Mack Sennett (January 17, 1880 – November 5, 1960) was a Canadian -born Academy Award-winning director and was known as the innovator of slapstick comedy in film. During his lifetime he was known at times as the "King of Comedy."
Born Michael Sinnott in Richmond, in the province of Quebec, Canada. Sennett was a son of Irish Catholic immigrant farmers; his father was a blacksmith in the small Eastern Townships village. At age 17 his family moved to Connecticut.
The family lived for a time in the Massachusetts town of Northampton, where, according to his autobiography, Sennett first got the idea to go on stage after seeing a vaudeville show. He claimed that the most respected lawyer in town, sometime Northampton mayor and later president of the United States Calvin Coolidge, and Sennett's mother tried to talk him out of his theatrical ambitions.
In New York City, Sennett became a singer, dancer, clown, actor (mostly playing low comedy parts, usually oafish rural types), set designer and director for Biograph. A major distinction in his acting career, often overlooked, is the fact that Sennett played Sherlock Holmes 11 times, in a parody format of course, between 1911 and 1913.
With financial backing from Adam Kessel and Charles O. Bauman of the New York Motion Picture Company, in 1912 Sennett founded Keystone Studios in Edendale, California, (which is now a part of Echo Park). The original main building, the first totally enclosed film stage and studio in history, is still there. Many important actors started their careers with Sennett, including Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Griffith, Gloria Swanson, Ford Sterling, Andy Clyde, The Keystone Cops, Bing Crosby, and W. C. Fields.
Sennett's slapstick comedies were noted for their wild car chases and custard pie warfare. His first comedienne was Mabel Normand, who became a major star (and with whom he embarked on a tumultuous personal relationship). His films featured a bevy of girls known as the Sennett Bathing Beauties which included Juanita Hansen and Phyllis Haver. Sennett also developed the Kid Comedies, a forerunner of the Our Gang films and in a short time his name became synonymous with screen comedy. In 1915 Keystone Studios became an autonomous production unit of the ambitious Triangle Pictures Corporation, as Sennett joined forces with movie bigwigs D. W. Griffith and Thomas Ince.
In 1917 Sennett gave up the Keystone trademark and organized his own company, Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation. (Sennett's corporate bosses retained the Keystone trademark and produced a cheap series of comedy shorts that were "Keystones" in name only: they were unsuccessful, and Sennett had no connection with them.) Sennett went on to produce more ambitious comedy short films and a few feature-length films. During the 1920s his short subjects were in much demand, with stars like Billy Bevan, Andy Clyde, Harry Gribbon, Vernon Dent, Alice Day, Ralph Graves, Charlie Murray, and Harry Langdon. He produced several features with his brightest stars, such as Ben Turpin and Mabel Normand.
Many of Sennett's films of the early 1920s were inherited by Warner Brothers when Warners merged with the original distributor, First National. Warner added music and commentary to several of these shorts, but eventually destroyed the original elements for storage space. As a result many Sennett films, especially those from his most productive and creative period, no longer exist.
In the mid-1920s Sennett moved over to Pathé distribution. Pathé had a huge market share but made bad corporate decisions, such as attempting to sell too many comedies at once (including those of Sennett's main competitor, Hal Roach). In 1927 Paramount and MGM, Hollywood's two top studios, noting the profits being made by companies like Pathé and Educational, both re-entered the production and distribution of short subjects after several years. Roach signed with MGM but Sennett found himself and Pathé in hard times because the hundreds of exhibitors who had previously rented their shorts had switched to the new MGM or Paramount products.
Sennett made a reasonably smooth transition to sound films, releasing them through Earle Hammons's Educational Pictures. Sennett occasionally experimented with color and was the first to get a talkie short subject on the market, in 1928. In 1932 he was nominated for the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film in the comedy division for producing The Loud Mouth (with Matt McHugh, in the sports-heckler role later taken in Columbia Pictures remakes by Charley Chase and Shemp Howard), and he won in the novelty division for his film Wrestling Swordfish.
Sennett often clung to outmoded techniques, making his early-1930s films seem dated and quaint. This doomed his attempt to re-enter the feature film market with Hypnotized (starring blackface comedians Moran and Mack, "The Two Black Crows"). However, Sennett enjoyed great success with short comedies starring Bing Crosby; these films were probably instrumental in Sennett's product being picked up by a major studio, Paramount Pictures. W. C. Fields conceived and starred in four famous Sennett-Paramount comedies.
Sennett's studio did not survive the Great Depression; the Sennett-Paramount partnership lasted only one year, and Sennett was forced into bankruptcy in November 1933. His last work, in 1935, was as a producer-director for Educational Pictures; he directed Buster Keaton in The Timid Young Man and Joan Davis in Way Up Thar. He went into semi-retirement at the age of 55, having produced more than 1,000 silent films and several dozen talkies during a 25-year career. His studio property was purchased by Mascot Pictures (later part of Republic Pictures), and many of his former staffers found work at Columbia Pictures.
In March 1938, Sennett was presented with an honorary Academy Award.
Rumors abounded that Sennett would be returning to film production (a 1938 publicity release indicated that he would be working with Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy), but apart from Sennett reissuing a couple of his Bing Crosby two-reelers to theaters, nothing happened. Sennett did appear in front of the camera, however, in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), itself a thinly disguised version of the Mack Sennett-Mabel Normand romance. In 1949 he provided film footage for, and appeared in, the first full-length comedy compilation, Down Memory Lane (1949), which was written and narrated by Steve Allen. Sennett was profiled in the television series This is Your Life in 1956, and made a cameo appearance (for $1,000) in Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955). He contributed to the radio program Biography in Sound, broadcast February 28, 1956.
He died on November 5, 1960 in Woodland Hills, California at the age of 80 and was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry Sennett was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6712 Hollywood Blvd. Also in 2004, he was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame.
Today the name of Mack Sennett is still highly recognizable (even to those who have no contact with his films) and the term "Keystone Cops" has become part of the language, describing incompetent buffoons with supposed authority. Some historians even credit Sennett's films with having been responsible for municipal police forces across North America altering their uniforms to include military style officers' caps since by the 1920s tall, English-style hats had become so indelibly associated with slapstick comedy.
Henry Mancini's score for the 1963 film, The Pink Panther, the original entry in the series, contains a segment called "Shades of Sennett". It is played on a silent film era style "honky tonk" piano, and accompanies a climactic scene in which the incompetent police detective Inspector Clouseau is involved in a multi-vehicle chase with the antagonists.
In 1974, Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman wrote the musical Mack & Mabel, chronicling the romance between Sennett and Mabel Normand. Sennett also was a leading character in The Biograph Girl, a 1980 musical about the silent film era.
Peter Lovesey's 1983 novel Keystone is a whodunnit set in the Keystone Studios and involving (among others), Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle and the Keystone Cops.