Mack Sennett: King of Comedy
by Ralph Lucas – Publisher
Often called “The King of Comedy” Mack Sennett was born Mikall Sinnott in the Eastern Townships south of Montréal, Québec. Oddly enough, for a man who would end up with that title, he actually started out wanting to be an opera singer. Whatever his ambitions were, his parents moved to Connecticut when he was 17 and in 1902 he was working as a common laborer. In a twist of fate that proved invaluable he had a chance meeting with vaudeville star, and fellow Canadian, Marie Dressler which led to a letter of introduction to New York producer David Belasco. Although that led nowhere, Sennett stayed in New York and eventually drifted into acting.
His earliest theatrical specialty was his unique portrayal of a policeman. While many, if not most, actors played cops as figures of fear as well as fun, Sennett played the role in a far more comedic manner, usually as figures of authority who were really nothing more than bumbling fools not capable of doing the job properly. This take on the men in blue would form the foundation, a few years later, when Sennett would create his own studio and the famous Keystone Kops. But like many stage performers in this era, he was drawn to the new medium of film. He began appearing in movies in 1908 at the Biograph Studio, many of them directed by the great D.W. Griffith. Writing years later in his autobiography, Sennett said of Griffith, “He was my day school, my adult education program, my professor.” Depending on which source you read the reasons for Sennett starting of his own production company can be a bit confusing. A common thread, however, is that he wasn’t much of an actor, despite a long list of credits. But no one doubts Sennett`s love of the business and his ability to develop story ideas, scripts, and talent. Just four years after starting in the movies, he co-founded the Keystone Film Company in 1912.
The start of Keystone is a movie in itself. Apparently Sennett had some fairly hefty gambling debts and he met with some bookies to try to convince them that they would make far more money if they forgot about his debt but invested in his new idea of starting his own film company. Sources vary with more than one claiming his two partners, Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann were bookies, while other, more accurate sources identify them as experienced independent producers with a respectable track record. Whatever the truth may be, Sennett was soon head of his own studio and he began to mercilessly raid his former employer, Biograph, of many of their best actors.
Sennett was not just a gambler, he also got caught up in land speculation and it was believed that he once tried to develop a large tract of land in Hollywood. Whether it is true or not, he was once associated with the scheme to erect the huge Hollywood Land sign in 1923. Later, when the sign fell into disrepair, city officials removed the word “land” and had the rest of the sign rebuilt. It is, perhaps, the most lasting symbol of Hollywood, and if it is to be believed, it started thanks in part to Mack Sennett.
Soon Keystone would produce films with actors like Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Ben Turpin. When a young comic fresh from the stages of the English music halls began knocking on doors it was Mack Sennett who nabbed Charlie Chaplin. His ability to spot talent became legendary. Sennett helped develop some of the greatest names from that era and even later when he left Keystone to go to Paramount Pictures. People like Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields owed a major part of their success to Mack Sennett. Later, when he had fallen on hard times, Bing Crosby remembered how he got his start and insisted Mack Sennett be brought in to direct his scenes in The Road to Hollywood. Sennett may have remembered his own “one good turn deserves another” story. When, in 1914, he was preparing to produce what would become the world’s first feature-length comedy he remembered an earlier kindness from Marie Dressler and approached this star of Broadway to offer her the starring role. It was a role that would change her life.
Sennett, who not only directed but edited most of Keystone’s films, is primarily remembered for a style of film comedy he virtually invented. Less well-known is the fact that he was the first to try to add a sense of glamour to the film industry and to this end he produced a series of films that introduced the Keystone Bathing Beauties.
But by the mid-1930’s it was all but over for Mack Sennett. The era of the talkies had changed the way films were made and he had made a graceful retreat into an early retirement. He was given a special Academy Award in 1937. The award read, in part “For his lasting contribution to the comedy technique of the screen, The Academy presents a Special Award to that master of fun, discoverer of stars…sympathetic, kindly, understanding, genius: Mack Sennett.”
One interesting footnote was his friendship with the great crooner, Bing Crosby. Long after Sennett`s career was over, Crosby used his influence to have Mack Sennett direct his scenes in the 1945 film, Road to Hollywood. The reason is that Sennett was, pardon the pun, instrumental in the early days of Crosby`s career. The future star made 6 Mack Sennett 2-reel musical comedies including the movie that gave him his trademark theme song, Blue of the Night. His other Sennett shorts included Billboard Girl, Dream House, I Surrender Dear, One More Chance and Sing, Bing, Sing. You can think of them, almost, as early music videos.
The growth of television in the 1950’s and the need for quick, inexpensive programs brought many of his films back from near obscurity. A whole new generation of people discovered the magic of the Keystone Kops and the silent era. Sennett enjoyed a brief spell of fame and popularity but it was now very late in his life. He died in 1960 a few months short of his 81st birthday.
All of the images used in this biography were scanned from originals in The Northernstars Collection.
This biography is Copyright © 2002 by Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without written permission. This biography was used in A Short History of the Movies, published by Pearson-Longman in 2006. Click here for more information about copyright.