cover image KEYSTONE: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett

KEYSTONE: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett

Simon Louvish, . . Faber & Faber, $25 (376pp) ISBN 978-0-571-21276-7

Film historian Louvish, having previously focused on comedy legends of the early sound era (Stan and Ollie , etc.), turns his attention to Sennett, the silent film mogul responsible for the iconic Keystone Kops. Though his childhood wish was to sing opera, Sennett (1880–1960) eventually wound up in vaudeville, then shifted to film, landing a job at D.W. Griffith's studio, acting in and later directing short comedies. He struck out on his own when he launched Keystone in 1912. "Start with Sennett, get rich somewhere else" became a Hollywood standard, and the names that passed through the studio include Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Ben Turpin and Gloria Swanson. There was also Mabel Normand, supposedly the great love of Sennett's life, though Louvish concludes their romance was invented, possibly to cover up Sennett's homosexuality. There's barely enough about Sennett's life to fill a book, though, so readers learn just as much about the other Keystone members, revisiting classic Hollywood scandals like Arbuckle's fall from grace and the unsolved murder of William Desmond Taylor. Although Louvish regards all his sources, from celebrity memoirs to fawning magazine articles, with healthy skepticism, he appears to have been seduced by their florid style. "Murky shadows gathered in the sunny glades where the movie people had frolicked in their make-believe innocence in never-never land" is a typical example, undercutting Louvish's potent historical research. Film synopses from Keystone archives increase the page count and, like the biography itself, may be of interest only to avid silent film fans. 47 b&w photos. (Feb.)