Slapstick Encyclopedia

Mack Sennett Comedies

“The Sennett comedies were formulaic but inspired, and they frequently concluded with a great chase, often involving a gaggle of Keystone Kops. The motivation for the chases themselves rarely made much sense. Frequently, the motivation was even treated as a joke. In “Wandering Willies,” for example, the final chase is motivated when the heroine (Ruth Hiatt) discovers that the villain has dropped a paper of some sort on the hallway floor. She opens it, reads it, her lips form an “oh!” and she goes running to the hero (Billy Bevin). They read the paper together and then off they go. The chase begins. But what does the paper say? Well, the subtitle explaining the contents of that sheet of paper was rewritten several times after shooting had been completed. At one point, the heroine said, “He was stealing my diploma as winner of the beauty contest!” At another, “This proves he is the president of the Kidnappers Corporation!” And yet another version read, “The big clam was trying to get a corner on Muscle Shoals!” Finally, they settled on “Look! A mortgage on Niagara Falls. We must stop it before he shuts off the water!”

Total nonsense, yes. And hardly motivation at all. More likely Sennett was making fun of the whole idea of motivation. His product needed an ending and audiences loved chases. So he was simply finding a way to reach the expected ending for a Keystone production – all-out mayhem, with momentum pushing everyone in different directions until the entire effort exploded under the stress.

Or in the case of “Muddy Romance,” Sennett and a car full of writers took off for Echo Lake when they learned it was being drained. Here was an effect they would normally never be able to afford. They made up the gags and story as they went along. Once again, much of the motivation is sheer nonsense: at the climax, the heroine and her beau suddenly decide to get married in a row boat in the middle of the lake! While the priest conducts the ceremony, the villain (Ford Sterling at his snarling best) turns the water valve (marked “WATER OUTLET – DO NOT TOUCH”) that drains the lake and leaves a muddy mess for the Keystone Kops to thrash around in. As in “Muddy Romance,” Sennett’s comedies could become practically surreal in their wanton disregard for motivation and logic”

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