In This Article Mack Sennett

  • Introduction
  • Primary Sources 1912–1933
  • Reference Works
  • Essential Viewing

Cinema and Media Studies Mack Sennett
by
Hilde D'haeyere
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0200

Introduction

Mack Sennett (b. 1880–d. 1960), is a Canadian-born actor, director, and producer who headed two of the most influential and prolific American slapstick studios: the Keystone Film Company (1912–1917) and Mack Sennett Comedies (1917–1933). At Keystone, Sennett acted in, directed, and produced over 540 shorts, in addition to producing the first feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, in 1914. Between 1917 and 1933 he produced some 440 short comedies and seventeen feature-length films under the banner of “Mack Sennett Comedies.” These motion pictures set the pace and style that established silent slapstick as an immensely popular film genre appreciated by masses of moviegoers. A second aspect of Sennett’s key position is his association with the early movie careers of an impressive roster of performers: Charles Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon, Carole Lombard, W. C. Fields, and Bing Crosby all grew to film stardom under his tutelage. He hired apprentice crew members before they became award-winning directors, cinematographers, and editors such as Frank Capra, Mal St. Clair, Fred Jackman, Vernon Walker, and William Hornbeck. His name is associated with bizarre phenomena, such as the incompetent Keystone cops or the bevy of beautiful Sennett Bathing Girls. After a successful transition to sound and color, Sennett returned to a position behind the camera to direct talking comedies. Following a disastrous distribution deal with Paramount Publix in 1932, Mack Sennett Comedies was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1933. Until his death in 1960 Sennett attempted a comeback, reediting his comedies into compilation films. In 1938 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored Sennett with an Academy Award for his lasting contributions to screen comedy. Scholarly interest in Mack Sennett concentrates on the Keystone movies; their unpolished energy invites interpretations in many disciplines and theoretical frameworks. Sennett’s professional life coincides with the formative years of the Hollywood film industry, spurring critical literature on the relation between slapstick comedy and classical Hollywood cinema. Moreover, with his autobiography The King of Comedy, published in 1954, Sennett created a hilarious report that greatly colors our understanding of slapstick film production. Clearly, Mack Sennett not only embodied the history of slapstick comedy but also dictated the stories to remember it by. This article, then, studies Sennett’s role as legendary Hollywood figure and analyzes his comedies in theories of slapstick and comedy.

Primary Sources 1912–1933

Primary sources on Mack Sennett are exceptionally rich, spanning his entire professional career. The Wisconsin Historical Society holds the Harry and Roy Aitken Papers that give full business records of some fifty Keystone films released by the Triangle Distributing Corporation between 1915 and 1917. This collection also includes materials from three 1914 Mutual-Keystone films featuring Charlie Chaplin: Caught in a Cabaret, Dough and Dynamite, and His Trysting Places. Fonds Triangle Film Corporation—Harry E. Aitken in the Cinémathèque française in Paris holds information on the promotion and distribution of Triangle-Keystone films, and its finding aid is in French only. Foundational records of the Keystone Film Company are consultable in the New York Public Library, in Triangle/Reliance Film Corporation Records, 1912–1923. In 1951 Mack Sennett donated the studio archives of the Keystone Film Company and Mack Sennett Comedies to the Margaret Herrick library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California. This source material offers a rare look at the many facets of motion picture production between 1912 and 1933. Physical access to the materials is available for qualified researchers only, on appointment with the research staff. In addition, the library offers public access to a selection of digitized materials in the Margaret Herrick Digital Collections. The studio-issued trade journal Mack Sennett Weekly is a valuable source to study the studios’ publicity efforts in the years 1917–1920. Media History Digital Library is an important online research platform for contextual research in fan magazines and trade papers.

  • Fonds Triangle Film Corporation—Harry E. Aitken.

    E-mail Citation »

    Business papers relating to the production, promotion, and distribution of Triangle-Keystone films between 1915 and 1917. The collective catalogue of the resources in the Cinémathèque française in Paris and Toulouse is available online in French, via the Ciné Resources site. Physical access is reserved for accredited researchers on appointment.

  • Harry and Roy Aitken Papers, 1909–1940. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society.

    E-mail Citation »

    Original documentation of films created by the Keystone Film Company when it was part of the Triangle distribution system in 1915–1917. Records relate to all aspects of film production, distribution, and financing.

  • Mack Sennett Papers.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection of personal and business papers spanning the years 1912–1933. Grouped into the following categories: biography, contract, financial, general, production and story files, and scrapbooks. Consultation by appointment only in the Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, California. This is where all Sennett research begins.

  • Mack Sennett Papers: Photographs Collection.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection categorized by motion picture production, biography, and general subjects. The bulk of the material covers the period 1917–1933, representing more than 825 film titles and 250 employees. Access requires an appointment with the Photograph Archive at Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, California.

  • Mack Sennett Weekly.

    E-mail Citation »

    Exhibitors’ journal circulated between January 1917 and June 1920. A rich source of data such as film credits, release dates, and synopses. Back covers are reserved for bathing girl photographs making this an important instrument to study promotional strategies. Herrick library has a complete run, and many archives hold copies.

  • Margaret Herrick Digital Collections.

    E-mail Citation »

    Public access to a selection of digitized items, mostly photographs, from the Mack Sennett Papers collection. Material is added on an ongoing basis.

  • Media History Digital Library.

    E-mail Citation »

    Library offering online access to valuable resources on cinema, broadcasting, and sound. The aggregator search engine Lantern allows keyword search in major fan magazines, trade publications, and cinema journals of the day, uncovering substantive information for contextual research. Particularly relevant is Reel Life, published by the Mutual Film Corporation.

  • Triangle/Reliance Film Corporation Records. 1912–1923.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection of business records, still photographs, and press releases pertaining to the activities of the Keystone Film Company and Triangle Film Corporation, among which are some foundational records. Advance notice required for onsite consultation in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library.

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