Following on from my recent post about existing colour footage of the silent clowns, I remembered that Mack Sennett pioneered the use of colour in some of his late silent and early talkie films. Silent films like THE CAMPUS VAMP (an early film to feature Carole Lombard) contained colour sequences amongst the black and white, mostly to show off the famous Sennett beauties!
According to Brent Walker’s marvellous book, ‘Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory’, Sennett was wary of the costs of using Technicolor, and so developed his own process, setting up his own colour lab at his Studio City facilities. His process was a variation on two-strip red/green Technicolor, but in Sennett’s case the nitrate film was coated in blue dye on one side, and orange on the other.
The results were first used tentatively in a couple of early sound comedies (one, BULLS AND BEARS, was filmed in both colour and B & W, but the colour version was never released as it was decided it wasn’t up to scratch). Subsequently, a one reel series of Sennett-Color shorts was launched in late 1930, starting with Andy Clyde’s THE BLUFFER. Several of these ‘Mack Sennett Brevities’ capitalised on the colour process by including exotic backdrops such as the Selig Zoo or the Catalina Bird Garden in STRANGE BIRDS. In the tradition of some of Sennett’s early Keystone films, they simply dropped in a couple of comedians in an interesting setting and let them do their stuff. In the case of STRANGE BIRDS, it’s the underrated comedienne Marjorie Beebe appearing with ( the definitely not underrated) dialect comic Luis Alberni.
Ever wanted to see Marjorie Beebe attacked by a small duck? Of course you have! Here’s your chance, courtesy of the wonderful YouTube channel, Geno’s House of Rare Film.
Beebe and Alberni returned in another colour short from the following year, MOVIE TOWN. Beebe’s current boyfriend also makes an appearance: Mack Sennett himself! Sennett’s sporadic appearances onscreen were famously a bit awkward, but it’s nice to see him pop up anyway. MOVIE TOWN is no classic, but another interesting curio.
With his studio increasingly becoming a money pit in the depression, Sennett abandoned his colour experiments at the end of 1931. His reign as ‘King of Comedy’ was drawing to a close, but he must be given credit for making a bold experiment like Sennett-Color after so many years in the business. The results are an interesting footnote in the story of his studio.