The Original King of Comedy

Book Review: MACK SENNETT’S FUN FACTORY by Brent E. Walker

The first book I ever read about movie history was Mack Sennett’s autobiography, King of Comedy. I had been exposed to silent comedy shorts on TV and then in Robert Youngson’s ground-breaking documentary The Golden Age of Comedy. I was hooked, and simply had to know more about these fascinating slapstick films and the people who made them. So I went to my local library in Teaneck, New Jersey and borrowed Sennett’s book—one of the few then available about that era—and read it over and over again.

Sennett’s book was just as colorful as I’d hoped it would be. He told the story of how he drifted into the movie business in New York, attached himself to the great D.W. Griffith, got his first break, met and fell in love with beautiful Mabel Normand, convinced two bookies to finance his Keystone studio, discovered Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry Langdon, and—

—other comedy stars, and ran his famous “fun factory.” It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered much of this was fanciful fiction—but it did capture the rough-and-tumble spirit of the early days, and Sennett’s undying love for Mabel. A few people have made serious efforts to document this pioneer’s career since then, but no one has put in more effort—with greater results—than Brent Walker.

His mammoth volume has been twenty years in the making, and it shows. His research has involved screenings, interviews, searching for primary materials around the world, and endless hours of pouring over the Sennett archives at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Yet this is no dry academic treatise: it is thorough, and offers more detail than a casual reader might care to know, but for someone who cares about Sennett and his work, it’s manna from heaven. Walker chronicles the ups and downs of Sennett’s career, through nine chapters of text. He debunks some of the Sennett myths and fills in interesting details, including the comings and goings of various comics, gagmen, and directors, from the producer’s beginnings with D.W. Griffith through his retirement in the 1930s.

And that’s just the beginning. Following the text, there is an exhaustive filmography—the most complete published to date, with extensive annotations and acknowledgments of previously published errors—as well as biographies of Keystone and Mack Sennett personnel on both sides of the camera, from future stars like Carole Lombard and Bing Crosby and luminaries like Frank Capra to such comedy stalwarts as Bert Roach, Heinie Conklin, and Louise Fazenda. (It never fails to amaze me just how many journeymen actors, writers, directors, and cameramen put in time at the fun factory, from B-movie directors like William Beaudine to cameraman-turned-visual effects-master Vernon L. Walker. Warner Bros.’ three hardest-working directors in the 1930s—Lloyd Bacon, Roy Del Ruth, and Ray Enright—all mastered their craft with Sennett. Without the Sennett bullpen there wouldn’t have been a Columbia Pictures comedy unit in the 1930s and 40s—and thus, no Three Stooges two-reelers.)

The text is profusely illustrated with photos, many of them never published before. The oversized, 663-page volume is thoroughly indexed, making this a book that fans, students and historians will turn to for many years to come. At $125.00, it isn’t inexpensive, but I can promise film buffs and comedy aficionados that it’s worth every penny.(

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May 2024