The Man Who Invented Comedy

A Herculean new take on the Quebec-born mastermind behind the Keystone Kops

The Hollywood comedy is a Canadian invention.

More than a century ago, Quebec-born Mack Sennett became the first film maker on this continent to specialize in creating full-length comedies. In 1908, “full length” meant one reel, about 10 to 12 minutes; no one believed an audience could tolerate anything longer. The great D.W. Griffith, under whom Sennett was then apprenticing at the famed Biograph studio, was not alone in thinking the lowly genre of comedy could not be endured for more than a “split reel” of about five minutes.

Between 1908 and 1911, the importunate Sennett worked his way up from actor to writer to director to head of Biograph’s comedy unit. Over those three years, he developed the grammar that shaped film comedy forever: a century later, we are still watching his brand of madcap mayhem, broad satire and optical tricks on television, movies and even YouTube.

Film comedy before Sennett consisted mostly of a single gag: a boy squeezes a water hose until his puzzled father peers into the nozzle to see what the problem is, whereupon the boy releases the backlog of water (The Biter Bit, 1900). Total time: one minute, nine seconds. A decade later, Sennett crammed a sophisticated plot about drunkenness, faked suicide and jealous lovers into one amusing reel of just five minutes (The Villain Foiled, 1911). And five years after that, now master of his own Keystone Studio, Sennett was producing Charlie Chaplin in a 22–minute two-reeler in which several convoluted comedy structures wove through a story of bomb plots and union strikes in a bakery (Dough and Dynamite, 1914). As Brent E. Walker declares in Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, he had almost single-handedly created “the style and language that has forever defined visual humour in motion pictures, earning Sennett the nickname ‘the King of Comedy’.”

Sennett always insisted his big break came from a fellow Canadian, Marie Dressler, the titanic figure in pre–World War One theatre (he was to repay the favour in 1914 by hiring her as the lead in America’s first feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance). Later, at Biograph, Sennett started out as a mediocre actor supporting two other Canadians who were also to make Hollywood history: Florence Lawrence as the first “name” actor and Mary Pickford as “America’s Sweetheart.”

In 1909, the Biograph studio created a small unit that might just as well have been called “the Canadian company.” Under the direction of Frank Powell (born in Hamilton), who later created the “vamp” craze by directing Theda Bara in A Fool There Was (1915), it included Sennett, Pickford (born in Toronto) and Dell Henderson (born in St. Thomas, Ontario). Within two years, Sennett had succeeded Powell and begun guiding the first great female film comedian, Mabel Normand, whose father was French Canadian.

Once Sennett had left Biograph to establish his own studio in 1912, he found himself employing an amazing number of Canadians over the years. Although few of their names are still familiar, they contributed mightily toward the creation of both Hollywood and the movies. They included Marie Prevost, who joined Normand as one of the first actresses with frank sex appeal; Charles Arling, Joe Bordeaux and Wallace MacDonald, prominent supporting performers; Harry Edwards, a top director for 30 years; Wilfrid Lucas, a prolific actor, writer and director; brothers Coy and William Watson, innovative stuntmen, special effects inventors, directors and actors; Aileen Allen, the first film stuntwoman; and director Del Lord, who in his post-Keystone career took the Sennett comedy formula to its apogee with The Three Stooges.

It is a challenge to convey Walker’s Herculean achievement in compiling Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. Half of Sennett’s films are lost forever; to put that into perspective, he made 1,002 films between 1912 and 1933, plus several hundred more during his Bioscope apprenticeship. Amazingly, Walker has somehow managed to provide
172 pages of three-column print detailing all of Sennett’s films: alternate and working titles, length, filming and shipping and release dates, cast, crew, unverified and incorrect credits, synopses, filming locations, remakes and reissues, copyrights, negative costs, original production numbers and how many prints were made.

He adds biographies of roughly 600 performers and technical and creative personnel, 280 spectacular photos and a 242-page “historical and critical overview” that is a model of a film maker’s biography, seamlessly incorporating film synopses into the narrative of the subject’s life.

The movies for which Sennett remains best known—the accelerated violence of the Keystone Kops, the unlikely sweethearts Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, the lowbrow slapstick of grotesques such as Chester Conklin and Ben Turpin—are frankly hard to watch nowadays; they are crude, brutal and obviously cheap (Sennett invented the execrable “cyclorama,” cheesiest of all backdrops). Viewers must attend armed with a deep understanding of the context of the time, and also of the conventions that Sennett was mocking; it was not for nothing he insisted on subtitling all of his Keystone films “farce comedy.”

In their own day, Sennett’s films were the peak of film comedy structure: pacing, direction, matting, camera work, editing and acting. Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life featured real-life race-car champion Oldfield weaving in and out of the path of a hurtling train in “an unbelievably sophisticated action sequence for February 1913.” D.W. Griffith supposedly invented close-ups, cross-cutting, wide-angle views, matte photography and other innovations in his 1915 Birth of a Nation; yet all of those technical advances appear two years earlier in Barney Oldfield. And incidentally, the Oldfield film inspired Sennett to invent the inside-the-car camera that is used for televised car racing today.

Received wisdom disparaged the later Sennett as a cinematic fossil who could not change with the times. Walker marshals impressive evidence to the contrary. Sennett and Cecil B. DeMille pioneered pay-per-view movies in 1950, a quarter century before the idea caught on; he was 70 years old! The Dadaists embraced his films, hip to their “surreal madness.” A crucial element of that surrealism was the undercranking of early hand-driven cameras, which caused the action to play faster than life on screen; when motorized cameras put an end to that trick, Sennett moved quickly toward a more realistic and natural style (and speed) of comedy, so that in just two years, “Keystone chases had evolved from the simplicity of tin lizzies skidding back and forth and driving off piers, into intricately timed motorized ballets that defied laws of gravity and sanity.”

The advent of sound in the late 1920s rejuvenated him to the point of returning to active directing, which he had abandoned a decade earlier. His first talkie was filmed outdoors, a stunningly daring thing to do at a time when behemoth cameras had to be kept immobile in soundproof booths. In 1929, he invented a two-strip colour process; and in 1930 he made a short entitled Hello Television that predicted entertainment being streamed not through television sets (so 20th century!) but through 21st-century videophones.

This indefatigable man not only reflected the times; he shaped them. He revolutionized women’s clothing by designing the first bathing suits that women could actually swim in, the better to promote “Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties,” an on-screen display of pulchritude that led him to co-found the Miss America beauty pageant.

Sennett was wealthy on the side, making millions out of mining, oil and real estate. Yet he lacked the business acumen and cold-blooded corporate ruthlessness that separated mogul manqués like him from the Zukors, Mayers and Goldwyns. The latter had learned cutthroat business smarts in the clothing industry and theatre-chain ownership; they were never writers or actors or directors themselves and therefore felt no loyalty to such artists. Sennett, by contrast, let traitors and deserters return to his employ with full salaries and privileges (Harry McCoy, an effervescently talented actor and writer, regularly sued Sennett while remaining cheerfully in his employ for 20 years). He left boxes of money around and invited people to help themselves with no need to account for their “loans.” He would fake a mob scene so 300 starving actors could get a day’s pay for five minutes of work in front of a camera grinding without film. This kind of lax business behaviour could lead to no good once the Depression hit.

Two reelers were a fading market in the dirty thirties, but Sennett was stuck with distribution contracts that forbade him any other length. He incessantly recycled old storylines, old gags, old comedians of mediocre talent (Bobby Vernon, Billy Bevan) and new comedians of no talent (Johnny Burke, Jack Cooper). This was product that could not possibly sustain audience patience, and Sennett went bankrupt in 1933.

He died in 1960, aged 80. In Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic Chaplin, Sennett’s role was aptly played by a Canadian comedian. With all respect to Dan Aykroyd, though, no tribute to the “King of Comedy” is as fitting or as accomplished as Brent Walker’s monument to the Fun Factory.