genre parody and comedic burlesque: keystone’s meta- cinematic satires simon joyce
With all of its attention to first instances (of cinematic techniques, as well as comparable innovations in distribution and exhibition), it is sometimes difficult for early film studies to attend to the echoing effects of borrowing and parody. These processes were crucial to the success of Mack Sennett at Keystone, and yet their functions are obscured by the overriding desire to identify a distinctive studio style; in many ways, it is only against such a defined signature that film historians, echoing the practice of the time in trade journals and fan magazines, are able to consider the complex questions of influence and imitation that represent one central strand of the current volume. In this chapter, though, I want to shift the terms of this discussion in two related ways. As part of a historical argument about the organization of the film industry in the 1910s, I insist on the importance of Keystone’s status as one film brand among many owned and operated by Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann’s New York Motion Picture Corporation (NYMP), which otherwise specialized in a very different kind of production, emphasizing westerns, action films, and historical dramas. As part of a formal argument about film aesthetics,
I underscore the importance for Sennett of his collegial relationship with two celebrated producers of the period, one of whom, Thomas H. Ince, was mainly responsible for the output of those other NYMP productions, under brand names that included Bison, Bison-101, Broncho, Kay-Bee, and Domino. The other was D. W. Griffith, under whose tutelage at Biograph Sennett claimed to have learned the art of filmmaking. The three men were publicly linked in 1915 by the ill-fated Triangle Film Corporation, when Kessel and Baumann combined the assets of the NYMP – many of the brand names listed above, but most especially the services of Sennett and Ince – with those of Harry Aitken, who ran the Mutual distribution and Majestic production companies (and, in doing so, held the contract for the services of Griffith).1 From its inception, there was a fatal asymmetry in the conception of the Triangle program, which yoked five-reel features produced under the supervision of Griffith and Ince to a supply of Keystone shorts; both the implied status imbalance and the accompanying financial arrangements would chafe at Sennett, who consistently sought to re-negotiate the terms of his contracts. In many ways, though, the internal struggles behind the scenes at Triangle continued a more public war that Sennett and slapstick had been fighting against highbrow dramas like those produced by Griffith and Ince. In this sense, it is possible to take at near face-value the attitude toward his colleagues that is reported in Gene Fowler’s 1934 “as-told-to” biography of Sennett, Father Goose, which describes the threesome as “combatants with weapons.” Griffith, the passage elaborates, “performed with a rapier, Ince with a saber and Sennett with a bed-slat.”2 What is telling is the blunt force contained in the image of the dueling bed-slat, which seeks to deflate the high-class connotations of rapiers and swords by subjecting to ridicule the implied rules that would govern a fair fight. In filmic terms, Sennett’s weapon was a precise and sustained parodying of the work of his colleagues and rivals in a manner that suggests we need to rethink customary notions of a simple, unitary signature. To the extent that a Keystone house style is recognizable, it is so only as a mediated reprocessing of formal elements and narrative traits associated with melodrama, the western, or the historical epic, each of which Sennett sought to neutralize as readily as the bed-slat might blunt the delicacy and precision of the rapier.