chapter  6
7 Pages

mack sennett vs. henry ford eileen bowser

Automobiles and movies arrived in tandem in the 1890s, two lifechanging products of the mechanical age and the age of invention. In the following decades Henry Ford brought us affordable cars for the common man and Mack Sennett gave us slapstick comedies that did their best to take apart, deform, and destroy the wonderful new machines. The careers of the two entrepreneurs were parallel in a number of ways, but this chapter refers to Henry Ford and Mack Sennett as symbols rather than specific individuals, that is, as the fathers of, respectively, the massproduced automobile, and the slapstick comedy of the 1910s and 1920s. I want to show how they signify two opposing strains in American life during that time. Before the advent of the Model T Ford, the automobile was a toy for the rich, and a sign of success. A moving-picture theater manager in the first decades of cinema boasted of his elite clientele by the number of cars parked outside. A movie star showed his or her success on the screen and in private life by owning and driving an automobile. To drive a car became a symbol of the New Woman’s emancipation, and the movie star

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led the way on and off the screen. Mary Pickford in A Beast at Bay, early in 1912, drives her boyfriend to the train station and is forced at gunpoint by an escaped convict to drive in a high-speed chase with a train engine. The automobiles of the upper class were shown off in actuality films of car parades and car races, a favorite topic in slapstick comedies for years to come. Barney Oldfield and other famous racing champions crossed over from actuality films to fiction, playing themselves or fictional characters, or performing as stunt men. In the opening title of Move Along in 1925, although the Model T was now widely available, class differences are still pointed: “The wealthy get their bumps in life the same as the poor – only they don’t bounce as high in their expensive cars as the poor do in their tin lizzies.” Following is one of those opening-shot gags that are specific to the film medium, a shot that sets up a false premise: a wealthy man sits in the back of his chauffeur-driven open car enjoying his cigar, sharing satisfied smiles with Lloyd Hamilton, who is sitting next to him, smoking his own cigar. The car then moves ahead to reveal that Hamilton is actually sitting on the back of a horse-drawn dray cart, which soon bumps him off into a puddle. The automobile comedy existed before Sennett started making movies or Ford invented the Model T. The British led with films made at the turn of the century: Cecil Hepworth presented several trick film comedies with a Monty Python sensibility, such as Explosion of a Motor Car (1900), in which an automobile containing four passengers drives toward the camera and explodes, sending all the pieces into the air. A policeman rushes to the scene and looks up through a telescope as bodies fall to the ground. He records the event in his notebook. The same bystander policeman is still observing and recording the destruction in 1929 when Jimmy Finlayson takes apart Laurel and Hardy’s pickup truck in Big Business. Hepworth followed Explosion of a Motor Car with How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900), a little nonsense film showing an accident in which the car comes directly at the camera, followed by black film leader on which has been scratched stars and a title: “Oh, Mother will be pleased.” Two years later, Hepworth made How to Stop a Motor Car (1902), a trick film about a policeman who tries to stop a car and is run into and literally knocked to pieces, but then reassembles himself. An inspector, stopping by the scene, shows him the correct way: the inspector turns his back on an approaching car and causes it to bounce off his body. These are literal statements of modern man’s encounters with the machine, expressed in slapstick comedies as man’s collisions with the machine, or Sennett vs. Ford. These comedies generally show man defeated by the machine because he doesn’t understand how it works or because he doesn’t know how to handle the frightening new power and freedom of movement. Yet he survives after all because he is never really injured, even when the vehicle runs him over or blows him to pieces. But I don’t think he is happy about it.