The Cinema Century – March 30, 1918

One century ago, in its March 30, 1918 edition, “Motion Picture News” noted the upcoming release of a couple of new comedy short subjects from Mack Sennett:

Interestingly enough, these Sennett comedies were not Keystone releases. In retrospect we tend to think of the name of Mack Sennett as inseparable from the Keystone brand under which he revolutionized motion picture comedy, making the slapstick style the dominant form throughout much of the silent film era. But the two films referenced here are Paramount releases. That’s because Sennett actually did not maintain the Keystone brand indefinitely.

Keystone began as an offshoot of Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann’s New York Motion Picture Company. This was the same company that gave Thomas H. Ince his start as a producer. Ince specialized in dramatic productions (especially westerns) under the Kay-Bee brand. As a complement to the dramatic productions, in 1912 Sennett was set up by Kessel and Baumann to produce comedies under the Keystone brand. In short order Sennett built Keystone into a lucrative brand name — the “fun factory” that gave appreciative audiences such beloved comic figures as Mabel Normand, Ben Turpin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and, of course, Charlie Chaplin. Sennett, uneducated but canny and shrewd, had an unerring eye for comic talent, as well as an instinctive feel for what audiences would respond to. If it made Sennett laugh it would make millions laugh.

In 1915, Kessel and Baumann formed a new company called Triangle Film Corporation along with Harry Aitken. Kessel and Baumann contributed the works of Sennett and Ince, while Aitken brought with him the talents of renowned director D.W. Griffith. Aitken had provided financial backing for Griffith’s Civil War epic, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, at a time when no one else would invest in such a preposterously expensive venture. The enormous financial success of THE BIRTH OF A NATION made Aitken a fortune, setting him up as a player in the emerging industry and making him attractive as a business partner for Kessel and Baumann. Triangle seemed like a natural name for their new company, the three legs of the triangle being the works of Sennett, Thomas Ince, and Griffith:

But even though it was subsumed under the Triangle banner, at this point the Keystone name was retained. It was still an autonomous operation, but with newly enhanced financial resources under the new corporate structure.

Triangle, however, was not destined for long-term viability. Griffith immediately launched into his follow-up to THE BIRTH OF A NATION, a massive and ambitious feature called INTOLERANCE — even larger in scope and more costly than THE BIRTH OF A NATION. The result was an artistic triumph, but a commercial disaster. With the cash flow drying up, Griffith jumped ship and in 1917 so did Sennett.

But in obtaining his release from Triangle it was necessary for Sennett to leave the Keystone brand name behind. This was okay with Sennett — in his mind it had always been the Sennett name that was the real brand name, not the Keystone name. Now on his own, he created his own company called Mack Sennett Comedies. This was, however, strictly a production company, without a distribution arm like the corporate octopus that Paramount had grown into. He therefore had to make a distribution deal with someone. Initially it was Paramount that was tapped to release his product, as was the case with the two films cited above. Later Sennett would change distributors, going with Associated Producers (which he had a hand in founding) and then First National. After talking pictures replaced silents, Sennett would briefly return to Paramount in the early 1930s to produce talking comedies, most notably a series of short comedies with W.C. Fields, but his heyday had been the silent era. With slapstick in decline and verbal comedy on the rise, Sennett’s name was no longer the drawing card it had once been.

It’s worth noting that the close association between Sennett and Keystone is not the only reason for the obscurity of the Sennett Paramount releases. Owing to the low survival rate of early films, the sad fact is that only a bare handful of Sennett films from this period still exist. For the first few decades of moving pictures, the standard film stock consisted of an emulsion on a base made of cellulose nitrate. This form of celluloid is chemically unstable, and over time will simply disintegrate. Many cinema archivists have known the heartbreaking experience of opening a decades-old film can to find nothing but dust inside. Eventually a transition was made to a cellulose acetate base, which is much more stable, but for most silent films and many early sound films this transition came too late. To insure the survival of those early works, it is necessary to duplicate the nitrate originals onto acetate film (or, nowadays, to digitize them). Sadly, film preservation did not become a priority until after many of the earliest films were irretrievably lost. Something like 90% of all the silent films ever made are permanently gone.

Mack Sennett’s Paramount releases have become a historical footnote in large measure because, with rare exceptions, we can only read about them in century-old trade papers. The laughs they contained have been, literally, reduced to ashes.

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