A Film Visionary
Sennett & Silent Films: The Film Visionary Shaped the Future of Entertainment
“We never make sport of religion, politics, race, or mothers. A mother never gets hit with a custard pie. Mothers-in-law, yes. But mothers – never.”
By Vanessa McGhee
Reaching the end of the 2 Freeway South each night, thousands of evening commuters pass a sprawl of concrete buildings on their left at 1712 Glendale Boulevard. Though large and emblazoned with an eye-catching orange and purple “Public Storage” sign, few probably give it a second glance.
Little do they know, however, they are driving by an integral piece of Hollywood history: the former studio lot of legendary silent film director/actor/producer Mack Sennett.
Born Michael Sinnott in Quebec, Canada, on January 17, 1880, Mack Sennett’s initial film experience came in 1906 when he moved to New York City to try his hand at acting.
While there, he worked at Biograph Pictures with David Griffith (who would later become better known as D.W. Griffith), and rose through the ranks until he began directing films himself in 1911.
A year later, he partnered up with producers Charles Baumann and Adam Kessel of the New York Motion Picture Company, and moved to Los Angeles to direct pictures on their studio lot in Edendale. Soon after, the company was renamed Keystone Pictures.
Sennett became a legend. He brought to prominence the slapstick style of silent comedies that has become so associated with the nascent era of filmmaking (supposedly, the first ever “pie-in-the-face” scene was recorded at Keystone Studios). He also possessed an uncanny ability to spot talent. Sennett was responsible for launching the careers of Charlie Chaplin, “Fatty” Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson, Bing Crosby and Mabel Normand.
He was mind-bogglingly prolific: between 1912 and 1932 he was involved in the making of roughly 1,100 films, including those featuring the famous Keystone Kops. Keystone evolved, renamed as Triangle Pictures, which became Mack Sennett Comedies. In the 1920s, Sennett was estimated to be worth a cool $15 million, and he made plans to design a large villa in the “Hollywoodland” development east of the Cahuenga Pass, right where the 50-foot tall letters advertising the plot – now minus the last four letters – still stand.
But the steady financial drain of his creative pursuits, along with the cataclysmic stock market crash of 1933, left him penniless in the end. His career, while astounding, was over after only 20 years. Sennett was given an honorary Academy Award in 1937, presented by W.C. Fields “for his lasting contribution to the comedy of the screen…a special award to that master of fun, discoverer of stars…sympathetic, kindly, understanding genius: Mack Sennett.”
He died on November 5, 1960.
This story is one of a series on Edendale as we approach the 100th anniversary of the first film studio in 2009.