Mack Sennett

Active - 1908 - 2021  |   Born - Jan 17, 1880 in Danville, Quebec, Canada  |   Died - Nov 5, 1960   |   Genres - Comedy

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Biography by David Lewis

Canadian-born of Irish stock, actor, producer, director, and studio head Mack Sennett came from serving as a minor clown in third-string vaudeville to dominating the American motion picture comedy industry of the silent period. Hearing that one could make five dollars a day appearing in early movies, Sennett joined on at Biograph Studios in New York in 1908 and became one of the first members of D.W. Griffith's repertory company there; Sennett was also Griffith's first protégé among film directors. Griffith recognized Sennett's flair for comedy and featured him in many Biograph subjects between 1908 and 1910; Griffith's The Curtain Pole (1909), based on a French farce, was written by Sennett and is regarded as one of the first American slapstick comedies. Sennett began to direct in 1910, and when Mabel Normand joined Biograph in 1911, Sennett began to feature her in his comedy films as the star; comic Ford Sterling also began to work with Sennett at this time. In late 1912, Sennett broke with Biograph and formed the Keystone studio with Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann as backers, taking both Normand and Sterling with him and building a studio in Edendale, CA. The first Keystone was The Water Nymph (1912), starring Normand. The Bangville Police (1913) was the first subject featuring the Keystone Kops, and introduced Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who had previously been with Selig Polyscope, to Keystone. By the time Charlie Chaplin arrived in 1914, Keystone was already established as the top producer of film comedies in the United States, noted for knockabout chaos, pie throwing, explosions, collapsing sets, and free-for-all irreverence. Chaplin, however, became the biggest male movie star of any kind to date in a very short time, and Sennett wasn't able to hang onto him; Chaplin left for Essanay by the end of 1914. This started a trend; Ford Sterling left in 1915, and Arbuckle the following year. However, Sennett had a matchless sense of spotting talent, and over time he would launch or significantly assist the film careers of Gloria Swanson, Chester Conklin, Charley Chase, Edgar Kennedy, Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon, Al St. John, Marie Dressler, Phyllis Haver, Betty Bronson, Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby, and W.C. Fields. Many of the women, including Swanson, made their film debuts among the ranks of "Sennett's Bathing Beauties."

In 1915, Sennett signed on -- along with D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince -- to distribute Keystone through Triangle Film Corporation, which turned out to be a mistake, as in 1917 it was discovered that Harry Aitken, head of Triangle, was slowing embezzling the company to the brink of bankruptcy. Sennett caught wind of this early and began legally unbinding himself from Triangle with the intention of leaving Aitken with nothing more than the brand name of "Keystone," which he ultimately did. But in the process, Sennett lost control of Mickey (1918), an expensive project for which Sennett had built a separate studio to produce; that the film was hugely successful when released while others made the money from it, coupled with the loss of Normand to the Goldwyn Studio in 1917, were major setbacks. The popularity of cross-eyed comic Ben Turpin helped the newly named Mack Sennett Comedies -- distributed by Paramount, and later Pathé -- to win back its cachet. Sennett also regained Normand's services in 1920, but finally lost them amid the scandals swarming around her as the 1920s progressed. Sennett updated his product from mere slapstick and stunts to incorporate special effects and other advanced devices and arrived at a surprise hit with Lizzies of the Field (1924), which featured mass destruction of automobiles. Sennett began production of Technicolor shorts in 1927, and released his first talking picture in 1928. However, with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Sennett -- who around 1920 had amassed the largest personal fortune of anyone in Hollywood -- was suddenly broke. He left Pathé and entered into a new distribution agreement with Paramount in 1932 that ultimately turned sour, was badly injured in an auto accident that also killed his star Charles E. Mack in 1934, and finally lost his studio in 1935; What's Up Thar (1935) -- a western comedy short featuring Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers -- was his last film. In 1938, Sennett received an honorary Academy Award recognizing his influence on movie comedy. Nevertheless, though he had 25 years left to him, afterward Sennett was like a man lost; he finished out his days at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, CA, frequently expressing his regret that he'd never married Mabel Normand, who had died in 1930.

Mack Sennett was probably the only studio head in Hollywood history to personally supervise every shot, cut, gag, and title card of every film that carried his name; if he didn't put his personal "ok" to it, it wasn't filmed. Gag writers and directors would periodically try to sneak one past him, such as Frank Capra, who once deliberately filmed a gag that Sennett had rejected just to show the boss that he was "right." Sennett agreed that the gag was a good one, then promptly fired Capra, and then re-hired him to teach Capra not to cross the boss; such firings and re-hirings were common with Sennett. He was able to watch the entire goings-on at Mack Sennett Comedies from his bathtub within a glass-walled room, three-stories high above the studio. Given his enormous productivity, the surviving output of Sennett's films is extremely disappointing -- while all but one of the 35 Chaplin films survive, the remainder only exist in a spotty, haphazard, and unpredictable fashion. In the early days of television, clips from Sennett's comparatively few surviving films were shown so often that the public eventually lost their taste for them. Nevertheless, certain Sennett films are iconic -- Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life (1913); Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), which starred Chaplin, Normand, and Marie Dressler in her film debut in one of only about a dozen features Sennett made; His Trysting Place (1914), with Chaplin and Mack Swain; Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916); Teddy at the Throttle (1917), with Gloria Swanson as the damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks; Campus Vamp (1928), with Carole Lombard; and the four sound shorts Sennett made with W.C. Fields at the very end of his career, The Dentist (1932) and The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933) among them. Mack Sennett was dubbed "The King of Comedy" in his heyday, and was so in a way that would not be possible for any other actor, director, producer, or studio head to hope to achieve now or at any time in the future; Sennett was a one-man industry of comedy.

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  • "The King of Comedy" began his Hollywood career in 1908 as an actor in D.W. Griffith's Biograph films before starring in one of the first American slapstick comedies, 1909's The Curtain Pole, and starting a directing career under Griffith's tutelage in 1910.
  • Cast Mabel Normand as his comedic star beginning in 1911; the two had a professional and personal relationship that was the subject of the short-lived 1974 Broadway musical Mack & Mabel.
  • In 1912, started his own studio, Keystone, where he produced the Keystone Cops series featuring Fatty Arbuckle; the studio quickly became the leader in motion-picture comedy, with stars such as  Marie Dressler, Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin.
  • After being scammed by distributor Harry Aitken of Triangle Film Corporation, abandoned Keystone and opened Mack Sennett Comedies, where he grew beyond slapstick to produce special effects, color films and talkies.
  • Known for supervising every aspect of his films, his conscientiousness earned him a large personal fortune; but his life when into decline after he was financially ruined by the 1929 stock-market crash, critically injured in a 1934 car crash and forced to shutter his studio in 1935.