girl dripping with pie is unpleasing...movie fans don't like to see pretty girls smeared up with pastry. Shetland ponies and pretty girls are immune."— Max Sennett, from The Psychology of Film Comedy, November 1918[18]

Film historian Richard Koszarski qualifies "fun factory" influence on comedic film acting:

"While Mack Sennett has a secure and valued place in the history of screen comedy, it is surely not as a developer of individual talents... Chaplin, Langdon, and Lloyd were all on the lot at one point or another, but developed their styles only in spite of Sennett, and grew to their artistic peaks only away from his influence... screen comedy followed Chaplin's lead and began to focus more on personality than situation."[19]

Sennett's first female comedian was Mabel Normand, who became a major star under his direction and with whom he embarked on a tumultuous romantic relationship.[10] Sennett also developed the Kid Comedies, a forerunner of the Our Gang films, and in a short time, his name became synonymous with screen comedy which were called "flickers" at the time.[10] In 1915, Keystone Studios became an autonomous production unit of the ambitious Triangle Film Corporation, as Sennett joined forces with D. W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, both powerful figures in the film industry.[20]

Sennett Bathing Beauties

Sennett Bathing Beauties

Main article: Sennett Bathing Beauties

Also beginning in 1915, Sennett assembled a bevy of women known as the Sennett Bathing Beauties to appear in provocative bathing costumes in comedy short subjects, in promotional material, and in promotional events such as Venice Beach beauty contests.[6] The Sennett Bathing Beauties continued to appear through 1928.[7]

Independent production

Mack Sennett Studios, c. 1917

In 1917, Sennett gave up the Keystone trademark and organized his own company, Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation.[10] Sennett's bosses retained the Keystone trademark and produced a cheap series of comedy shorts that were "Keystones" in name only: they were unsuccessful, and Sennett had no connection with them, and Sennett went on to produce more ambitious comedy short films and a few feature-length films.[10]

Many of Sennett's films of the early 1920s were inherited by Warner Bros. Studio.[11] Warner Bros. merged with the original distributor, First National, and added music and commentary to several of these short subjects.[11] Many of the films of this period physically deteriorated due to inadequate storage. Hence, many of Sennett's films from his most productive and creative period no longer exist.[11]

Move to Pathé Exchange

In the mid-1920s, Sennett moved to Pathé Exchange distribution.[10] In 1927, Hollywood's two most successful studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures, took note of the profits being made by smaller companies such as Pathé Exchange and Educational Pictures.[10] MGM and Paramount resumed the production and distribution of short subjects, while hundreds of other independent exhibitors and movie houses of this period had switched from Pathé to the new MGM or Paramount films and short subjects, but Sennett remained loyal to Pathé.[10]

Experiments, awards, and bankruptcy

Movie theatre audience members Roscoe Arbuckle and Sennett square off while watching Mabel Normand onscreen in Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913).
Mabel Normand, Sennett, and Charlie Chaplin in The Fatal Mallet (1914)
Silent film Love, Speed and Thrills (1915), directed by Walter Wright and produced by Sennett, is a chase film in which a man (named Walrus) kidnaps the wife of his benefactor, but the so-called "Keystone Cops" are also chasing down Walrus.

Sennett made a reasonably smooth transition to sound films, releasing them through Earle Hammons's Educational Pictures.[10] Sennett occasionally experimented with color as well.[10] He was also the first to get a talkie short subject on the market in 1928.[10] In 1932, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film in the comedy division for producing The Loud Mouth (with Matt McHugh, in the sports-heckler role later taken in Columbia Pictures remakes by Charley Chase and Shemp Howard).[21] Sennett also won an Academy Award in the novelty division for his film Wrestling Swordfish, also in 1932.[21]

Sennett often clung to outmoded techniques, making his early-1930s films seem dated and quaint.[citation needed] This doomed his attempt to re-enter the feature-film market with Hypnotized (starring blackface comedians Moran and Mack, "The Two Black Crows").[citation needed] However, Sennett enjoyed great success with short comedies starring Bing Crosby, which were more than likely instrumental in Sennett's product being picked up by a major studio, Paramount Pictures[22]

W. C. Fields conceived and starred in four famous Sennett-Paramount comedies.[22] Fields himself recalled that he "made seven comedies for the Irishman", though some have cited five, not seven.[22] Two other Sennett shorts were made with Fields scripts: The Singing Boxer (1933) with Donald Novis and Too Many Highballs (1933) with Lloyd Hamilton.[10]

Sennett's studio did not survive the Great Depression.[10] His partnership with Paramount lasted only one year and he was forced into bankruptcy in November 1933.[10]

On January 12, 1934, Sennett was injured in an automobile accident that killed blackface performer Charles Mack in Mesa, Arizona.[23]

His last work, in 1935, was as a producer-director for Educational Pictures, in which he directed Buster Keaton in The Timid Young Man and Joan Davis in Way Up Thar.[10]

The 1935 Vitaphone short subject Keystone Hotel is not a Sennett production, although it featured several alumni from the Mack Sennett Studios.[citation needed] Actually, Sennett was not involved in the making of this film.[citation needed]

Mack Sennett went into semi-retirement at the age of 55, having produced more than 1,000 silent films and several dozen talkies during a 25-year career.[10] His studio property was purchased by Mascot Pictures (later part of Republic Pictures), and many of his former staffers found work at Columbia Pictures.[10]

In March 1938, Sennett was presented with an honorary Academy Award: "for his lasting contribution to the comedy technique of the screen, the basic principles of which are as important today as when they were first put into practice, the Academy presents a Special Award to that master of fun, discoverer of stars, sympathetic, kindly, understanding comedy genius – Mack Sennett."[8][24]

Later projects

Rumors abounded that Sennett would be returning to film production (a 1938 publicity release indicated that he would be working with Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy), but apart from Sennett reissuing a couple of his Bing Crosby two-reelers to theaters, nothing happened.[citation needed]

Sennett did appear in front of the camera, however, in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), itself a thinly disguised version of the Mack Sennett-Mabel Normand romance.[10]

In 1949, he provided film footage for and also appeared in the first full-length comedy compilation called Down Memory Lane (1949), which was written and narrated by Steve Allen.[citation needed]

Sennett was profiled in the television series This Is Your Life in 1954,[25][26] and made a cameo appearance (for $1,000) in Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955).[citation needed]

His last contribution worth noting was to the NBC radio program Biography in Sound relating memories of working with W.C. Fields, which was broadcast February 28, 1956.[citation needed]

Personal life

Sennett was never married, but his tumultuous relationship with actress Mabel Normand was widely publicized in the press at the time.[27] According to the Los Angeles Times, Sennett reportedly lived a "madcap, extravagant life", often throwing "lavish parties", and at the peak of his career he owned three homes.[27]

On March 25, 1932, he became a United States citizen.[28]

Death

Sennett died on November 5, 1960, in Woodland Hills, California, aged 80.[29] He was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.[30]

Filmography

Main article: Mack Sennett filmography

Tributes

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Sennett was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard.[27] He was also inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame in 2014.[31]

The building of Sennett's original studio in Echo Park was deemed a historical landmark by The City of Los Angeles in 1982.[12][32]

In popular culture

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Some sources cite Melbourne, now part of Richmond.

References

  1. ^ a b "Comic greats: The man who founded fun". The Hindu. September 6, 2014. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  2. ^ a b "L'homme derrière le succès de Charlie Chaplin est de Danville". Radio-Canada.ca. November 11, 2015. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  3. ^ "Bio". translate.google.com. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  4. ^ "Mack Sennett". BFI. November 5, 1960. Archived from the original on November 30, 2017. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  5. ^ "'Mack Sennett Collection' gathers 50 slapstick classics into one set". Los Angeles Times. September 29, 2014. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  6. ^ a b D’haeyere, Hilde. "Splashes of Fun and Beauty: Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties." Slapstick Comedy, edited by Rob King and Tom Paulus, Routledge USA, 2010, pp. 207–25. ISBN 978-0-203-87676-3
  7. ^ a b Basinger, Jeanine (2012). Silent Stars, p. 205. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-3078-2918-4
  8. ^ a b "The 10th Academy Awards Memorable Moments | Oscars.org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences". www.oscars.org. August 27, 2014. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  9. ^ a b "Give Citizenship to Mack Sennett". Retrieved April 23, 2010.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r King of Comedy by Mack Sennett, 1954
  11. ^ a b c d "The Survival of Mack Sennett's Comedies – Flicker Alley". Retrieved January 21, 2019.
  12. ^ a b Lank, Barry (January 27, 2023). "The real Mack Sennett studio in Echo Park - the one you never see". The Eastsider LA. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  13. ^ Sinnott, 1999: “Sennett trained a coterie of clowns and comediennes that made the Keystone trademark world famous: Mabel Normand, Marie Dressler, Gloria Swanson, Fatty Arbuckle, Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and W.C. Fields among them. Such important directors as Frank Capra, Malcolm St. Clair, and George Stevens also received experience under Sennett’s tutelage.”
  14. ^ Silver, 2009: "His gift was in providing a haven or school for ambitious young talents."
  15. ^ a b Koszarski, 1976 p. 54
  16. ^ Walker, 2010 p. 7
  17. ^ Silver, 2009: “Fatty’s persona as the “jolly fat man” constrained him from being something more than that. The more conventionally good-looking Chaplin and Keaton could eventually aspire to roles that were more promising, leading to their ultimate transcendence of slapstick.” And: “I have felt that Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton rose to the heights of screen comedy by distancing themselves from their Sennett/Normand/Arbuckle roots.”
  18. ^ Koszarski, 1976 p. 54: From Motion Picture Classic
  19. ^ Koszarski, 1976 p. 54: "Sennett is [incorrectly] credited with developing most of the great comic talent of the silent film."
  20. ^ Booker, Keith M. (March 17, 2011). Historical Dictionary of American Cinema. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-7459-6.
  21. ^ a b "The Official Academy Awards Database". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on February 27, 2009. Retrieved February 1, 2018.
  22. ^ a b c Hoberman, J. (September 12, 2014). "The Man Who Put the K in Kops". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  23. ^ "Mack, comedian, Killed in Crash. Moran, His Partner in Blackface Skits, Escapes Injury in Arizona Mishap". The New York Times. Associated Press. January 12, 1934. Retrieved March 22, 2015. ... injured Mack Sennett, former producer of 'Bathing Beauty' film comedies.
  24. ^ King, Susan (February 27, 2018). "Honorary Oscars: A look back at 90 years, from Charlie Chaplin to Bob Hope to Donald Sutherland". GoldDerby. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  25. ^ This Is Your Life, broadcast March 10, 1954. at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  26. ^ Thomas, Bob (1954). "Sennett Takes Sentimental Journey in Past at Reunion". Panama City News, March 12, 1954. Retrieved from Looking for Mabel Normand on 3 February 2012.
  27. ^ a b c "Mack Sennett". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  28. ^ "Mack Sennett is Naturalized". The New York Times. March 26, 1932.
  29. ^ "Mack Sennett, 76, Film Pioneer Who Developed Slapstick, Dies. Keystone Kops, Custard Pies and Bathing Beauties Were Symbols of His Movies". The New York Times. November 6, 1960.
  30. ^ "Sennett Buried in Hollywood". The New York Times. November 24, 1960.
  31. ^ "Canada's Walk of Fame". Canada's Walk of Fame. Retrieved August 9, 2023.
  32. ^ "Report - HPLA". historicplacesla.org. Retrieved August 9, 2023.

Sources

Further reading