Mastering a new Craft: Keystone


Film still for Mastering a new Craft: Keystone

The chief of the Keystone Studios, Mack Sennett (1880-1960) was an Irish-Canadian who had abandoned stage ambitions for the then disreputable medium of film. He learned his craft at the Biograph Studios, alongside D.W.Griffith, the giant of early American cinema, and in 1910 was appointed Biograph's principal director of comedy production. In 1913 he was engaged by the New York Motion Picture Company to establish and direct their new West Coast comedy studio, Keystone.

Sennett's role and genius as an impresario of comedy was very like that of Fred Karno. The difference was that while Karno spent as much time as was necessary to polish and perfect a sketch, Sennett turned out eight films a month on factory production lines. There was no scenario: "we get an idea then follow the natural sequence of events until it leads up to a chase which is the essence of our comedy".

When Chaplin arrived at the 150-feet square Keystone lot at Edendale in January 1914, he began to think he had made a mistake. He hated his first film, Making a Living, in which he played a shabby and felonious dandy who attempts to grab a newspaper scoop. He resented the director Henry Lehrman who allowed no screen time, either in shooting or cutting, to develop gags and situations, as Chaplin was accustomed to do.

The almost mythical turning point came when, on a rainy afternoon in January 1914, he devised the costume, make-up and first elements of the character that was to become world-famous. The Little Tramp's first film was Mabel's Strange Predicament, though the public first saw him in the earlier-released Kid Auto Races, a half-reel film, shot off-the-cuff in an afternoon at a local sporting event.

Chaplin became more and more exasperated by the Keystone directors - even the studio's beautiful and witty leading lady Mabel Normand - who lacked the sophisticated experience of comedy he had learned with Karno. After three months he persuaded Sennett to let him direct a film, Twenty Minutes of Love. After June 1914 and Mabel's Married Life, he was only once again directed by someone else: this was Mack Sennett, who directed Chaplin, Mabel Normand and the famous stage comedienne Marie Dressler in Hollywood's first feature-length slapstick comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance.

The Keystone films were Chaplin's film school: in each we see him experimenting with some aspect of film technique - sometimes fast cutting, sometimes leisurely extended takes, sometimes in the way that the shots relate to each other. The New Janitor marks a leap in narrative structure and the first emergence of sentiment alongside his comedy. With Dough and Dynamite he shocked Sennett by making a film in two reels instead of the customary one.

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