originally published November 7, 2012
There once was a time when this was the pinnacle of cinematic comedy:
That’s the delightful 30-second family romp known as Cats Boxing, directed by Thomas Edison back in 1894, exactly a hundred years before our culture decided that the height of comedy was captured in Dumb And Dumber and The Flintstones Movie. Not sure if we really leapt forward here, especially since the biggest punchline on the Internet is that cats do stuff.
My point is that eventually, someone had to come up with a way to tell a comedic story in a way that went beyond goofy images. No one had figured out how to make motion pictures talk yet, but they had come a long way in stretching the length of a reel from a few seconds to around 8-12 minutes. They had learned about proper lighting, and how to stage a story for a camera, as opposed to a live audience.
It was really only a matter of time before somebody unlocked the magical secret to comedic brilliance on film: that people falling down is funny. And the guy who figured it out – if not first, then best – was this guy:
That’s Mack Sennett. Unless you’re a film buff, a comedy aficionado, or far too old to be alive, you probably have no idea who Mack Sennett was. I don’t want to hyperbolize Sennett’s contribution to film and say that we wouldn’t have a comedy genre if it weren’t for the guy’s work – somebody would have figured out that a gaggle of inept policemen tripping over themselves and getting hit with stuff was going to make people laugh. But Mack knew that good comedy required good comedic actors. And he knew how to find them.
The problem with the film industry in 1912 when Sennett opened up his Keystone Studios in Los Angeles was that no one really knew what made a good comedic actor. But Sennett knew. And he knew how to find his stars.
It’s hard to argue with this one. While his finest work came years later once he’d wrestled control of every aspect of filmmaking from outside meddlers, Charlie Chaplin was first introduced to celluloid by Keystone. He didn’t become a superstar here, but he learned the skills that would make him one. Again, a lot of that is just falling down and stuff.
Sennett’s first huge score with Keystone was the Keystone Cops. For the first two years of the studio’s existence, these were the films people were paying to see. And even though the Kops (either spelling works, I guess) were demoted to supporting roles behind the studio’s stable of top-notch talent by 1914, the term remains consistently well-known in our modern-day lexicon. Senator Joe Lieberman criticized the FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina by pointing out that emergency workers were “running around like Keystone Kops”, having no idea what they were supposed to do. That sounds a lot more fun than it actually was.
By the middle of the decade, Mack Sennett had groomed an impressive roster that now reads like a greatest-hits package of pre-sound laughs. He first employed Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for three bucks a day, then allowed him to develop as an actor and producer.
Harold Lloyd, pictured here showing just how far comedic actors were willing to go for a laugh back then, spent the 1920s battling Chaplin to be the top box-office comedy draw. But in the mid-teens, he started in the same place, pratfalling along with his acting brethren at Keystone.
Gloria Swanson, who kicked the film world’s ass with a brilliant performance in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd in 1950, started out as a Keystone extra, eventually working her way up to decent roles opposite Chaplin. The rest of the names in Sennett’s star stable may not blow a lot of minds today, but they comprise almost every name that was uttered in the Silent Comedies class I took last year: Chester Conklin, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, and the inimitable Harry Langdon.
But there’s one little snag in this blanket of praise. Almost every one of these stars found their success elsewhere. Keystone was the launch-pad, but that’s about it.
Chaplin didn’t discover the floppy shoes and nubby ‘stache of his Tramp character until he’d left Keystone for Essanay in 1915. Paramount offered Fatty Arbuckle a thousand bucks a day, a quarter of all profits and complete artistic control in 1914. Harold Lloyd left around the same time.
During Hollywood’s “Golden Age” – which falls in between the first World War, when the US grabbed cinematic dominance over a world that was more interesting in shooting each other than motion pictures, and about 1950 when a bunch of factors, including TV and the communist witchhunts – de-railed and re-defined the industry, actors were usually glued to studios by contracts. Back in Keystone’s day, that wasn’t necessarily the case. Keystone may have introduced the world to the comedic geniuses that would dominate Hollywood for the next two decades, but the studio didn’t hang on to them.
In 1915 Sennett introduced “Sennett’s Bathing Beauties”, a series of shorts which were usually built around comedy, but most importantly contained a titillating swarm of hotties in swimsuits. Seriously, this was like socially-acceptable porn back then.
Sennett also introduced the idea of ‘Kids Comedies’, the forerunners to Spanky & Our Gang, the Little Rascals, and the Bowery Boys fads which held a respectable chunk of the market throughout the first half of the century. If that wasn’t enough, Sennett and Keystone left their indelible mark on silent comedy with one of the most over-done tropes of the genre:
The first comedic pie-throw in movie history was from Mabel Normand’s hand into Fatty Arbuckle’s face in 1913’s A Noise From The Deep. All my life I’ve wanted to be in a legitimate pie fight. On my life’s bucket list, that one is sitting at the top of the bucket. Or the bottom. Wherever the most important stuff goes; I don’t quite get the metaphor.
By 1917, Sennett left Keystone to make films independently. He went on to achieve success, but Keystone was doomed. The Hollywood studio system began to take shape, and there was no room in it for a comedy studio whose best comedians had been lured away by greater contracts. They hovered on the fringe of the industry before going belly-up in 1935.
A new Keystone Studio started up in 2005. I have no idea if they’ve had any success – they don’t have a Wikipedia page, and that’s how I’ve been measuring success for the last 312 days, so I guess not.
But Sennett’s Keystone’s legacy is safe. Even if they were denied entry into the ranks of the Big Studios, they made us laugh.
Which is more than I can say for that damn Flintstones movie.