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DVD Review: The Mack Sennett Collection

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A three-disc blu ray set of Mack Sennett productions.

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It would seem that one would be toppling into hyperbole when claiming that anything is the very best, but the new Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray is perhaps the most important DVD release of the millennium. It has been released by CineMuseum.

The Mack Sennett Collection is a three-disc set that gives a comprehensive overview of Sennett’s career, starting with his early appearances at Biograph and extending to his sound films. Throughout the three discs, we are offered restored films by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, D.W. Griffith, Harry Langdon, and W.C. Fields. In all, 50 films are featured on the three discs.

The Griffith subject is the first film on disc one. “The Curtain Pole” (1909) was directed by Griffith and features Sennett as an actor and features comic elements that would soon inform Mack’s work in comedy. Sennett himself directs the next two Biograph subjects on disc one, “The Manicure Lady” (1911) and “A Dash Through The Clouds” (1912), the latter featuring Sennett comic ingénue Mabel Normand, whose importance would quickly be established once Mack formed his own studio.

After these introductory shorts, the collection gets into the Keystone period, and its choosing to offer the films in chronological order helps us understand the evolutionary process of Sennett’s comic vision. The films have a fairly set format regarding their conflict and resolution, but within that format there are variations based on which director or actors were involved. In each film, the basic approach was to frame the action (medium shots and some long shots were the norm) and create a great deal of movement within the frame. Bulging eyes, flailing arms, and wild pratfalls would be responsible for each movie’s brisk pace. In the very early days of cinema, when narrative film was only a few years old, the establishment of this basic structure for physical comedy was a primer for all subsequent methods.

Because the films are restored, we now see, with greater clarity, that the early Keystone comedies were more than frenetic action. For instance, Ford Sterling, one of the very first leading players in the Keystone comedies, is prone to the expected blatant gestures. However, the sharpness in the restored prints of “On His Wedding Day” (1913) and “A Fishy Affair” (1913) shows the subtle nuance of expression that Sterling added to his more pronounced comic gestures. It displays another layer to his performance, even for those of us who have some familiarity with his work.

The Sennett films featured even greater nuance once Charlie Chaplin began making films at Keystone. Chaplin’s offbeat Keystone film “Recreation” (1914) and his recently discovered cameo as a cop in “A Thief Catcher” (1914) are both represented here.

The ensuing discs offer examples from Keystone subjects that have emerged as noted classics, like “Fatty and Mabel Adrift” (1916) and “Teddy at the Throttle” (1917), as well as examples of the Ambrose (Mack Swain) and Walrus (Chester Conklin) comedies. Ben Turpin’s brilliant “The Daredevil” (1923), Mabel Normand’s feature length “The Extra Girl” (1923), and Harry Langdon’s “His Marriage Wow” (1925), all look better than on previous DVDs.

Producers Paul Gierucki and Brittany Jane Valente spent years securing the best possible footage for this collection and then restoring it to its greatest level of quality. Films as diverse as “The Noise of Bombs” (1914), and the familiar W.C. Fields sound short “The Dentist” (1932) have a visual sharpness that is nothing short of amazing.

There are also extras on the three discs. Clips from newsreels and TV, rare outtakes, and other such footage is included on each disc. Many of the films have informative, interesting commentaries available from experts. The best of these commentaries are those that concentrate on the film we are watching and discuss the process (Doug Sulpy on “Recreation” is perhaps the best example). And a special respect must be offered the great musical accompanists on the silents, including Phillip Carli, Ben Model, Dennis Scott, Andrew Simpson, and Donald Sosin.

Along with the significance of these films to help understand cinema’s rich history, this collection offers some hilarious comedies. Too often the Keystone films are dismissed as being more frantic than funny, the kinetic energy being diverting at best, but no more than jittery kinetic energy flickering across the screen. This is a particularly wrongheaded perception. The Mack Sennett Collection proves that these comedies, when showcased properly with the best visuals and most effective music scores, the humor holds up most effectively despite some of the movies being 100 years old.

This is too important a collection of films to be represented only by an overview like this. Thus, this writer plans to individually review each of the 50 movies on this set, one per day, and linking them to this set (and this overview). For anyone interested in the development of cinema as an art form, as technology, or just want to see a lot of really funny movies that helped shaped screen comedy’s evolution, The Mack Sennett Collection is perhaps the most important blu ray set you can obtain.

A few years ago, film historian Brent Walker published the amazingly thorough history of Sennett’s career, “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory” which is now in affordable softcover. This collection, and that book, should be paired together in any public or University library, especially colleges who have classes on film history.

The producers of The Mack Sennett Collection have indicated that this is volume one of a continuing series of blu ray sets. We can only imagine what might be contained in the next volume. In any case, this collection is highly recommended. Stay tuned for further discussions on each films contained therein.

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