KEYSTONE by Simon Louvish


The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett
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Film historian Louvish continues his presentation of classic laff artists, moving backward from the Marx Brothers (Monkey Business, 2000) and Laurel and Hardy (Stan and Ollie, 2002) to tackle legendary Mack Sennett (1880–1960), impresario of hefty bathing beauties and protean boss of the Keystone Kops.

From the start, Louvish undertakes to separate fantasy from possibility by revising Father Goose, a 1934 bio by Sennett’s drinking buddy Gene Fowler, and Mack’s own imaginative King of Comedy, now a half-century old. Walter Kerr dubbed Sennett the “insensitive master carpenter” of comedy, and this text doesn’t refute that characterization. In his studios, Sennett constructed an insane parallel universe. It operated contrary to known laws of physics while adhering to comedic law. The early half-reelers, peopled with stock characters, had no sensitivity, decorum, or plausibility. The Kops and the beauties were supported by simpering suitors, jealous husbands, flirty flappers, mustachioed villains, and harridans, all filmed with an under-cranked camera as they flung pies, brandished rolling pins, hid under beds, and encountered bears. Whether based at Keystone or Triangle, Sennett employed all the greats: Arbuckle, Bevan, Busch, Chaplin, Fields, Langdon, Turpin, Teddy the dog, and a toothless lion. Heading the cast was wonderful, winsome Mabel Normand, the love of Mack’s life—or so it was publicized. (His sexual leanings remain undetermined.) The final fade-out is, inevitably, sad. Yet it’s a spirited tale about a lord of show business with a happy emphasis on his shows over his business. Supported by newly available files and treatments, Louvish takes an easygoing tone that sometimes leads to muddled metaphors like “another building block of the great Mabel-Mae prize-fight proves to be of shoddy construction.” But he consistently displays solid familiarity with Sennett’s oeuvre and, especially, the unique ways of Hollywood.

A satisfying effort to sift through celluloid mythology. (47 b&w photos)

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-571-21276-X
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2003


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