Libraries Help Preserve the Legacy of Mack Sennett, the King of Comedy

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One hundred years ago, an event took place that changed the shape of American popular culture.

Mack Sennett, an actor and director with the Biograph film company, created the first motion picture studio exclusively devoted to producing comedies.

Over the next five years, Keystone would lay the foundation for the future of film comedy, not only developing a language but also introducing the world to such great talents as Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle. 

As Brent Walker writes in his book, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory, "To many, the name 'Keystone' is synonymous with silent film comedy. It's a name that immediately conjures up a series of images, some of which have become over-exaggerated with time: high-hatted cops spilling out of station houses and into paddy wagons, then careening and skidding across the skyline; comedians with enormous mustaches, grotesque eye makeup and ragged, vested suits hurling bricks and custard pies at each other while jumping up and down in herky-jerky action; shots of motorcycles leaping from roof to roof and violently smashing through brick walls, and coy, vivacious bathing girls cavorting on sunny beaches."

In 1917, Sennett would abandon the Keystone brand but would go on to produce film comedies until 1933, devoting the remaining 27 years of his life to cultivating a legend that would often obscure his very real achievements.

Sennett's legacy is being celebrated in September by Turner Classic Movies with a month long series of screenings that trace Sennett's roots with the Biograph studios to his final efforts in the sound era, when he nurtured such talents as W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby.

The films themselves have been lovingly restored by Paul Gierucki, best known for his DVD set The Forgotten Films of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle. He also was instrumental in uncovering a previously unknown Chaplin film, A Thief Catcher.

Later in the year, Gierucki and producer Brittany Valente will be releasing a gigantic Sennett set that has film comedy buffs salivating in anticipation of the rare gems it will contain.

"We're restoring 100 films for the 100th anniversary of Keystone," Gierucki said. "But technically we are restoring 125 Mack Sennett comedies."

The set will also include his appearances in Biograph films prior to Keystone's formation, as well as Sennett's very last appearances in newsreels, he said.

Over the years, Sennett's work has passed through a number of hands, going through theater and television reissues that have resulted in the degradation of his original work into fragments or inferior versions.

"What we're doing," he said, "for our part of it, we're putting the films back to the way they originally looked. They're all running at proper speeds now. All of the titles and intertitles have been replaced. Footage that has been missing from films since their original release has been replaced. They have all been given beautiful new scores by some of the best composers in the business.

"The sound films that are included in the set, things like W.C. Fields' The Dentist and A Fatal Glass of Beer, they're being restored from the orginal nitrate negatives and soundtracks. And for the first time you can actually hear everything that Fields says. All his little muttered asides are crystal clear again. All the original main titles are put back the way they were supposed to be. It's been painstaking work, really.

"We're adding stabilization to films that have just been so jittery and so badly duped out for years.

"What we're actually trying to do is to pull them all together into one place where people can actually access them."

Gierucki said it is important to preserve this significant chunk of our cultural history.

The importance of Sennett and Keystone cannot be underestimated, he said.

"The Keystone studio was the first full-time American comedy studio," he said. "And they essentially set the pace for what American comedy would be."

Libraries have played a crucial role in Gierucki's efforts.

He utilized the paper print collection at the Library of Congress, as well as materials from UCLA and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

He said, "The people who have been the most help have been at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Joe Adamson in particular They have the Mack Sennett collection in their archives, things like the original scripts, cutting continuities and production notes.

"The people at the academy have been so incredibly helpful in tracking down these materials for us, so that we can replace the main titles, the intertitles and put these films back in their proper order."

He gave the example of a 1924 film, "The Hollywood Kid." The film had reached the 21st Century in the form of a one-reel cutdown of a two-reel film. Gierucki and his team tracked down all of the surviving film elements they could find.

"Getting those materials together is one thing," he said. "Putting it all back together into its original form is whole other thing," he said. "That's where the academy came in handy. They tracked down the original synopsis, a script, a cutting continuity, as well as a list of the finished titles and intertitles. So now, we have all of that background information so that we can put the film back together exactly as it was intended to be seen."

Here is a clip from a cutdown of The Hollywood Kid.

Libraries have also been critical in the success of author Brent Walker, whose book Mack Sennett's Fun Factory is the definitive history of Sennett's comedy career.

Walker said his initial research on Sennett began at his local library in Orange County, California. He broadened his search by visiting the library at the University of California-Irvine and the UCLA.

But he hit paydirt when he began a relationship with the library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There he gained the valuable assistance of Sam Gill, himself an author specializing in chronicling film comedy.

There, Walker perused trade publications like Moving Picture World and Moving Picture News, as well as Sennett's own in-house Mack Sennett Weeklies.

Eventually, the Academy released the Sennett Collection, a treasure trove of information.

"It was really when the Mack Sennett collection was made available about 1990 that I started going through the old script files and various contract files and photographs," he said.

But even before its release, Gill clued Walker in on where he could find the obscure information necessary for his book.

In addition to his research at the Academy, he also scoured the Museum of Modern Art Library and the Lincoln Center Library in New York.

He also discovered, through the wonders of inter-library loan, at the Long Beach Public Library, that he could obtain precious microfilm of the Aitken papers, which resided at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The Aitken brothers, Roy and Harry, were the financial backers of the Keystone film company. The microfilm rolls contained information with release records and negative records.

One of the biggest hurdles Walker faced was the shroud of mystery Sennett himself created in his various biographies and autobiographies.

"Some of the stories that were in his book he had told as far back as the Mack Sennett Weeklies in 1917 and would reappear in Father Goose. The kernel of the story may have been factual but there was a lot of fabrication that made it more dramatic maybe that was added."

Walker provided a great deal of research for Gierucki's project.

"I told him where some of the most interesting titles were that were rare," he said. "Some of them were in archives, some were in collections."

This included the aforementioned The Hollywood Kid.

Today, Sennett remains a complicated figure. He survives as the master architect of comedy, but the appeal of the comedies themselves to today's audiences is in many ways as elusive as Sennett himself. Much of the understanding of Sennett's work requires an understanding of the context in which the films were made.

"Today there are movie satires that are topical, films that in a hundred years people may not get," he said.

In general, he said, the films of the 1920s resonate more with contemporary audiences than the Keystones of the 1910s. One factor, he said, is the advances in technology over that decade.

But viewing the films one can see the development of elements like slapstick that became standard features of film comedy, as well as many of the performers like Chaplin and Harry Langdon who would expand upon Sennett's ideas.

"It was the first comedy studio anywhere where all they were making were comedies and obviously they created a lot of language that became prominent," he said.

Gierucki said, "I think films have been ignored for far too long. It's our duty to preserve these classic comedies for future generations."




Image credit:

Publicity still of Billy Bevan and Mack Sennett bathing beauties (1920s) Mack Sennett Studios.

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