One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that some big New York magazines had noticed Mack Sennett’s work. George Jean Nathan in his theater review column for The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness praised him, and Kingsley was so surprised that she quoted him at length:
This Sennett is probably the most fecund inventor and merchant of the slapstick masque the civilized world has yet seen. A spectator of but a very few of his opera, I am yet fascinated and not inconsiderably bewildered by the resourceful imagination of the fellow. An erstwhile chorus man in the Casino music shows, Sennett has done the work he set out to do with a skill so complete, with a fertility so copious, that he has graduated himself as the foremost bachelor of custard-pie arts, the foremost professor of the bladder. He is, in short, the very best entrepreneur of low comedy the amusement world has seen. He has made probably twice as many millions laugh as have all of Shakespeare’s clowns and all the music show comedians on earth rolled together.
Nathan actually seems to be sincere in his admiration, beneath the thick layer of pretension (or as Kingsley politely put it: “Of course, Mr. Nathan’s viewpoint is from a very very lofty height, which naturally makes his language sound a bit condescending”). An intellectual such as himself couldn’t have possibly witnessed more than “a very few” Keystone films, nevertheless he could recommend them over “the labored unfunniness of the posturing mimic artists of Broadway.” The whole article is available on Google Books.*
Kingsley also mentioned that the Saturday Evening Post published an article Sennett wrote, “Movie Star Stories,” in which he described the differences between theatrical and film acting and told stories about some of the people who had worked for him, included Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand. Marilyn Slater has posted a copy on her site, Looking for Mabel.
So in 1916, general interest magazines were already starting to take movies – and comedies at that – seriously. They were well on their way to respectability.
In other Keystone news, the place was turning highbrow, but not because of the media attention.
No longer do Keystoners loiter about the big open-air stage, telling Keystone-y stories, playing pinochle, or otherwise amusing themselves in the common, vulgar way. Nowadays the erstwhile footlight comedians, chorus ladies, prize fighters, acrobats and cowboys gather about the phonograph, and nothing short of a Wagnarian trilogy of a Liszt rhapsody will satisfy the artistic temperament of these new disciples of the elevated brow. Louise Fazenda started the movement and everybody chipped in last week and bought a Victrola.
Technology has been ruining society for an awfully long time.
Two comedies made Kingsley laugh this week. Anita Loos’ work was back again, this time with a “whimsically clever” screenplay for The Social Secretary. Norma Talmadge gave a “clear-cut, sparkling interpretation “ to the role of a beautiful woman masquerading as a prim, dowdy social secretary to avoid workplace sexual harassment. Kingsley said “it is refreshing to see Miss Talmadge in a comedy role, after the long series of gloomy, heart-broken females she has played.” Despite her good notices, Talmadge went back to her dramatic roles and only rarely made comedies. The Social Secretary is not a lost film; it’s even available on DVD.
She had fun at Mr. 44 as well, in which a poor factory girl (May Allison) marries a rich man (Harold Lockwood). She wrote “Miss Allison and Mr. Lockwood are always easy to look at, and their fine sense of comedy values places them right among the blue ribboners in brightly humorous plays.” The two were very popular stars at the time, co-starring in over 20 films between 1915 and 1917. Lockwood died of influenza in 1918. Allison kept working until 1927, retiring after she married James Quirk, the editor of Photoplay magazine. Mr. 44 is a lost film.
Kingsley also admired the work of the person who had the most successful career of everyone involved with the film: “Photographer Gaudio shows himself master of his craft in making the pictures of those wonderful Lake Tahoe locations.” Tony Gaudio already had many years of experience; he had been shooting short films since 1903. In the 1920’s he became the Talmadge sisters’ regular DP, and when their studio was bought by Warner Bros. he went along. He shot some of that studio’s most prestigious films, including Little Caesar (1931), Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Letter (1941).
*Buster Keaton fans might want to see Nathan’s article because he reviews the play Seven Chances was based on, calling it “a poor thing at best.”
One other aside: earlier in the article he opined that Sydney Chaplin was a better comic than his half-brother and his film The Plumber was better than all films, including Birth of a Nation. One problem with his argument is that The Plumber was a Charlie Chaplin film – that was an alternate title for Work (1915). So Nathan wasn’t infallible.