“The Mack Sennett Keystone comedies were the culmination of 15 years of comic primitivism—the characterless jest and the excitement of motion raised to the nth power” (Mast 43). Before Sennett, American film comedy had been confined to the music hall sketch; he gave it the freedom of destructive absurdity. While still at Biograph, the future King of Comedy moved Griffith’s static, inert, indoor-bound camera outside, where it enjoyed both visual freedom and the freedom to move. And move it did, at mad speed, nearing supersonic velocity, stopping only when the figures onscreen smashed through one wall too many, fell down manholes or wells too deep, or were simply overcome with exhaustion The filmmaker added tremendous energy and breathtaking pace, the incongruous and the non sequitur, and a taste for burlesquing people, social custom, and the conventions of other films.
Hal Roach was always second to Sennett; the latter established the formula while the former merely adopted it. While Roach began imitatively, copying Sennett’s chases, falls, custard-pie throwing, and generalized chaos, he gradually began thinking more in terms of character than non sequitur, carefully structured gags instead of speed, logical plotting rather than constant, cumulative romping. Roach’s films benefited from more structure, less improvisation, creating what Gerald Mast calls a perfect stairway to insanity (185). To use the same metaphor, Sennett did not ever take the stairs up; he took the elevator, punched the floor button—or, if feeling especially inventive, whacked it with a hammer—got stuck a couple of times between levels, sometimes plummeted, coming close to the bottom of the elevator shaft, and, finally, shot through the roof.
Sennett’s films fell into one of three categories: parodies of other genres; ridicules of noble values, intellectual pretentions, and lofty sentiments; or, most notably, visual knockabout, “which he lifted, by insistence and inventiveness, to the level of poetic fantasy” (Durgnat 68). The Keystone period, between 1912 and 1915, was the most important Sennett era, often taken as representative of his work as a whole. Sennett’s lot provided a highly creative atmosphere for gag writers, directors, and actors during these years. The shorts made at Keystone blazed with free, furious improvisational energy, which was always more important than fancy scripts, sets, costumes, or title cards. Many of the films were shot off the cuff, generally in actual locations. A Dash Through the Clouds, made in Sennett’s first year at Keystone, is as interested in the visual appeal of Mabel Normand flying in a plane to save her sweetheart, who has gotten into trouble in the Mexican quarter, than it is with the plot itself. The camera at times seems to aspire to nothing more than capturing the moment and portraying the sheer excitement of movement, especially as it tilts and pans to follow the plane.
Kid Auto Races at Venice, made in 1913, depicts little more than what the title suggests. But through its very simplicity, it allows the camera to play an important role, becoming a little film about cinema itself. Sennett’s crew pretends to shoot documentary footage at the races while Chaplin, in his first effective screen performance, already in Tramp attire, pretends he doesn’t know what they’re doing, repeatedly standing in front of the lens and blocking the camera’s view even as an increasingly enraged Henry Lehrman boots him out of the frame.
But Sennett had also learned how to tell a story; he learned from the best—literally—as an actor, and later writer, for Griffith. In Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), he puts to great comedic use some of the cinematic techniques that his master would become so famous for. When “the Girl,” played again by Mabel Normand, gets captured by a band of grossly overacted villains led by Ford Sterling, the crosscutting between the train tracks where she is tied, the inexorably approaching locomotive, and the speeding car carrying her saviors is masterfully executed. This parody shows just how close the suspenseful, exciting last-minute rescue is to the comic chase. All it takes is a scrambling of the editing rhythms, a distortion of the protagonist’s difficulties, a slight alteration or exaggeration of the characters’ personalities, and an expansion of time ad absurdum, and tense melodrama dissolves into laughter.
As skillful as Sennett was at burlesquing other genres, he was and is infinitely more renowned for his knockabout of the kops and kustard variety. A Mud Bath (1914) features perhaps the first pie in the face ever to be committed to film. The victim, Normand, is pursued throughout the film by Sterling’s “persistent suitor,” so arduously that she must run away to get married to the man she loves. In the heat of the moment, characters get soaked, socked, stuck in the mud, and shot at, all during a continuous, frenzied chase which will call for the services of the “Water Police,” an early iteration of the Keystone Kops. Disaster, disorder, and disintegration are the norm, at a pace that comes as a shock and an insult to human and physical laws, gravitational as well as geometrical. Sennett’s ballistic nightmare of a crazy world reaches its climax perhaps in A Desperate Scoundrel (1915), an endless series of jests, farces, gags, falls, chases, and coincidences surrounding a small fortune that is stolen, lost, or found at least every minute or so.
Roach would often reach as much pandemonium as Sennett, but, unlike Sennett, he’d do it in the most logical, psychologically clear way, building tension and momentum and increasing the pace and frenzy only gradually. Even the most absurdist and destructive moments are anchored in the characters’ logical actions and reactions. The closest Roach came to Sennett’s brand of comedy was in the films starring Snub Pollard, Roach’s version of a Billy Bevan or Chester Conklin. Pollard, with his upside-down Kaiser Wilhelm moustache and eyes that move, close, open, squint and widen seemingly independent of one another, mistakenly disposes of all of a family’s possessions in Sold at Auction (1923). When the owner, James Finlayson , returns, every last item must be recovered, including a grand piano—currently on a runaway downhill slide—and a pair of false teeth bought by a pilot. Pollard chases the piano down and rides it straight into its rightful owners’ home—never mind that half their house gets torn down in the process—and the false teeth generate a search of spectacular proportions, which demands stealing a plane, demolishing a barn, acquiring both a pig and a chicken on the wing of the flying plane, falling into an oil derrick and getting swung by a rope in a great arc directly into the plane he is pursuing, then falling from that plane straight through the roof of Finlayson’s house.
With Sold at Auction, Roach effectively and violently entered Sennett territory, but there are signs of a slightly different mind at work. The actions in the film all have a logical base: Pollard was given the key to the wrong house before commencing the auction, and now he is persuaded by the owners of the house (at gunpoint) to right his mistake. When random objects are thrown—and given the material, it is to be expected that they will be—the violence is brought about by a carefully laid-out plan: Pollard, having sold some of Finlayson’s possessions to the next door neighbor, starts playing the trumpet outside his window, in anticipation of the objects that will be hurled his way; they are dutifully caught—most of them, at least—and replaced in the house they came from.
Madness was the norm in both Sennett’s and Roach’s films. In Sennett’s comedies, however, “no one ever held still long enough to say so…. all present leapt to the attack on the instant, giving the film a single dimension” (Kerr 110). Sennett’s gags and tricks have no logical explanation. They are neither a protest against nor a celebration of speed and mechanization, but an unassuming acceptance of them as conditions of life, energetically turned into festive disorders of chaos. Beds race down highways, planes burst through buildings, cars carry or throw out inhabitants seemingly at random, with each turn around a corner or swerve between convergent streetcars and expresses, all for no reason whatsoever. “Once we stop to let anybody analyze us, we’re sunk,” Sennett said (qtd. in Kerr 64). Surprise, the shock of speed and motion, is a key element of most Sennett films. Roach took a different approach.
Instead of trying to conceal the mechanics of the joke and avoid any anticipation by moving so quickly from one gag to the next, Roach “bided [his] time in sheepish close-ups until we’d been given an opportunity not only to catch up with the joke but to get well, well ahead of it” (Kerr 334). He relied on lengthier gags that were more carefully constructed and more smoothly polished. His comedic sequences often came with a beginning, middle, and end. This admirable control of intensity, rhythm, and structure, which became almost a science on the Roach lot by the mid-twenties, culminated in the films of Laurel and Hardy, the most famous comedians—after Harold Lloyd—to work for Roach, and “the most artful practitioners of the Roach structure of accumulation” (Mast 190).
Although the two comedians did not change any of Sennett’s gags or invent anything new, they completely inverted the dynamic: “Like two children caught with their hands in the cookie jar, they confessed. They confessed to the joke” (Kerr 330). Instead of trying to fool audiences with the same fall down a manhole they had seen a thousand times before, they showed them the manhole, explained the fall most carefully, and slowly carried out the entire affair as “a ritual through which the well-informed [viewers] were courteously conducted, a ceremonious tour of well-marked territory” (Kerr 330). Although Roach does from time to time adopt the Sennett spirit of surprise, he never leaves it at that. In Putting Pants on Philip (1927), the first teaming of Laurel and Hardy in the formula they would be remembered for, Stanley suddenly disappears from the frame as the pair walk down the street in a medium shot. Pulling back the camera to a long shot, Roach reveals a manhole with the unlucky feet sticking out. The joke comes as a jack-in-the-box, a Sennett surprise. A few shots later in the short film, however, Laurel and Hardy walk down the street in a long shot, and the manhole that will, this time, make Hardy its victim, is plainly visible.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy took the essential Roach premise—a clear, one-dimensional, petty psychological trait magnified to all-encompassing proportions. “Tall oaks from little acorns grow,” the motto on the comedic team’s furniture-moving van proclaims in The Music Box (1932); their films provided proof for the statement again and again, as the most catastrophic events develop from little slips, innocent mistakes, and childlike forgetfulness. The starting point of any Laurel and Hardy film is that they are basically overgrown children, incapable of sensible, competent adult activity. Unlike Harry Langdon, with whom they share this trait, however, they assume they are the exact opposite of incompetent children, and the films consistently puncture their illusions and pretensions of maturity.
Throughout their prolific career, Laurel and Hardy have repeatedly and continually demonstrated that they are simply terrible at everything, playing terrible carpenters (in The Finishing Touch), terrible salesmen (Big Business), terrible drivers (Two Tars), terrible furniture movers (The Music Box), terrible musicians (You’re Darn Tootin’ and Below Zero), terrible escaped convicts (Pardon Us), terrible process servers (Bacon Grabbers), terrible soldiers (Beau Hunks), terrible husbands (Sons of the Desert) and, the pinnacle of incompetence and self-conscious literalness, terrible children as well (Brats). Because Ollie is more sure of himself, he gets slammed harder with insufficiency, its psychological implications as well as the ensuing physical results; he can take it. Stan makes less ado about his adult abilities, simply breaking down and weeping, that most childish of childish responses to dissatisfaction.
Sennett’s eye for pure looniness extended to everything and everyone within the frame. “The Keystone world had very little to do with reality, except as a distorted and sped-up reflection of it” (Mast 49). The unnatural world he created is a completely closed, hermetically sealed universe which functions according to its own laws, separate from reality, a world in which injury and death are unknown, in which bullets, knives, bricks, collisions, and falls are funny because they can neither hurt nor kill. Roach, however, filled in the background of his world, generally with ordinary individuals who were either caught up in the chaos or saw absolutely nothing extraordinary in the unusual things going on about them; “their passivity made the world insane on the double” (Kerr 110). But, at the same time, perhaps unpredictably or even unintentionally, it made the world more human, adding a layer, however twisted, of psychological truth to the insanity.
Pies in Roach films were not carelessly thrown; the act of throwing a pie required the utmost logic and preparation. Furthermore, Roach would never use one pie or a few isolated pies, as Sennett did, “but take one pie and build the oneness to infinity” (Mast 185). In The Battle of the Century (1927), this idea is taken quite literally. Laurel, “the Human Mop,” has just lost another boxing match, and Hardy, his manager, has decided to take out an accident insurance for his friend. In an effort to hasten an accident, he places a banana peel on the street in front of Laurel. When, unavoidably, someone else slips and falls, Laurel innocently presents Hardy with the peeled fruit in front of the victim. As comedic necessity would have it, the wronged passer-by is a pie-vendor, who now enacts his revenge on Hardy in a most Sennettesque fashion. As Hardy retaliates, he misses his target, hitting another passer-by, now a forced participant in the battle.
Before long, the entire street devolves into a pie fight. In You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928), Laurel and Hardy play struggling musicians. Hardy, infuriated by his friend’s inability to get a song right, lands a punch on Laurel’s midsection. Still holding his gut, Laurel enacts his revenge by kicking Hardy in the shin. They take occasional breaks from the blows to rip each other’s ties, shirts, jackets or vests apart, and even to stomp on each other’s hats. The two catch an innocent passer-by in their crosshairs. Within a minute there are seven participants in the fight, within two there are over twenty, and by the end of the sequence the sidewalk is overrun with ragged-trousered, hopping, ducking, punching, kicking, and stooping hysteria.
Laurel and Hardy and the other members of Roach’s repertoire had an uncontested ability to infect the seemingly normal characters inhabiting their world with their childish destructiveness. Even the most respectable people in Laurel and Hardy films—homeowners, landlords, professors, European princes, policemen, nurses, and dentists alike—can be turned into a mess of pie-slingers, shin-kickers, and pants-pullers. Stan and Ollie bring out the worst in everybody. But what makes their specific brand of chaos so different from Sennett’s is the attitude these characters display when hurling pies, brinks, and sticks , ripping each other’s clothes, cars, or houses. They do it methodically, experimentally, calmly, and, often, without actual malice, thinking carefully and deliberately before coming up with the next atrocity, which is to be carried out in the most detached manner possible. The heat of passion and the frenzied haste of Sennett’s best movies give way to a certain kind of rational insanity in the childlike equation of revenge and justice. The absurdist “tit for tat” sequences create a psychological paradox. Each character takes it in turn, allowing his opponent to tear his clothes, destroy his car, ruin his shop or home—in short, to do his worst—before retaliating. The comedy consists of the pauses between the gags more than the gags themselves.
In Big Business (1929), surely one of the most destructive of Roach films, Laurel and Hardy play Christmas tree salesmen. After a failed attempt to secure a buyer, Laurel manages to get the tree stuck in the front door. The increasingly irate home owner, played by Finlayson again, opens the door, again and again, so Laurel can retrieve his tree and then his coat. Not willing to give up just yet, Stan comes up with an idea for “big business,” returning to the same house to ask if he could take an order for next year. Finlayson emerges with a pair of garden shears and does his worst to the poor tree. Enraged, Hardy appropriates the shears to snip the few fronds of hair still present on Finlayson’s glossy head. After the shears get repurposed to Hardy’s shirt and tie, the characters start coming up with more and more inventive methods of retaliation.
By the end of the two reels, Laurel and Hardy have made a shambles of Finlayson’s home, and he has reduced their curbside automobile to shards of tin. Neither party made the least effort to protect what was his own. Stan and Ollie hurl porch lamps through the house’s windows, uproot or cut down the varied vegetation of the lawn, and pitch vases from one another to be batted with a shovel; Finlayson watches patiently, only after they have finished marching to their car, with Laurel and Hardy not far behind, to yank out headlights and throw them through the windshield, tear a door off, or strip away the fender. The film follows a stately, almost formal, ritualistic procession from car to house and back again. A small neighborhood crowd gathers to watch the proceedings, like spectators at a tennis match, following the ball from one side of the court to the next, deeply interested; a policeman drives by and stops, emits a mildly disapproving scowl, and starts taking notes. Roach cuts from Laurel and Hardy to Finlayson to the crowd or the cop and back again. No one intervenes. As if participants in a ceremony, the characters behave, between assaults on inanimate objects, with the utmost circumspection.
Another key difference between Sennett and Roach is in their treatment of characters. “Sennett put puppets into a puppet world” (Mast 50). The filmmaker’s characters are not mortal, human beings of flesh, blood, and personality, but mechanical toys designed specifically to bear the kind of physical torture they’re constantly subjected to in the Keystone world. Absence of characterization is essential; depersonalization is the key to comic shock. We don’t fear for the health and safety—or, indeed, for the lives—of the characters because we think of them not as people, but as machines; they might break, but they can be fixed or replaced. “Pavlov’s dogs are masterminds compared to those nippy little knockabout monsters, dashing about the screen with the rapidity of jumping fleas” (Durgnat 71).
The tremendous talent of the Sennett lot included both performers picked up in his days at Biograph (such as Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, Del Henderson, and Henry Lehrman) and newcomers, some of which will go on to become the greatest of all silent clowns. The filmmaker had an incredible eye for talent, but, unlike on the Roach lot, actors failed to develop distinct and idiosyncratic personas and personalities. Sennett’s films did not allow the pauses necessary for individual identification. “The clowns were, in effect, masked blurs racing from entrance to exit, knocking over indoor tables and outdoor pedestrians along the way. The masks came with the moustaches” (Kerr 70). Mabel Normand and Gloria Swanson were largely interchangeable, as were Bevan and Conklin, Sterling and the other bearded o mustachioed villains, and the small army of Kops played by a procession of actors.
Sennett turned human bodies into projectiles and packages whose fates become matters of weight, momentum, trajectory, and inertia, often guided by sharp, staccato movements. Figures dashed, smashed, crashed, and splashed. They ran after things they wanted, away from things they wanted to avoid, over mountains, dangerous ledges, fields, and beaches, or rode in cars, boats, on animals or bikes. “And they kept running until they smashed into something that stopped them, fell into something that soaked them, or simply fainted from exhaustion” (Mast 50). The acting is overdone and excessive, a ridiculous burlesque of human attitudes and emotions, further removing the figures on screen. How could we possibly take the villainous Sterling seriously—or care about his demise— in Barney Oldfield when he has spent the entirety of the film twirling his substantial moustache and chomping down on cigars so hard you’d think he was having a seizure?
Objects become as important as characters. If living beings were turned into inanimate objects, than inanimate objects were turned into living beings. Boats, trains, cars, bikes, planes, bricks, rocks, guns, sticks, and, of course, custard pies have more personality than the actors onscreen, and they are consistently frantic, destructive, and violent. Long shots diminished the importance of players, but also increased the effect of these objects, and of the various, visually pleasing effects of shapes in motion. Roach used closeups frequently, especially on his actors’ faces to convey feelings and thoughts. His performers were comic people rather than depersonalized machines. We recognize the characters on the screen and care if they hurt—still not too deeply, though; how else could we laugh so hard? But when the camera lens passes from Hardy’s delightfully florid sashays into holocaust to Laurel’s furrowed brow, which only bespeaks the undying hope that “the worse will not be worse than last time,” we instantly feel sorry for Stan (Kerr 328).
Later in Sennett’s career, the rough and tumble were replaced by more complex, complicated, and coherent stories, and much of the particular charm, excitement, spontaneity and freshness was lost. The nonsense and pandemonium of the Keystone period was elevated—or reduced, depending on how you look at it—to seemingly straight stories peppered with irreverent gags. Parodies like Teddy at the Throttle (1916)—compared to, say, Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, made only three years prior—are more dependent on production values, complicated plots, and use of special effects. The Mabel and Fatty series, particularly the agrarian comedy Mabel and Fatty’s Simple Life (1915) present a more domesticated, polished couple than Sennett’s earlier works.
Isolated sequences, however, come close to true comedic genius, reapplying the same equation of motion, frenzy, and the exponential multiplication of absurdity that governed the work at Keystone. One scene from Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life displays incredible inventiveness and insistence: Fatty, having fallen down a well, is momentarily retrieved as a couple of men lift him up by a rope. When Mabel grabs the rope, the men let go, and she is instantly lifted to the branches of a nearby tree. As Fatty is pulled up from the well again, Mabel falls in, and now he gets stuck in the tree. The sequence rhythmically repeats the switch so that every member of the small cast gest a chance to explore not only the height of the branches but also the wet depths of the well.
Tillie’sPunctured Romance (1914), Sennett’s first feature film and the most ambitious Keystone project, is a prime example of a “peppered” film, a potentially serious melodrama that becomes a pretext for a series of gags. The gags are often not enough to sustain what is basically a dramatic story with all the drama undercut for two reels, let alone a feature-length film. Many of Sennett’s later shorts and all of his features explore familial intrigues and social-climbing agendas, resulting in a double-crossed filled confusion between husbands, wives, children, lovers, and robbers. The filmmaker paid little attention to emotion, motivation, and psychology; characters behaved the way they did only to serve a simple formula. The emotions that are portrayed become strictly literary conventions, merely ideas of love, jealousy, lust, anger, greed, or vengefulness, and not realistic feelings based on psychology or motivation.
While the best comedies of both Sennett and Roach dealt in massive amounts of madness and often arrived at just as much destruction, their methods were fundamentally different. Sennett coupled simple and violent human attitudes with a dazzling, dizzying delirium of mechanical and physical knockabout, in a world of rude, random, and utterly amoral behavior. Although Roach had no notion of abandoning the original Sennett impulse, he did have some interesting variations to play on it. He developed a slower pace and a more personalized view of comedic madness, picking motivation and decision out of the chaos. While Sennett gave us puppets and machines in an unreal, unnatural world, Roach gave us people in a world that vaguely resembles our own, a world of reason and logic, however much warped. The deliberateness and gradual buildup of the destruction created a perfect snowball effect in Roach comedies, whereas Sennett had given us an avalanche and a snowstorm all rolled into one. In short, he didn’t always know, as Jean Cocteau put it, just how far to go too far.