Comic greats: The man who founded fun

Randor Guy pays tribute to the Hollywood comedians of the silent era in this five-part series, starting with Mack Sennett, the father of slapstick

September 06, 2014 06:30 pm | Updated 06:30 pm IST

Mack Sennett in Lion Tamer

Mack Sennett in Lion Tamer

Celluloid slapstick humour in the U.S. began about a 100 years ago, possibly with Mack Sennett, described as the ‘King of Comedy’, who was the first Hollywood celebrity to make the world laugh. With financial backing from Adam Kessel and Charles O. Bauman of the New York Motion Picture Company, Sennett founded Keystone Studios in Edendale, California (it is now part of Echo Park) in 1912. The original main building, the world’s first totally enclosed film stage and studio, still stands.

Several actors who created movie history began their careers with Mack Sennett. They include Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, ‘Fatty’ (Roscoe) Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Raymond Griffith, Gloria Swanson, Bing Crosby and W. C. Fields. However, Sennett’s greatest contribution was possibly the band of bungling cops known as the Keystone Kops . (More about them in my next column.) In fact, the Keystone Kops inspired a range of Indian comedians from Mehmood and Johnny Walker to T.S. Durairaj and more recently Vadivelu.

Born on January 17, 1880 as Mikall (or Michael) Sinnott in Quebec, Canada, to Irish Catholic immigrant farmers, he moved to New York City, where he became an actor, singer, dancer, clown, set designer, and then director of the famed company Biograph (America’s first movie production company founded in 1895). A major feature of his acting career, often overlooked, is the fact that Sennett played Sherlock Holmes eleven times, as parody or spoof, between 1911 and 1913.

In a classic film screened as part of a collection some years ago, Sennett sits in his office talking on the phone (the film is, of course, silent) and all sorts of people walk in and out, shouting, fighting and creating a ruckus, but he is unperturbed. Then, a side door opens and in walks a majestic lion, which stands on his table and stares at him ferociously. The terrified crowd in his room jumps out of the windows.They stand below, expecting to see Sennett following them out of the window, but what they see instead is a terrified lion jumping out!

Sennett, meanwhile, is seated calmly inside, still talking business on the phone.

Sennett did not survive the Great Depression of 1929, and was forced into bankruptcy in 1933. His last work was in 1935, where he directed Buster Keaton for the first time in The Timid Young Man . Sennett went into semi-retirement at 55, having produced more than 1,000 silent films and several talkies.

In March 1938, Sennett was presented with an honorary Oscar “for his lasting contribution to the comedy technique of the screen, the basic principles of which are as important today as when they were first put into practice”. The Academy called him a master of fun, discoverer of stars, sympathetic, kindly, and an understanding comedy genius.

Sennett died on November 5, 1960, aged 80. The classic comedians he brought to life such as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, and others are still watched after many decades, making the world laugh.

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