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Mack Sennett (born Michael Sinnott; January 17, 1880 – November 5, 1960) was a Canadian-American film actor, director, and producer, and studio head, known as the King of Comedy. In the 1920s he ran with a fast crowd of hard-drinking, coke-snorting hedonists and was thought to be, in some mysterious way, involved in one of Hollywood's greatest scandals, the never-solved murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922. His most enduring leading lady - in life, according to legend, as well as in his films - was tomboy Mabel Normand, who was also implicated in the Taylor mystery (it was known that he had been supplying her with drugs, perhaps giving Sennett a motive for the killing). Normand and Sennett never married, and while their supposed romantic relationship was the subject of a 1974 Broadway musical, Mack and Mabel, biographer Simon Louvich suggests that Sennett was discreetly homosexual.
Born in Melbourne, Quebec, in 1880, he started in films in the Biograph company of New York, and later opened Keystone Studios in Edendale, California in 1912. It was the first fully enclosed film stage, and Sennett became famous as the originator of slapstick routines such as pie-throwing and car-chases, as seen in the Keystone Cops films. He also produced short features that displayed his Bathing Beauties, many of whom went on to develop successful acting careers.
Sennett's work in sound-movies was less successful and he was bankrupted in 1933. He was presented with an honorary Academy Award for his contribution to film comedy.
Born Michael Sinnott in Richmond Ste-Bibiane Parish, Quebec, he was the son of Irish Catholic John Sinnott and Catherine Foy. His parents married 1879 in Tingwick, Québec and moved the same year to Richmond, where John Sinnott was hired as a laborer. By 1883, when Michael's brother George was born, John Sinnott was working in Richmond as an innkeeper, a position he held for many years. His parents had all their children and raised their family in Richmond, then a small Eastern Townships village. At that time, Michael's grandparents were living in Danville, Québec. Michael Sinnott moved to Connecticut when he was 17 years old.
He lived for a while in Northampton, Massachusetts, where, according to his autobiography, Sennett first got the idea to become an opera singer after seeing a vaudeville show. He claimed that the most respected lawyer in town, Northampton mayor (and future President of the United States) Calvin Coolidge, as well as Sennett's mother, tried to talk him out of his musical ambitions.
In New York City, Sennett became an actor, singer, dancer, clown, set designer, and director for Biograph. A major distinction in his acting career, often overlooked, is that he played Sherlock Holmes 11 times, albeit as a parody, between 1911 and 1913.
With financial backing from Adam Kessel and Charles O. Bauman of the New York Motion Picture Company, Michael "Mack" Sennett founded Keystone Studios in Edendale, California in 1912 (which is now a part of Echo Park). The original main building which was the first totally enclosed film stage and studio ever constructed, is still there today. Many important actors cemented their film careers with Sennett, including Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand, Charles Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Roscoe Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Raymond Griffith, Gloria Swanson, Ford Sterling, Andy Clyde, Chester Conklin, Polly Moran, Louise Fazenda, The Keystone Cops, Bing Crosby, and W. C. Fields.
Sennett's slapstick comedies were noted for their wild car chases and custard pie warfare, especially in the Keystone Cops series. Sennett's first female comedian was Mabel Normand, who became a major star under his direction and with whom he embarked on a tumultuous romantic relationship. 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 which were called "flickers" at the time. In 1915, Keystone Studios became an autonomous production unit of the ambitious Triangle Film Corporation, as Sennett joined forces with D. W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, both powerful figures in the film industry.
Also beginning in 1915, Sennett assembled a bevy of women known as the Sennett Bathing Beauties to appear in provocative bathing costumes in comedy short subjects, in promotional material, and in promotional events such as Venice Beach beauty contests. The Sennett Bathing Beauties continued to appear through 1928.
In 1917, Sennett gave up the Keystone trademark and organized his own company, Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation. (Sennett's 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, featuring stars such as Louise Fazenda, 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 Bros. Studio. Warner Bros. merged with the original distributor, First National, and added music and commentary to several of these short subjects. Unfortunately, many of the films of this period were destroyed due to inadequate storage. As a result, many of Sennett's films from his most productive and creative period no longer exist.
In the mid-1920s, Sennett moved to Pathé Exchange 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, Hollywood's two most successful studios Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures, took note of the profits being made by smaller companies such as Pathé Exchange and Educational Pictures. MGM and Paramount resumed the production and distribution of short subjects. Hal Roach signed with MGM, but Mack Sennett remained with Pathé Exchange even during hard times, which were brought on by the competition. Hundreds of other independent exhibitors and movie houses of this period had switched from Pathe' to the new MGM or Paramount films and short subjects.
Sennett made a reasonably smooth transition to sound films, releasing them through Earle Hammons's Educational Pictures. Sennett occasionally experimented with color. Plus, he 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). Sennett also won an Academy Award in the novelty division for his film Wrestling Swordfish also in 1932. On March 25, 1932, he became a United States citizen.
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, which were more than likely 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. Fields himself recalled that he "made seven comedies for the Irishman", his original deal called for one film and an option for six more, but ultimately only four were made with Fields as star. Two other Sennett shorts were made with Fields scripts: The Singing Boxer (1933) with Donald Novis and Too Many Highballs (1933) with Lloyd Hamilton.
Sennett's studio did not survive the Great Depression. His partnership with Paramount lasted only one year and he was forced into bankruptcy in November 1933.
On January 12, 1934, Sennett was injured in an automobile accident that killed blackface performer Charles Mack in Mesa, Arizona.
His last work, in 1935, was as a producer-director for Educational Pictures, in which he directed Buster Keaton in The Timid Young Man and Joan Davis in Way Up Thar. (The 1935 Vitaphone short subject Keystone Hotel is not a Sennett production, although it featured several alumni from the Mack Sennett Studios. Actually, Sennett was not involved in the making of this film.)
Mack Sennett went into semiretirement 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: "for his lasting contribution to the comedy technique of the screen, the basic principles of which are as important today as when they were first put into practice, the Academy presents a Special Award to that master of fun, discoverer of stars, sympathetic, kindly, understanding comedy genius – Mack Sennett."
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 also appeared in the first full-length comedy compilation called Down Memory Lane (1949), which was written and narrated by Steve Allen. Sennett was profiled in the television series This is Your Life in 1954. and made a cameo appearance (for $1,000) in Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955). His last contribution worth noting was to the NBC radio program Biography in Sound relating memories of working with W.C. Fields, which was broadcast February 28, 1956.
Sennett died on November 5, 1960, in Woodland Hills, California, aged 80. He was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Sennett was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6712 Hollywood Boulevard. He was also inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame in 2014.
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