[To read part one of this essay, click here. For part two, here; for part three, here; and for part four (a), click here.]
Early Silent Comedy (continued): Mack Sennett and the Keystone Comedies
So far, I've written quite a bit about the Frenchmen who shaped comedy during the first decade of film, the Lumière brothers, Georges Méliès, Max Linder. And then there were those European animators—Émile Cohl, Segundo de Chomón, Wladyslaw Starewicz—whose work was largely comedic in nature.
But what of the Americans? A variety of comedians worked in the United States between 1895 and 1914—Ben Turpin, still remembered for his crossed eyes and brush moustache; John Bunny, middle aged with jowls like a walrus, promptly forgotten with his death from kidney disease in 1915—but it was really Mack Sennett, with his slapstick pie fights and manic chases, who defined the genre for American audiences.
Sennett began his film career at Biograph Studios as one of the regular players in D.W. Griffith's troupe of actors. In the course of directing nearly 500 shorts for Biograph, it's not unusual that Griffith—the greatest director of the era—tried his hand at comedy, but while his dramas and action pictures were deft and groundbreaking, his comedies were leaden and derivative. The fact is, Griffith didn't have much of a sense of humor (he's the bore who corners you at the office party), and his early attempts at comedy, in shorts such as The Little Darling (1909), are painful to watch.
But to his credit, Griffith recognized his limitations and turned to the naturally-funny Sennett, first to write comedy scenarios and then to direct them.
In 1912, Sennett founded Keystone Studios in Los Angeles, California, and began producing comedy shorts, more than thirty in that first year alone. Soon earning the sobriquet "The King of Comedy," Sennett produced more than a thousand films in his career and introduced such comedy acts as the Keystone Kops, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, W.C. Fields and Charley Chase, award-winning actresses Marie Dressler and Gloria Swanson, and a dapper little Englishman named Charlie Chaplin.
His empire was built on barely-controlled chaos and an unshakeable faith in his comedic instincts.
"We have no scenario," he once told Chaplin, explaining his methods, "we get an idea then follow the natural sequence of events until it leads up to a chase, which is the essence of our comedy."
And indeed, the emphasis on pie fights, pratfalls and wild chase scenes make the Three Stooges look like Citizen Kane. People get hit in the face with a pie for no reason other than that they have faces and a pie is handy; they fall down for pretty much the same reason—the world's a big place and there's always somewhere new to land. It's all so random, it borders on the surreal.
"Run his movies, forward and backward," David Thomson wrote, "and you may see how little difference there is."
Rob King, in his treatise The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture, traces the roots of Sennett's comic sensibilities to the class divisions of the Victorian era—theater and the opera were for the educated and wealthy, vaudeville and burlesque for the working class. Given that early filmmakers came from the immigrant and working class ranks, and had often worked in vaudeville, it should come as no surprise that early film comedy borrowed most directly from vaudeville, burlesque and the British music hall traditions. Indeed, some of these early one-reel comedies are little more than filmed records of skits performed on the local stage.
To this foundation, Sennett would eventually add bathing beauties and sentimental narratives, which King complains "substantially dissolved slapstick's significance as a site for engaging the conflicts and pressures of working-class experience," but which undeniably broadened the commercial appeal of Sennett's comedy—laughs and commerce rather than class warfare being the point.
Sennett's first star at his new studio was Mabel Normand, who began her career as a model—she was one of the "Gibson Girls"—before following Sennett from Biograph. At first cast simply for her looks—Chaplin called her the beauty among the beasts—Normand quickly displayed a flair for comedy, and within a couple of years was not only Sennett's most popular performer but a director, writer and producer as well.
Her onscreen character "Mabel" was much like Normand herself, a wild, playful, mischievous free-spirit able—for a while at least—to charm her way out of any difficulty.
"Say anything you like," she told reporters, "but don't say I love to work. That sounds like Mary Pickford, the prissy bitch."
She's often credited with throwing the first pie in movie history, in 1913's A Noise From The Deep, but as I wrote here in the essay "Buster Keaton's Pie Recipe," the matter remains an open question. What's not in doubt is that she was greatest comedienne of the silent era.
Normand and Sennett became romantically involved during this period and were engaged to marry—if he wasn't the first director to sleep with his star actress, neither was he the last—but the relationship eventually fell apart when Sennett couldn't keep his hands off another of his discoveries, actress Mae Busch.
Normand's most frequent co-star was Roscoe Arbuckle, better known by the nickname he hated, "Fatty." Legend has it that Arbuckle had abandoned his failing vaudeville career for steady work as a plumber and was rediscovered while fixing a clogged drain at Sennett's house. As the cherub-faced plumber capered up and down a flight of stairs, Sennett saw the contrast between Arbuckle's girth and his nimble footwork as a potential comedy goldmine and signed him to a contract on the spot.
Before the decade was out, Arbuckle would earn a million dollars a year, a record at the time.
Despite his rotund size, Arbuckle was amazingly agile and contrary to what you might expect, Arbuckle's films were not a series of cheap "fat jokes." Instead, he focused on physical comedy, farcical romances and occasional forays into cross-dressing. It was also said that Arbuckle could throw two pies simultaneously—in different directions.
"I've never used my weight to get a laugh," he said. "That is, used my size as the subject for humor. You never saw me stuck in a door-way or stuck in a chair. If you'll analyze my pictures you'll see that they're humorous in themselves, except, of course, that the audience remarks about the agility on account of the weight."
During his career, Arbuckle appeared in film shorts with the three greatest comics of the silent era, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. This two-reel short, The Cook made with Buster Keaton in 1918, shows off Arbuckle's dexterity in front of the camera and his comic sensibilities behind it.
"Next to Chaplin," Buster Keaton said in 1964, "[Arbuckle] was considered the best comedy director in pictures."
While working at Keystone Studios, Arbuckle teamed up with Mabel Normand for more than forty films, comedies with titles such as Mabel's New Hero, Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day and Mabel and Fatty's Married Life. Arbuckle directed nineteen of these shorts himself while Normand helmed two.
Still, as popular as Normand and Arbuckle were, the real stars of Sennett's films were a bumbling collection of clowns in police uniforms, forever known, in association with the studio that employed them, as the Keystone Kops. It seemed that every Sennett picture ended with the Kops riding to the rescue—or more accurately, failing to ride to the rescue while raising the level of chaos to a crescendo. In fact, the high-button collars and domed helmets they wore became so associated with incompetence and buffoonery that police forces the world over redesigned their uniforms.
The Kops made their first appearance in The Bangville Police, a one-reel short produced in 1913. Starring Mabel Normand, it's typical of the style Mack Sennett fostered at Keystone Studios.
Those of you have been following this blog closely may recognize The Bangville Police as a spoof of D.W. Griffith's short thriller An Unseen Enemy, with Normand in the Lillian Gish role and the Keystone Kops subbing for Elmer Booth. Believe it or not, it's one of the more plot-heavy shorts Sennett ever produced.
"Here's something you want to bear in mind," said Arbuckle, who remained faithful to Sennett's style even after leaving his employ, "that the average mind of the motion picture audience is twelve years old. It's a twelve-year-old mind that you're entertaining." (To which Buster Keaton, his co-star at the time, replied, "Roscoe, something tells me that those who continue to make pictures for twelve-year-old minds ain't going to be with us long.")
The Little Tramp
In 1914, with Keystone Studios already synonymous with great comedy in the minds of American moviegoers, Sennett made the single greatest find of his career.
Born in London in 1889 and growing up like an urchin in a Dickens novel, Charles Chaplin was touring the United States with Fred Karno and his "army" of comedians that included Stan Laurel and Chaplin's brother Sydney, when Sennett saw him on stage and signed him to a film contract.
Within a year, Chaplin was the most popular film actor in the world and the most important director of comedy, well, ever. Eventually, he would also write, produce, edit and score his own movies, and along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, would found United Artists.
As immense as Chaplin's talent was, however, very little of it showed up on screen in his debut, Making A Living (February 2, 1914). His next film, Kid Auto Races At Venice (made five days later), and the ones that immediately followed it, were no better. Many of them are available at the Internet Movie Database and you can see for yourself that Chaplin clearly had no idea how to play to the camera—mostly he smiled a lot and stood around—and Sennett was so disappointed in the results, he was going to fire the English actor until Mabel Normand convinced him otherwise.
Still, it was while filming the otherwise forgettable Kid Auto that Chaplin stumbled upon an idea for what would become the most memorable character of the entire silent era.
"[O]n the way to the wardrobe," he wrote in his autobiography, "I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."
Chaplin exaggerates—the Tramp's debut here may have been the most inauspicious of a legendary character in movie history—but he built on the idea over the course of several shorts and in later years rarely played anything else.
The turning point in Chaplin's stint at Keystone came during the filming of his eleventh short, Mabel At The Wheel. Directed by Normand herself, she and Chaplin had a terrific argument about a gag he had worked out.
"We were on location in the suburbs of Los Angeles and in one scene Mabel wanted me to stand with a hose and water down the road so that the villain's car would skid over it. I suggested standing on the hose so that the water can't come out, and when I look down the nozzle I unconsciously step off the hose and the water squirts in my face. But she shut me up quickly: 'We have no time! We have no time! Do what you're told.'
"That was enough. I could not take it—and from such a pretty girl. 'I'm sorry, Miss Normand. I will not do what I'm told. I don't think you are competent to tell me about what to do.'"
Normand won the argument, but Chaplin won the war. Putting his money where his mouth was—in the form of his life savings as a surety that the resulting film would be worth releasing—Chaplin made his directing debut with his very next film, Twenty Minutes Of Love (April 20, 1914). The film was a success and Chaplin rarely thereafter worked for anyone but himself. (You can see the best of his Keystone efforts, The Rounders, here.)
While at Keystone, Chaplin played the usual assortment of drunks, mashers and incompetent waiters—by then already stock film characters—but he had, especially when directing himself, a sense of rhythm that turned comedy into a dance, and a gift for finding an unexpected twist in any comedic situation, subverting expectations, delaying or denying the expected payoff and giving us something we would have never thought of instead.
Indeed, seeing Chaplin in the context of his times, it's clear to me now he was to film comedy what D.W. Griffith was to film drama, establishing the rules and raising the bar. Even when he's just doing variations on Mack Sennett's everybody-fall-down brand of comedy, the internal logic of the characters' actions creates a sense of anticipation that makes the payoff so much more satisfying than one based on pure surprise and absurdity.
"That Chaplin exploded the boundaries of film comedy with each successive phase in his career," Rick Levinson wrote in Ranking the Silent Comedians, "much like Picasso exploded the boundaries of art with each successive phase of his career, is either known too well or too often taken for granted. You have to have a sense of what film comedy was like before, during and after Chaplin's career to get an inkling of the immense impact he made on 20th century culture."
This is not just a case of pretending to see something in retrospect that no one saw at the time. Audiences immediately recognized that Chaplin was something special and during the silent era, only his future business partners, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, would rival him in terms of box office appeal.
I've written at length about Chaplin here, here and here. We'll return to his story many times before I'm finished with the silent era.
Tillie's Punctured Romance: The First Feature-Length Film Comedy
In mid-1914, Sennett began production on the most ambitious project of his career, history's first ever feature-length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance. The project was risky—feature-length films were a relatively new phenomenon, especially in the United States, and the jury wasn't in yet on on whether an audience would sit still that long—and Tillie's cost of $50,000 was fifty times the budget for a typical comedy short.
Sennett loosely based his story—about a naive country girl seduced for her money—on a Broadway musical, Tillie's Nightmare, which had run for 77 performances in 1910. In the title role, Sennett recruited Broadway veteran Marie Dressler in what would be her film debut. She had a face like a bulldog, with a lantern jaw, bulbous nose, and heavy bags under deep-set eyes, and her pear-shaped body sagged like a field of potatoes had crawled into a burlap sack. But Buster Keaton called her "the greatest character comedienne I ever saw" and she was a star.
It didn't hurt that she had pointed Sennett out to D.W. Griffith back when the former was still a struggling young actor.
To play the part of the villain, Sennett cast Charlie Chaplin, one of the few people who could get laughs from such an unsympathetic role. Other than cameos, this was the last film Chaplin starred in that he did not also direct. For the part of Chaplin's mistress, Sennett chose Mabel Normand, then rounded out the cast with comedy veterans Mack Swain, Charles Bennett, Charley Chase and Chester Conklin. (Milton Berle later claimed to have played the part of the six-year-old newspaper boy, but no studio records exist to confirm his assertion.)
The plot, what there is of it, is largely episodic—the city cad seduces Tillie for a small wad of cash her father keeps in the house, later abandons her in the city to return to his mistress, finds Tillie again working as a waitress when he reads that her rich uncle has died and left her a fortune, then tries to juggle the affections of the two women long enough to rob Tillie once more—and if you want to know what it's like to watch a half dozen Keystone comedies in quick succession, look no further than Tillie.
The result is repetitive and often inane, but also undeniably funny in stretches thanks to the performances of its leads. Chaplin was one of the most charming actors of the silent era, and he turns what could have been a misogynistic creep into a naughty imp, driven as much by an impulse to mayhem as greed. And Dressler deftly keeps the action from drifting into the pathos of heartbreak and humiliation. She's twice Chaplin's size and she yanks him around like a toddler with a rag doll. Despite the scam he's running, it's Chaplin who receives all the punishment, and after a while, the movie mostly began to remind me of that O. Henry story where the kidnappers pay the parents to take their son back. Dressler's Tillie is unflappable and clearly having fun despite her suspicion that Chaplin is just in it for the money. She's going to squeeze every bit of living—and life—out of him before the deal is done.
Tillie premiered in November 1914 and its reception at the box office fully justified Sennett's faith in the full-length form. Surprisingly, though, Sennett didn't follow up with another feature until 1918's Mickey, which starred Mabel Normand and was produced by her and Sennett at her own film company.
Decline and Fall
Sennett may have been a great director but he wasn't a great businessman. In 1915, Chaplin asked for a raise to a $1000 a week, and even though the Tramp's films were grossing a hundred times that at the box office, Sennett turned him down. It was the first of many ruinous business decisions. His one-year contract at Keystone completed, Chaplin left for Essanay where he received $1,250 a week, a $10,000 bonus and more creative control.
More talent, in search of money, artistic freedom or both, would walk out the door as the decade progressed. Sennett truly believed he could produce comedy the way Henry Ford produced automobiles, on a factory assembly line, and that the actors were as interchangeable as widgets. He was able to plug the gap for a while—he turned up Gloria Swanson and Harry Langdon—but he couldn't keep them either and eventually the loss of such talent took its toll.
"The minute you take Ford Sterling, Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Marie Dressler away from Sennett," Keaton said later, "you don't replace those people. I know Sennett didn't. He couldn't find them."
In 1917, Sennett sold his interest in Keystone and formed the Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation. His distribution deal with Pathé was a disaster: instead of spacing out the release of Sennett's product, Pathé tended to bunch them all together so that Sennett wound up competing with himself. Adding to his woes was genuine competition in the form of producers Hal Roach and Joseph Schenck and such acts as Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton, not to mention such talents as Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle that Sennett had let slip through his grasp.
Despite winning an Oscar in 1932 for his short comedy Wresting Swordfish, Sennett went bankrupt. He made his last film in 1935. Much of his film catalog was lost when Warner Brothers destroyed the original negatives to make room in its storage facilities.
As hard as Sennett fell, though, his two biggest stars fell even harder.
Arbuckle's fate you're probably aware of. In 1921, still at the height of his fame, he and friends director Lowell Sherman and cameraman Fred Fischbach checked into a hotel in San Francisco and threw a wild party. By the time it was over, actress Virginia Rappe was dead. Evidence of what transpired was scant but accusations were plentiful, and with newspapers to be sold and careers at stake, Arbuckle wound up on trial for manslaughter.
After two hung juries, Arbuckle was eventually acquitted, a just verdict, historians now agree. The damage, however, had been done. Egged on by the Hearst newspaper chain, Arbuckle's former fans turned on him, and Hollywood, never a place to stick to unprofitable principles, quickly caved to the pressure. Arbuckle was blacklisted and never acted again.
Thanks to Buster Keaton's generosity, he did earn a modest living as a director under the pseudonym "Will Goodrich", and, ironically enough, directed Marion Davies—William Randolph Hearst's mistress—in the 1927 comedy The Red Mill.
Arbuckle died of a heart attack in 1933 at the age of forty-six.
Mabel Normand fared little better, and like Arbuckle, she too became tabloid fodder. In 1922, her name was linked to the never-solved murder of director William Desmond Taylor—she had left his home minutes before he was shot—and when the subsequent investigation made public her long-term addictions to cocaine and alcohol, the papers savaged her. In 1923, she returned to Sennett and attempted a comeback in what is now, thanks to the vagaries of film preservation, her best-known movie, The Extra Girl, but the public was no longer interested.
Normand died of tuberculosis in 1930. She was thirty-four years old.
[To continue to Part Five, click here.]