28 March 2021

Before Hollywood: Keystone

In the final post of our Before Hollywood series, we present the funniest of the American pioneering studios, Mack Sennett's The Keystone Film Company. In 1912, Sennett and two producers formed the company. Sennett brought Mabel Normand with him and soon hired Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee, and Charles Chaplin. To the slapstick chase gags of the Keystone Cops, the Bathing Beauties and the Kid Comedies were gradually added. Sennett, D.W. Griffith, and Thomas H. Ince formed Triangle Films in 1915. Actors like Bobby Vernon and Gloria Swanson joined them. In 1917, Triangle went bankrupt and Sennett formed Mack Sennett Comedies. Keystone finally ended in 1937.

Mabel Normand in The Sea Nymphs (1914)
British postcard in the series "Keystone cards presented with Home Weekly". Photo: Keystone Film. Mabel Normand in The Sea Nymphs (Mack Sennett, 1914). Caption: Mabel as a sea nymph.

Mabel Normand (1892-1930) was a popular American silent film comedienne. In 1912, director Mack Sennett discovered her and took her to his new studio, Keystone in California. At the start, Normand was primarily portrayed in films as a beautiful woman, but soon her talent for comedy was spotted. She became a highly popular comedienne in shorts with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. In 1916, Normand opened with Sennett her own company at Culver City, as a subsidiary of Triangle. When Triangle collapsed in 1918 it also took down Mabel's company and also caused Sennett to lose Keystone. In 1918 also the affair of Normand with Sennett ended.

Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in Fatty's Wine Party (1914)
British postcard in the series "Keystone cards presented with Home Weekly". Photo: Keystone Film. Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in Fatty's Wine Party (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1914). Caption: A Ticklish Moment.

American silent film actor, comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (1887-1933) was one of the most popular silent stars of the 1910s. In 1913, Arbuckle went to work in producer-director Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops comedies. His character Fatty – he weighed 135 kilograms at the height of his career - usually wore bowler-hat and pants whose legs were too short. For the next 3-1/2 years, he appeared in hundreds of one-reel comedies, mostly as policemen, but he also played different parts. He would work with Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, and others, and would learn about the process of making films from Henry Lehrman, who directed all but two of his pictures. Despite his massive physical size, Arbuckle was remarkably agile and acrobatic. His comedies are noted as rollicking and fast-paced, have many chase scenes, and feature sight gags. Arbuckle was fond of the ‘pie in the face’, a comedy cliché that has come to symbolize silent-film-era comedy itself. The earliest known custard pie thrown in a film was in the Keystone one-reeler A Noise from the Deep (Mack Sennett, 1913). The pie was thrown by Mabel Normand and Arbuckle was the recipient.

Chester Conklin and Minta Durfee in A Bird's A Bird (1915)
British postcard in the series "Keystone cards presented with Home Weekly". Photo: Keystone Film. Chester Conklin and Minta Durfee in A Bird's A Bird (Walter Wright, 1915).

American comedian Chester Conklin (1886-1971) developed for vaudeville his comedy character with a thick accent and a very bushy walrus-type mustache, which was patterned after his former boss, a German baker named Schultz. After seeing several of Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops shorts, Conklin applied for a job and stayed with Sennett for six years. Conklin became famous for his pairing with burly comic Mack Swain in a series of Ambrose and Walrus shorts. He also appeared in several of Charles Chaplin's shorts for the studio.

American comedienne Minta Durfee (1889-1975) began her career on stage in 1908 as a chorus girl in musical revues. She married comedian Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle. In 1914, they entered Keystone and were soon a comedy double. Minta became Chaplin's leading lady in the two-reeler Making a Living (1914). In addition to the series of 'Fatty' featurettes, Minta also worked at Keystone in the classic madcap farce Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) and co-starred opposite Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, and Ford Sterling in a series of outrageous daredevil comedies until 1916.

Fatty Arbuckle in Fatty's Chance Acquaintance (1915)
British postcard in the series "Keystone cards presented with Home Weekly". Photo: Keystone Film. Fatty Arbuckle and Billie Bennett in Fatty's Chance Acquaintance (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1915).

The first totally enclosed film stage and studio in history

'The Keystone Pictures Studio' was founded by director Mack Sennett (1880-1960) under that name on 4 July 1912 in Edendale, California, which is now a part of Echo Park. Mack Sennett's backers were actor-writer Adam Kessel (1866–1946) and Charles O. Baumann (1874–1931), who were the owners of the New York Motion Picture Company, founded 1909.

The name Keystone was taken from the side of one of the cars of a passing Pennsylvania Railroad train (Keystone State being the nickname of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) during the initial meeting of Sennett, Kessel, and Baumann in New York.

The company referred to at its office as The Keystone Film Company, filmed in and around Glendale and Silver Lake, Los Angeles for several years, and its films were distributed by the Mutual Film Corporation between 1912 and 1915.

In 1912, Sennett created the slapstick antics of the Keystone Cops, and in 1915, he started the Sennett Bathing Beauties. Charlie Chaplin got his start at Keystone when Sennett hired him fresh from his Vaudeville career to make silent films. Sennett directed Chaplin in 35 comedies during 1914. He told Chaplin, "We have 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." 

Many other important actors also worked at Keystone toward the beginning of their film careers, including Marie Dressler, Harold Lloyd, Mabel Normand, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson, Louise Fazenda, Raymond Griffith, Ford Sterling, Minta Durfee, Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon, Al St. John, and Chester Conklin.

In 1915, Keystone Studios became an autonomous production unit of the Triangle Film Corporation with D. W. Griffith and Thomas Ince. Comedy moved from improvisational slapstick to scripted situations. In 1917, Sennett, by then a celebrity, departed the studio in 1917 to produce his own independent films, which were eventually distributed through Paramount and later through Pathé.

Keystone's business decreased after Mack Sennett's departure, and the company finally closed after bankruptcy in 1935. The original main building of the studio, the first totally enclosed film stage, and studio in history, is still standing. It is located at 1712 Glendale Blvd in Echo Park, Los Angeles, and is now being used as a storage facility.

Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916)
Chinese postcard, no. 4. Photo: Hartsook Photo, S.F. - L.A. / Keystone Film. Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in Fatty and Mabel Adrift (Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, 1916).

Mabel Normand
Mabel Normand. Swedish postcard by Förlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 867. Photo: Apeda N.Y. / Triangle-Keystone Films.

Mabel Normand
Mabel Normand. British postcard in the Novelty Series, no. D6-14. Photo: Keystone Films.

Louise Fazenda
British postcard by Photochrom Co. Ltd., London no. 111. Photo: Triangle / Keystone. Collection: Marlene Pilaete.

Louise Fazenda (1895-1962) was a gawky, highly popular funny girl in slapstick comedies for Keystone Studios. She paired up well with comedian Charlie Murray. Her best-known character was her country bumpkin - complete with spit curls, multiple pigtails, and calico dresses. In the early 1920s, Louise left Sennett's company and progressed to feature films, where her eccentric talents were greatly utilised in musicals and knockabout comedies.

Who's that lady? Part 16
Vintage postcard by Estalante, no. 280. Photo: Mack Sennett Comedies. At left Gloria Swanson. Collection: Marlene Pilaete.

Mack Sennett Comedies
American postcard. Photo: Evans, Los Angeles / Mack Sennett Comedies. One of Mack Sennett's bathing beauties.

Bathing Beauty (Mack Sennett Comedies)
French postcard by Cinémagazine Edition. Photo: Mack Sennett Comedies.

Chaplin (1992)
French postcard by Editions Mercuri, no. 817. Photo: Tri-Star Pictures. Publicity still for Chaplin (Richard Attenborough, 1992) with Dan Aykroyd as Mack Sennett and Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin between Sennett's Bathing Beauties.

Sources: Wikipedia and IMDb.

Check out our earlier Before Hollywood posts: Vitagraph, Essanay, Biograph, Lubin, Flying A, Kalem, Edison, and Selig.

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