While there are conflicting versions respecting how the Keystone Film Company got started, it exceeds our purpose to adjudicate between them here. Suffice to say that starting near the end of 1911, and probably before going West for January-June shooting with Biograph, Sennett made arrangements which were finalized in April 19l2 to form it in cooperation with Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann of the already well established New York Motion Picture Company – and who, in effect, became his bosses. It was then sometime in late June or late July12 that Keystone was formally outfitted and brought together, with filming starting that summer in New York. Then in August, Keystone’s troupe, at that time consisting of Sennett, Henry Lehrman, Ford Sterling, and Mabel, went to Los Angeles and took charge of the old Bison film facility there.13 Others of Griffith’s actors, including Fred Mace and Dell Henderson also and subsequently moved over from Biograph to be employed at Keystone.
Somewhere beforehand, Sennett had managed to convince Mabel to relinquish her reliable and steady job at Biograph to come work for his nascent company. He later ascribed this impracticality and seeming rashness on her part to naiveté. Yet a desire for more freedom and autonomy, not to mention an already comfortable working relationship with him, was presumably a factor as well.
Griffith himself, while far from being elated over Sennett’s prospective idea of comedy for the masses (and, as well, probably not too pleased at seeing so many players leaving Biograph more or less all at once) was, nonetheless, ostensibly amicable and gentlemanly about their departure; no doubt recognizing that Sennett and company were an ambitious force in motion that simply could not be held back. And although usually glossed over by film historians, Griffith commendable forbearance and Sennett’s enterprising attitude should perhaps be seen as one of Hollywood’s finer moments; for how awkward or souring might things have turned out had Griffith forced Sennett and the rest to leave under the cloud of his disapproval. Sennett owed Griffith a great deal, but we never hear of the latter ever taking credit or making mention of the fact.
For Sennett, the Keystone films were first and foremost moneymakers. Unlike Griffith who had hailed from the legitimate theater, he had practically no interest in creating a meaningful artistic vision. In fact, most all of the innovative ideas attributed to him, such as the gag surrounding a group of bumbling cops, could be seen in comedies of European film-makers prior to Keystone’s inception. The extraordinarily influential Bathing Beauties were unique to Keystone. But even that idea, at least according to Fred Balshofer, came from Henry Lehrman, not Sennett.14 And, as noted earlier, most of what Sennett knew about film making itself came from working with Griffith; which shows in his films. Sennett’s prowess and somewhat serendipitous achievement rather lay in his collecting together these ideas and methods from others, and putting them together in one package. He was keen to innovation, if not so innovative himself, and perhaps more importantly, usually had a knack for spotting comic talent -- if not for keeping and developing it. For it was his players and gag creators, not so much his directors or cameramen, who made his films the more popular and better remembered comedies of that very early era. His biggest mistake ultimately was too often taking these talents for granted, and (so it is averred by contemporaries) unnecessarily hampering their individual creativity -- this, ostensibly, in the interest of company centralization and uniformity.15
Under each title–heading of a factory short it explicitly read “farce-comedy,” and the Keystone comedies, it should be noted, are not technically comedies, but farces, where ludicrous replaces realistic, and preposterousness and exaggeration overshadow wry wit and subtlety. 4 to 6 or possibly more short films are what usually made up a theater program at this early time. However, when features started arriving, short films then became more like appetizers (or occasionally desserts) to the main course, and thus took on a subordinate status with the big stars gradually desiring to move over to features.
The camera work sets, and production values of the Keystone shorts are sometimes extraordinary for their crudeness and simplicity even for their time; especially when one considers what had been accomplished elsewhere in these areas by then. A good illustration of the latter is the comedies put out by the Lumière company in France, particularly those of Max Linder; which conspicuously influenced Sennett. Notwithstanding, Keystone’s comedians were frequently able to rise above the restrictions of the material and props they had to work with (not to mention Sennett himself), and bring about exciting and mirth filled, if not so much laugh provoking, films. There is typically a certain merriment and natural jollity to them, and it is these qualities overall, rather than the humor outright, which better earns for them their lasting merit.
Not counting Mickey, it was in the better of the Biograph and Keystone shorts that Mabel’s screen personality was most winsome and effulgent. That she was unencumbered by those personal misfortunes and health problems which would subsequently debilitate and ultimately destroy her was obviously one factor contributing to this. Yet, in addition, it was an especially ambitious and pioneering time. And with almost each new movie being filmed, some little history was being made; nor were the early filmmakers ignorant of or oblivious to this.
Among Mabel’s very first starring Keystone vehicles, and one of the few earliest Keystones to survive, is a split-reeler entitled The Water Nymph, shot in Venice, California. It is a re-doing of the successful Diving Girl that she made at Biograph under Sennett’s direction. Adorned in black tights, she is the premier Sennett bathing-beauty, “the beautiful diving Venus” (states a trade ad);16 a sort of kittenish version of the then buxom screen idol Annette Kellerman. Stunning some spectators as she takes dives off the boardwalk, Ford Sterling, as Sennett’s father is seen fatuously trying to flirt with her, much to Mack and Mabel’s bemusement. The film isn’t terribly much, but it and others of that time, inspired by and hearkening to the Lumière comedies, did set a standard of light, comic sensuality that introduced to the public that grouping of would-be sweethearts and antagonists which were to become a key ingredient to many a Keystone scenario.
From diving girl, Mabel went on to play damsels, sweethearts, tomboys, school teachers and debutantes. Yet not unlike the way Chaplin invented his tramp character, Keaton his “Stone Face,” and Lloyd his bespectacled “Harold,” she concocted and devised her own special persona “Mabel.” Now in order to avoid any misunderstanding, let’s here note that “Mabel” with quotation marks refers to Mabel the comic creation, not necessarily Mabel Normand the person; though it’s easy to see how the two might be confused for not infrequently they overlap.
“Mabel” was an irrepressible mad-cap who, in various films, rode fast horses bare-back, went up in hot-air balloons, was tied to train tracks, engaged in brick throwing fights with villains, got dragged by a rope out of a drained and muddy lake, and rescues her would be rescuers. While these kinds of action thrills were to be found in serials such as Ruth Roland’s, it was a bit different to be combining these with overt comedy. Initially, Mabel hesitated little in putting her own safety on the line for purposes of providing others a thrill or laugh. And, for a while at least, a good gag or thrill was worth the risk. But injuries from these stunts later on understandably jaded and quelled such enthusiasm.
Screen history’s first thrown pie-in-the-face is accredited by Sennett and other Keystone members, to Mabel, but, not surprisingly, the gag appears at least as early as the 1905 Ben Turpin film Mr. Flip (it is Turpin as a flirt who gets the pie in the face); so that the story of Mabel out of hand inventing it simply isn’t true. Minta Durfee, one of the Keystone actresses later recalled an incident in which Mabel “tossed” a blueberry pie at a prop man who had made a pass, and possibly it was on the basis of this incident that later attributions were originally made.17
The earliest film in which pie throwing appears in a surviving film of Mabel’s is The Ragtime Band where two pies are thrown. Rather pointedly, one of those to “get it” is Mabel herself. This is very like her in that in this and other comic situations, she’s just as capable of taking it as of dishing it out. Other 1913 comedies with her also of special note generally are The Bangville Police, The Ragtime Band, A Muddy Romance, Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, A Strong Revenge, The Speed Kings, Mabel’s New Hero and Zuzu, the Band Leader.
Somewhat surprisingly to Sennett and company, who understandably were not so very sure and confident of their initial efforts, the Keystone films were quite popular and sold well; so much so that soon some of Sennett’s players began insisting on augmented salaries. Not able to come to terms of his liking, veteran Fred Mace left the company in April 1913. Shortly afterward, Ford Sterling, Keystone’s then top male comic, was threatening to walk out to try and make it on his own; which he afterwards did. Both Mace and Sterling would afterward have grounds to regret their decisions; for both of their solo efforts ended in failure. Not only was this unfortunate for them, but it was also bad for Sennett since it encouraged in him the misguided notion that his stars could not make it successfully without him -- an attitude that, by constraining the company’s creativity, only inhibited Keystone‘s greater success.
It was amid this atmosphere of transition and employee dissatisfaction in late 1913 that it became necessary for Sennett to find and hire a replacement to make up for his impending loss of Mace and Sterling.
Charlie and Mabel
In September 1913, a new player was signed onto Keystone in the person of English music hall comedian Charles Chaplin. Whether it was Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann, or Keystone stock holder Harry Aitken, or Mack and Mabel or just Mabel alone who discovered him for films, it’s not so easy to say since sources again conflict.18 In his pictorial autobiography My Life in Pictures, Chaplin states that Sennett came backstage after a performance of the Karno Company at the Empress theater in Los Angeles and casually offered him a job with Keystone. Whatever of the particulars of his being spotted, Keystone came to a major turning point with his arrival in January 1914. Because the stage comic had no previous experience with movies, Sennett didn’t let him perform before the camera until February; which is to say until after he thought Chaplin had enough time to get acquainted with Keystone‘s production methods. Then at last he was starred in Making a Living, under the supervision of Henry Lehrman, one of Sennett‘s more able and innovative, if less than loyal and devoted, directors.
After seeing the results of Chaplin‘s first endeavor, or so the story goes, Sennett was not pleased. Perhaps beginning to sense Chaplin‘s highly independent nature, he felt as if he’d made a big mistake and was all but ready to get rid of him. Mabel saw things differently, however, arguing in Chaplin‘s behalf that he should be kept on; to which Sennett reluctantly agreed.
Yet problems continued to arise. With each passing day, things seemed to only get worse between Sennett and his would-be star hopeful. Being new to films, and a social outsider to his Keystone peers. Chaplin‘s authoritative and (for them) alien manners made it difficult to accept him as just one of the boys. Further, some were perhaps jealous of his talent and uncomfortable with the competition he posed. Though Chaplin does specifically mention kindnesses from Ford Sterling, of all the people at the studio, Mabel was the only one then who would befriend, and joke around with him off the set. Nor was Chaplin the only one at Keystone to benefit from her moral and material support in the face of Sennett’s discouragement or intimidation; and Roscoe Arbuckle, about a year previous to this, had benefited similarly.
It is regrettable, yet perhaps understandable, that the more experienced filmmakers and actors on the lot were reluctant to listen to suggestions from such an obvious novice to the medium. This was, of course, very frustrating to Charlie because even then he had some good, even brilliant, ideas. Yet his unique personal vision and individualistic approach could not help but conflict with Sennett‘s dictatorial methods and ensemble style.
Each director assigned to Chaplin wound up having some problem with him or else he with them. Fed up, Sennett decided to have Mabel direct his next film, Mabel at the Wheel. At this, Chaplin felt much insulted. For as much as he, like all the rest, felt favorably toward her, he could not, or so he later claimed, countenance this girl, years younger than himself, directing him in his films, and sure enough disagreements subsequently ensued during filming and tempers flared on the set. Yet rather then Mabel herself, Chaplin no doubt resented what he thought was Sennett’s humiliating him this way. After the first day’s shooting of Mabel at the Wheel, he and Sennett met up in his dressing room. According to Chaplin‘s version, Sennett told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was to do as he was told or leave. The undaunted star replied that he had earned his living before and could do so again if he had to; that all he wanted to do was to make films to a higher standard. Sennett, in response, said nothing, and upon leaving the room slammed the door behind him.19
Not long after, word came to Sennett from his employers back East of the growing demand for Chaplin‘s films. As a result, Sennett forthwith abandoned his antipathy toward him, even to the point of becoming friendly. Soon Chaplin was being allowed to direct himself, try out some his new ideas, and more freely devote himself to what professionally he most came to care about. Although he was not then aware of the reason for Sennett’s about face, the two, at any rate, mended their differences, and work at the studio proceeded at a much smoother pace than before.
In the months following these occurrences, Chaplin and Mabel were once more reconciled and together they co-starred and directed each other in a series of one and two reelers. To be candid, some of these comedies are rather poor, Keystone assembly-line product. On the other hand, a few, and allowing for the usual shortcomings of a Keystone production, are among the best things that Charlie and Mabel ever did. Of the at least ten shorts the two made together, Caught in a Cabaret, A Gentleman of Nerve, Mabel’s Married Life and His Trysting Place are the most memorable. Reportedly conceived and directed by Mabel herself, Mabel’s Busy Day, though not as satisfying as these others, is interesting for other reasons. Behind the silly vignette about a little hot-dog vendor who is constantly stolen from and taken advantage by fans at a sporting event is perhaps a portrayal (intended or not) of something going on in Mabel’s real life. Be that as it may, Mabel’s Busy Day was uncannily prophetic of things to come.
Charlie and Mabel make a funny and elf-like pair, when playing struggling spouses, masher and maid, or suitor and coquette. Though the comedies frequently found them in many a wild slapstick situation, there are occasions where the two are actually quite tender and sweet together. This is especially true when seated side by side, as called for by the story; since it was these instances which gave them the best opportunity of making use of more sensitive facial expressions; with Caught in a Cabaret and A Gentleman of Nerve being good illustrations of this. In the latter, the two sit together in the stands of an auto-racing track. Having defended her from an obnoxious cad in the grandstand, Charlie tries then to steal a kiss after re-seating themselves. She shakes her head, as if to say it wouldn’t be right. He then glumly takes her hand and wistfully kisses it instead. Mabel, gazing sympathetically at him, then starts playfully tweaking his nose with the hand he’s kissing.
How much Chaplin actually cared for her at the time is related by way of a little anecdote included in his autobiography. During a charity benefit being held at a San Francisco theater, the two were alone in a dressing room. Finding her “radiantly beautiful,” he placed her wrap over her shoulders and kissed her; she then kissed him back. “We might have gone further,” he writes, “but people were waiting.” When he attempted to pursue the matter later, she told him she wasn’t his type, nor he hers, thus ending what might have proved a very provocative romance. Despite the rejection, he in later years retained his fondness saying: “She was light hearted and gay, a good fellow, kind and generous; and everyone adored her.”
December 1914 saw the release of Tillie’s Punctured Romance. While the film is overly long, certain of its episodes, such as the scene with Charlie and Mabel in the movie house, the party scene, and the no-holds-barred finale, contribute to making this film classic viewing. This is true aside from its star studded cast and distinction of being the first feature length comedy ever produced. While Marie Dressler, in this her very first screen appearance, was cast in the title role, it was Chaplin and Mabel, as the city slicker and his girlfriend, who probably give the film its most personable appeal -- though Marie, as a butt of most of the humor, is obviously a likable, good sport as well. The film’s phenomenal box-office impacted Chaplin‘s career most, however; and not counting the short Dough and Dynamite, it was Tillie that first procured for him the wide spread acclaim he deserved.
Following Tillie, Chaplin began demanding raises in pay and greater independent control over his work. Finding his terms outrageous (as was to be expected), the reaction of Sennett, Kessel and Baumann was to let him walk. Only later when Broncho Billy Anderson’s Essanay signed Chaplin at a record amount did the latter realize the enormity of their mistake. Everyone on the lot then became sad at losing him recalled Keystone comedienne Minta Durfee many years later, but Mabel most of all.20