Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review: "King of Comedy" by Mack Sennett

Mack Sennett's autobiography (as told to Cameron Shipp and originally published in 1954) is a highly entertaining read, capturing the spirit of its author and subject with humor, energy and vitality. However, its accuracy with regards to facts has to be taken with an extremely large grain of salt. Sennett peppers his life story with tall-tales and exaggerations, which are in keeping with the larger-than-life qualities of the personalities and experiences of the early days of the comedy picture business that he portrays so vividly.

Sennett takes a predictably skeptical view of the perceptive critics who saw his frantic comedies as a new art form and offered analyses of his filmic style, though Sennett is sure to acknowledge that his freewheeling and zany pictures were the result of much hard work and planning, and that comedy was a very serious business indeed to the men and women involved in their creation.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are the early chapters dealing with Sennett's entry into show business, through a letter of introduction from Calvin Coolidge, of all people, to stage star Marie Dressler, who in turn recommended Sennett to producer David Belasco in New York. Sennett's account of the New York show business world at the turn of the century is vivid and colorful, especially in discussing the many personalities who were just beginning to flourish at that time. The account of his arrival at Biograph and subsequent tutelage under D.W. Griffith is particularly interesting in describing the relatively casual and carefree way in which these films were made, and the sense of discovery and potential that they saw in the medium. Of all the future collaborators Sennett met in his days at Biograph's studio on east 14th Street, perhaps the most significant for him, both personally and professionally, was Mabel Normand.

He devotes a great deal of the book to Normand, whom he clearly had a great deal of affection and fondness for years after her passing, and even given the tensions that arose between them following their broken engagement in 1915 (though Sennett is rather coy and inconsistent about the details in his account here). What is clear is that he thought the world of Normand and, as he states at the end of the book, one of his goals in writing it was for readers to be able to get to know her. Sennett has kind words, too, about other fellow clowns and collaborators, especially Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon, and Hank Mann, delights in telling how he discovered Charlie Chaplin, and laments having lost Harold Lloyd before realizing his full potential.

The chapters on the William Desmond Taylor murder are interesting for Sennett's perspective on Normand's involvement in the case, though they perhaps attempt to move through the details in too small an amount of space, leaving the reader wanting more information about the mysterious scandal that rocked the Hollywood film industry. After brief discussions of his discovery of both Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields for the movies, Sennett tells of the terrible loss of his personal fortune in 1935 following the financial collapse of Paramount (through whom he was distributing his films at that point), but concludes the book on a happy note, mentioning the honorary Oscar he was presented with by his old gagman Frank Capra, and his surprise appearance on Ralph Edwards' "This is Your Life", where he was reunited with a number of familiar faces from his past.

Like many show business autobiographies, "King of Comedy" is more successful at evoking a time and place than it is with a meticulous record of the facts. Taken in that way, the book is an enjoyable personal account of Sennett's life in pictures that captures the spirit of the man and his own legend, and provides a window into the creation of an exciting art form.

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