A look back at the comedic stylings of silent film pioneer Mack Sennett.
Mack Sennett (1880 – 1960) is widely regarded as the father of slapstick comedy for his pioneering silent film work as an actor, director, and producer during cinema’s earliest days. By 55, he had produced more than a 1,000 films and had gone into semi-retirement, having been all but wiped out by the Great Depression and after seeing his brand of comedy become outmoded with the advent of sound. But some of his best known comic inventions are still bringing laughter to audiences around the world.
The Pie in the Face
The name of the first jokester to employ the custard pie, like that of the first person to paint on the wall of a cave, is sadly lost to the mists of time. Sennett was probably not the originator of pie-in-face humor but he raised the level of pie throwing to an art form — it’s not for nothing he was called the “Custard Pie King.” Sennett’s idea to have characters hurl baked goods at each other allegedly originated from an on-set incident in 1913 involving actress Mabel Normand, who expressed annoyance at co-star Ben Turpin by hurling a custard pie in his face (though, as Turpin also had pie in shoved in his face in the 1909 Broncho Billy Anderson short “Mr. Flip,” some believe the story is a conflation). Sennett first employed the pie gag in 1913’s “That Ragtime Band” and it has been a comedy staple ever since, with everyone from the Three Stooges to Soupy Sales and even ESPN Sportscenter getting in on the act.
Pie throwing has also become a form of political and cultural protest, with luminaries who’ve been ‘pied’ including figures such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ex-CIA chief William Colby, California governor Jerry Brown, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter has been targeted for the treatment by a group calling itself Al Pieda.
Sennett probably would have approved of the sugary splatterings dealt to authority figures, but he did draw the line somewhere. “A mother never gets hit with a custard pie,” he once said. “Mothers-in-law, yes. But mothers? Never.”
The phrase ‘cut to the chase’ long ago entered the lexicon as an invocation to hurry things along, but nobody did more for the chase than Sennett. Using the parallel editing techniques he’d learned from his former boss D.W. Griffith, Sennett redeployed what was already a staple of silent screen melodrama to the realm of comedy. While many of Sennett’s earliest films have been lost or destroyed over the years, his first surviving work to feature a climactic chase scene was the 1913 short “The Man Next Door.” As he made more films, his chases became increasingly long and elaborate in both their staging and intercutting, employing cars, bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, hand carts, canoes, and scores of Keystone cops. Sennett once referred to chase scenes as “the essence of our comedy.”
The Keystone Kops
Like ‘cut to the chase,’ the phrase ‘Keystone cops’ has also become shorthand, a way of describing anything chaotic, bumbling and inept. Sen. Joseph Lieberman used the term to describe the Bush administration’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina, while in a Portland Tribune story recently, the Oregon Republican Party was compared to Sennett’s famous police.
The first film to feature the Keystone Kops was “Hoffmeyer’s Legacy” in 1912, but they didn’t really become a force unto their own until 1913’s “The Bangville Police.” Though the cops themselves were never the focus of the films — usually the ensemble was deployed to support starring comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand — they often stole the show with zany antics that included hair-raising pratfalls played for laughs. There have been plenty of recreations and direct homages over the years — from 1935’s “Keystone Hotel” to Mel Brooks’ work in “Silent Movie” (1976). Hapless police crashing through the streets of downtown Chicago in pursuit of Jake and Elroy in “The Blues Brothers” (1980) clearly owe a debt to Sennett’s boys in blue, while police-as-idiots movies from “Police Academy” (1984) to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” (2009) also show Sennett’s anti-authoritarian influence.
Admittedly, this is one is cheating a bit. Chaplin’s comic persona was very much his own creation, but it was Sennett who first discovered the young vaudevillian and gave him a chance to work in motion pictures. Chaplin’s first performance in “Making a Living” (1914) was so bad that Mabel Normand had to convince Sennett to keep him at the Keystone Film Company. Chaplin fared much better during his second film, “Kid Autoraces at Venice” (1914), where he debuted the Tramp, the character he’s best remembered for today. At Keystone, Chaplin learned the techniques of filmmaking that would later make him the biggest star of the silent era. In addition to Chaplin, Sennett launched the careers of Gloria Swanson, Bing Crosby, and W.C. Fields.