January 17 marked the 136th anniversary of comedy producer Mack Sennett’s birth. Sennett’s name is instantly evocative of the golden age of comedy, and of slapstick film making in particular. He was a true trailblazer in the field, opening the first dedicated comedy studio, and for 20 years creating an anarchic vision of chaos to become the self-styled “King of Comedy” (the name of his memoirs). This went unchallenged for many years, but is Sennett still the rightful owner of his royal title? The recent silent comedy revival has, in fact, tended to overlook his studio‘s efforts. Books and documentaries have focused on the iconic faces of big name comedians rather than producers, and if the subject does come up, Hal Roach is usually the first name mentioned.
The Roach and Sennett styles present an obvious contrast. Roach films focused on characterisation, pausing to reflect on humanity’s foibles. Sennett’s style was anarchic, freewheeling, joyously madcap; a whirlwind of cross-eyed and moustachioed men racing like flesh cartoons through explosions, log cabins and frenzied car chases in a dazzling display of inventive visual gags. Roach allowed the individual to flourish; Sennett star comics were subsumed into the fast-paced madness. True, more individual personalities like Chaplin and Harry Langdon worked for Sennett. Significantly though, they got the best opportunities to develop their characters elsewhere. Roach films organically developed a story that could happen; at Sennett, continuity and common sense were trifling matters to be swept aside as long as something funny was happening.
Of course, this is a sweeping generalisation that can’t be totally accurate for hundreds of films; there was some overlap between the two styles but, on the whole, it is a fair comparison. I must admit that my personal preference has always been for the Roach style, but why should there be only one way to make a comedy? Modern preference for the subtler side certainly doesn’t mean that Sennett should go unmentioned. People spend so much time comparing and choosing between Chaplin and Keaton, Beatles or Rolling Stones, sweet or savoury, and so forth. It isn’t really productive and misses a key point; one of the joys of silent comedy is the infinite number of variations on a theme. Watch Laurel and Hardy wreck their car as a result of carefully built squabbling arising from their characters; then watch Billy Bevan do the same in a series of dazzling stunts in a Sennett film. Both scenes are fun and the fact that two different approaches could exist is what makes silent comedy such a bubbling pool of inspiration.
In recent years we have, I think, come to place more value on character and story when we evaluate silent comedy. Partly, this is a defensive reflex. No longer widely seen on television, silent films easily slip into annoying, lazy stereotypes in the human consciousness. As anyone who has seen ‘THE GENERAL’, ‘LIBERTY’ or ‘THE KID’ knows those under-cranked pastiches accompanied by tinny piano are way off the mark. But how many people have seen the inspiration of these films? To try and stand up for slapstick, we focus on its most sophisticated elements – the satire, the production values, the carefully developed characters – when presenting it to an often indifferent and hostile world. Ergo, we play up Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase, and play down Ben Turpin, Keystone madness and Del Lord’s car chases.
I don’t think this emphasis is always so conscious though. Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin and Keaton have all been on TV in recent years. From a personal point of view, I was introduced to them all in this way, and then went on to buy videos and DVD as a result.
Until the recent centenary celebrations on TCM, when was the last time a Mack Sennett comedy was scheduled on TV? Or available in any extensive form on home video? Until recently, Sennett films had dropped out of sight, denied the restoration that they deserved.
Significantly, Sennett’s profile was much higher when Silent comedy last had a boom, in the 1960s. The difference is that, then, Sennett films were seen in the Robert Youngson compilations, in series like ‘COMEDY CAPERS’ and ‘THE FUNNY MANNS’, and on their own account on TV. It must be said, that perhaps a change in our sampling methods has had something to do with it. We’re fortunate now to be able to seek out complete versions of these films in nice DVD prints and at cinema showings. Compilation films sampling short clips and highlights from many films have dropped out of favour, yet they are probably the best way to see Sennett films. As Glenn Mitchell remarked in his ‘The A-Z of Silent Film Comedy’, they are often schizophrenic and look better as clips than in their entirety. Retrospective samplings enable all the strong points to be seen, rather than in more diluted form, exposing the weaknesses in plot. When you look at the whole film, one often comes away having laughed heartily for 20 minutes but with a feeling that the film was somehow unfinished, or disappointing as a narrative.
However, the more you think about this modern, revisionist way of thinking, the more illogical it becomes. Think about more recent comedy; Sketch shows move from one unrelated scene to another.
Spike Milligan, who grew up on visual comedy, essentially created a verbal version of the Sennett world in ‘THE GOON SHOW’, later recreating it on TV in his ‘Q’ series. The MONTY PYTHON films move abruptly from one unlikely dream to another. More recent comedies like ‘THE MIGHTY BOOSH’, ‘FATHER TED’ and ‘FAMILY GUY’ are all about surreal, randomly motivated plot points and are loved for it. Comedy has become edgy. Well, Sennett’s films were pretty edgy. Lest we forget, to portray policemen as Sennett did in the 1910s was little short of anarchy! Even by modern standards, there’s much that is pretty edgy throughout his oeuvre. There’s black humour (stuntman Ben Turpin left to drown by his indifferent coworkers when it’s their lunch break, Billy Bevan accidentally blowing up a dog), surrealism, gags about futuristic technology (regular allusions to TV as early as the 20s) and gags that are risqué even now.
Sennett may have had to move over from his sole position as ‘king of comedy’. His standards of storytelling may have not been consistently up to Hal Roach’s, or have dated as well, but amidst the Sennett catalogue are classic films, and many brilliant, iconic gags that still entertain and surprise. His studio designed the template for silent comedy. Others may have taken it to greater heights, but the landscape would have been very different without its founding fathers. Let Chaplin be king of pantomime and Roach be the king of situation comedy, but we must not overlook Sennett as king of the anarchic gag. It’s great to see that Bristol’s Slapstick Festival is paying tribute to Sennett this year; in the meantime, here’s my pick of some of the best of Sennett…
A SMATTERING OF SENNETT…
I’ve chosen a handful of Sennett films that, I think, show Sennett’s studios at their mad, king of comedy peak. These aren’t necessarily the very best films to come out of the studio, but they are some of the ones that I think best exhibit elements of the Sennett house style. For that reason, there’s no Chaplin, Arbuckle etc, and only a smattering of Langdon…
THE DAREDEVIL (1923)
Ben Turpin is a physical embodiment of the Sennett style; zany, unbelievable and prone to extreme slapstick. The Sennett gag team used this to their advantage by casting him in melodramatic settings. To write a Ben Turpin scenario, all one really has to do is place him in a situation where he looks ridiculous (and of course, the beauty is that he looks ridiculous pretty much anywhere!). This reaches its apotheosis in ‘THE DAREDEVIL’ as he plays a stunt double in the movies… How could Ben Turpin double for anyone?! It’s a glorious joke, and with this premise in place, the Sennett gagwriters have a field day. Ben is constantly forgotten about in the middle of stunts by his careless film crew; cruel, surreal Sennett humour at its finest.
SUPER HOOPER DYNE LIZZIES (1925)
Another key ingredient in the Sennett cauldron of madness was the use of crazy car chases and gags. Director Del Lord made this his specialty, and here the subgenre reaches its zenith. This film contains the classic sequence where Billy Bevan pushes his broken down car up a hill, oblivious to the fact he has bumped into, and begun pushing, a whole line of parked cars. This film is let down by some standard scare comedy stuff (and a couple of extremely dubious racial gags) in the second reel, but the first reel is top notch stuff.
HIS MARRIAGE WOW (1925)
Harry Langdon’s work only really flourished when he managed to replace the Sennett style with his own brand of delicate pantomime. However, on occasion, the over the top madness actually formed an effective backdrop to Langdon’s style, making his quiet talent even more apparent. This film, while not his funniest, shows the stylistic contrasts meshing nicely. In a runaway car with Vernon Dent, this could have easily become another Del Lord gagfest, but Langdon shifts the focus of the scene from the chase itself to his helpless reactions.
WHISPERING WHISKERS (1926)
Some of the best and best-known Sennett films are the mid-20s series teaming his regulars Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde as a couple of hoboes. This one contains the classic gag where the pair are asleep on the railway tracks, but have set their alarm for the precise time where they need to roll over to avoid the oncoming express train. Plotwise, it falls into the standard “one title card to explain a complete change of location and plot” Sennett cliché, but the individual gags are of such high quality there’s not too much time to grouch.
FLIRTY FOURFLUSHERS (1927)
THE BEST MAN (1928)
Two films that show Sennett could adapt his style to the sophistication of the late 20s. The former features Billy Bevan and Madeline Hurlock as two everyday folk who pretend to be rich in order to hook themselves millionaires; of course, they end up wasting their time trying to chase each other! It’s a snappy proto-screwball comedy that relies on situation to pull it through, and the commitment to the new era is shown by the drastic step of removing Bevan’s prop moustache! Without it, his plump, partridge-like face is revealed, wearing a startled expression that befits a man who probably hadn’t seen his top lip in years…
‘THE BEST MAN’ is perhaps the best of the late 20s Sennetts. It has Bevan as hapless, obnoxious best man to nervous bridegroom Vernon Dent. Dent is an unsung hero of the Sennett films, and his underplayed frustration is a beautiful contrast to Bevan’s antics losing the ring, destroying Dent’s suit and setting fire to the bridal suite. The chaos in these scenes builds naturally, and is all the more funny for it; as Simon Louvish said ‘Stan Laurel couldn’t have done a better job’. Incidentally, the similarity to the Hal Roach style is carried further by the use of Culver City locations.
SPEED IN THE GAY 90s (1932)
Who says Sennett couldn’t do talkies? This Andy Clyde short revisits the Sennett car chases of yore, adding an extra humorous dimension by shifting the setting to the early days of motoring. There’s plenty of potential for gags based on the primitive cars, and there are some nice, bizarre extra touches, such as Andy designing a bird-man costume, and absentmindedly walking around still wearing it while going to meet the mayor. The period setting also helps to keep the film from seeming as dated as many other early talkies.
THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER (1933)
W.C. Fields’ four sound shorts are the best known of Sennett’s talkie shorts, and this faux-melodrama is the most off-the-wall. Sennett himself actually hated this short and tried to veto it being made, so you might think it an odd choice to include here. However, when you look closely, it actually dovetails nicely with the absurdist Sennett style. The studio’s comedies had a long, proud heritage of parodying melodrama that went right back to the Keystone era; this reached it’s apotheosis in the ridiculous Ben Turpin parodies. ‘THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER’ is a clear stylistic cousin of these films, especially Turpin’s frozen north parody ‘YUKON JAKE’.
Coming this weekend to Bristol’s Slapstick Festival…
Mack Sennett: King of Comedy. Bristol Watershed, Friday 22nd January at 11.30
David Robinson* film critic, author and Chaplin’s official biographer will be celebrating the mastermind of early slapstick comedy, the actor and producer, Mack Sennett. David will take you on a journey through his best comedy shorts from the 1910s and 1920’s featuring amongst others Charlie Chaplin, himself and the hilarious Keystone cops . With live accompaniment by John Sweeney on Piano.
With live accompaniment by John Sweeney on Piano.