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Mack Sennett: “The King of Comedy”

For the Week of Monday, December 11, 2017

On December 16, 1913, the Keystone Film Company, headed by Canadian-born filmmaker Mack Sennett, later known as the “King of Comedy,” hired Charlie Chaplin, launching the career of one of the period’s most famous actors.

Mack Sennett was born Michael Sinnott in Danville, Quebec, to Irish-Canadian farmers in 1880. As a young man, Sennett settled in New York City, where he pursued a career in opera, performed in burlesque shows, and sang chorus on Broadway. He transitioned into silent films in 1908, when he joined the Biograph Company. He acted in supporting roles alongside fellow Canadian, Mary Pickford, in films by the famed director D.W. Griffith. Before long, Sennett was also writing scripts for Griffith.

Film directors Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett, circa 1915
© Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives

Already an experienced director specializing in comedy, Sennett co-founded the Keystone Film Company with Charles O. Bauman and Adam Kessel in 1912 and moved to Hollywood. Under his leadership, Keystone produced enormously popular slapstick comedies, filled with wild car chases and pie fights. These films made use of the latest technical and mechanical innovations, including high-speed and slow-motion photography. However, Sennett was perhaps best known for recognizing talent in actors that became some of comedy’s greatest stars and for developing popular characters, such as the provocative Bathing Beauties and incompetent Keystone Cops. Keystone became Mack Sennett Comedies in 1917 and, by the 1920s, Sennett’s films reached the peak of their popularity.

In the 1930s, sound-on-film technology allowed audiences to hear actors speak for the first time, drawing business away from silent-era giants, such as Sennett. Further strained by financial difficulties during the Great Depression, he filed for bankruptcy and entered into a brief retirement from 1935 to 1939. Though he re-entered the film industry, Sennett never regained his earlier success.

Sennett received a special Academy Award in 1937 as “the master of fun,” “discoverer of stars,” and “for his lasting contribution to the comedy technique of the screen.” He was also posthumously honoured for his pioneering contributions to early film history with stars on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood and in Toronto. During his career, he helped create more than 1,000 films, yet only half have survived. Some of these films have been restored and are accessible online.

Cinema inspired the construction of impressive theatres, such as the Outremont Theatre and Rialto Theatre, both designated national historic sites. To learn more, read America’s Canadian Sweetheart and the The Golden Age of Theatre in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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