The continuing story of Mack Sennett.
Mack gets into overdrive
Mack now had a clear field, which would enable him to get on with building his comedy empire. Messy Mabel was out of his white hair, hopefully for ever. The police were off his back, for the time being at least, regarding the Taylor murder, and he was getting on fine with his distributors. Ahead, in the Glocca Morra mist, was only a rainbow, with a pot of gold at the end. Self-confident and not a little arrogant, Mack thought he could walk on water – and why not? His films were popular in places where they’d never even heard of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, his arrogance had led to many of his stars taking permanent leave of the studio, but, as far as Mack was concerned, they could all go to hell – movie stars were two a penny, and could be plucked off trees, almost too easily. Mack seemed to have developed a nastiness about him, which suggested he would run out of steam and actors before long. Mabel Normand told friends “That man will end up broke and alone.” This was quite a prediction, but, for the time being, The King was riding the crest of a wave. “ I must get out of this rabbit-warren of a studio” He mused. The place was, as Donald Trump might say, “A shit-hole”, and gave him no prestige whatsoever.
He’d run out of places to film that he could pretend were the Mack Sennett studios, and he cast about for prestigious premises in the hallowed Hollywood. He had no joy. “What! Keystone Studios?” The real estate agents would bellow, “We don’t want that garbage here!” Then, a miracle happened, and Mack heard about a developer who was opening up part of the San Fernando Valley, and would donate land to anyone willing to build a movie studio there. Mack snapped up 20 acres. Sure, it was way out of Hollywood, but, as before, the mail could easily be sent down to the Movie Land post office, where his letters would receive a Hollywood postmark.
Unsurprisingly, Mack was the only taker for a lot at Studio City, every other producer choosing Hollywood, or close by in Culver City. Mack declared his new studio operational in March 1928, with the presentation of a giant pie. However, in that year, it became absolutely clear that the movie business had suffered a massive change. Silent was out, and sound was in, and a cash-strapped Sennett had to dig deep to ensure he could accommodate the new medium at Studio City. His old premises at Edendale, with their open stages, were now obsolete and unsaleable for movie purposes. Mack put his head in the sand, and let the old site fester, as a good home for rats. Unfortunately, the lot became a huge draw for local kids, one of which lost an eye playing there, while another was killed. Mack cared not, until the City authorities took legal action, in order to get ‘The King’ to demolish the ramshackle buildings. As demolition began, Mack presided over the operation, with journalists in attendance. Even Mabel Normand turned up, to rummage through the remains of her old dressing room, from which she retrieved her now-battered world globe, used to identify the countries from which her fans had written to her. Mabel had not been entirely absent from the old studio since 1923, and paid a visit to the place in 1926, when she was, according to Ruth Taylor, mobbed and cheered by the current crop of actors and actresses. It seems Mack had considered starring a then redundant Mabel, alongside two other ‘old girls’ Gloria Swanson and Phyllis Haver in a new feature film. Sadly, Swanson and Haver were happily employed elsewhere, and, although Mabel was
at a loose end, her friends persuaded Hal Roach to sign her – perhaps to save her from a grim fate at the hands of her former tyrant. Soon after, ‘The Little Clown’ married ‘The Butterfly Man’, actor Lew Cody, and Mack never saw her again.
The King’s final days on the throne.
Things looked good through 1928, and Mack became, like many others, greatly indebted to the banks (smart people like Hal Roach and Charlie Chaplin resisted the on-going temptation). It seems clear, Sennett wanted to step up a grade, and become Emperor. Consequently, he borrowed heavily to invest in the ‘Hollywoodland’ venture, and build a replica of Hadrian’s Tivoli palace, atop the hill carrying ‘The Sign’.
The sudden depression of 1929, hit the King hard, not a little aided by the incompetent management of Pathe, his new distribution company. Mack soldiered on under a new company, Educational Film Exchanges, although, for a time, he only had ‘B’ players on his payroll. During 1930, he was distracted slightly by the untimely death of Mabel.
Although Mack appeared nonchalant on receiving the news, he seems to have been reflective at the funeral, where with Griffith, Goldwyn, and others he was an honorary pallbearer. Had an era, the golden era of silent films, passed? Indeed it had, but Mack soldiered on, holding on tight, not willing to go down without a fight. He experimented with colour, and went fully into sound, but he was streets behind the new King, Hal Roach, who now had the best players and technical staff. The deposed king must have brooded over the loss of director F. Richard Jones, great friend of Mabel, who had masterminded the Roach takeover (F. Richard died of TB, less than a year after Mabel, and at exactly the same age).
Like a foreshadow of Adolph Hitler, Mack spent hours poring over the architect’s drawings of his Hollywoodland palace, doomed now, never to be completed. The King had one great success in 1931, when he discovered, and fielded, Bing Crosby. No matter that Bing had now left, he hired a greater funny man, W.C. Fields. In fact, Field’s film The Barber Shop was the last Sennett comedy ever released, and that release occurred on 28th July 1933. Sennett had finally gone bust, partly due to his new distributors, Paramount, going belly up in January 1933. All that was left was for Sennett’s canned films to be released, and to limp along until proceedings were filed for bankruptcy in late 1933, with listed debts of one-million dollars. True to form Sennett failed to attend court, as he had failed to appear over the running down of a pedestrian back in the teens. Mack had tried to gather cash by releasing a feature length film, at a time when shrewd studios, like Roach, had reverted to depression-busting shorts. Sennett disappeared from public view, and Louise Brooks records in her book, Lulu in Hollywood, seeing Sennett sitting, sad and alone, in the Roosevelt Hotel, watching the world go by. Was he musing over the fate of the golden era? Mabel was dead, Roscoe was dead, Marie Dressler was dead, Dick Jones was dead, and Marie Prevost was to die within the year (Phyllis Haver barely survived, only to do away with herself, two weeks after Mack’s death in 1960).
Mack Refuses to go away…
Sennett, then, was beaten. Or was he? When Mack watched the still young and hormonal Louise Brooks, coming and going at the Roosevelt Hotel, he was not idly dreaming. No, the exiled King was planning a comeback, and it seems likely ‘Lulu’ Brooks was at the center of his plans. When he’d come to an agreement with an acquiescent producer, he’d approach Brooks with an offer she couldn’t refuse. Would he say what he had said to Mabel in 1910 – “Hi, I’m Mack Sennett, I’ll soon be directing my own pictures, and when I do, I’ll put you in them”, or would he make the same approach that he had with Gloria Swanson “I’m going to make you another Mabel Normand”. Sennett had had his greatest successes with Mabel, but now he intended to launch a second career based on her memory. He would make film based on Mabel’s life, and use sentimentality to just about force people to watch. He succeeded (almost) by pushing for a film loosely based on the fictitious Mack and Mabel story. The film, Hollywood Cavalcade, was released in 1939, starring Alice Faye. Brooksie had rid herself of ‘that stupid haircut’, and left Hollywood – forever. Like Gloria Swanson, she did not want to be Mabel Normand. Gloria Swanson, however, did appear in yet another Mabel-based film in 1950, called Sunset Boulevard. Gloria played the role of Norma Desmond, a clear reference to the Mabel and William Desmond Taylor story. In between the two films, Mack had supported the new owners of his old studio in their bid to dedicate their new sound stage to Mabel Normand. The former King, it seems, paid for a commemoration plaque, on which were written Mack’s sentimental words eulogizing his former star. The plaque read:
WE DEDICATE THIS STAGE TO A MEMORABLE ARTIST
“MAY WE NEVER FORGET HER.
A GREAT SOUL WHO
PIONEERED AND GAVE PURPOSE TO
THE EARLY MOTION PICTURE.
THROUGH THIS NEW ART SHE
BROUGHT LAUGHTER AND BEAUTY
OTHERWISE DENIED MILLIONS
BURDENED WITH DESPAIR AND DRABNESS.”
REPUBLIC STUDIOS DECEMBER 27 1940
The opening ceremony was no cheapo event. Virtually anyone who was anyone in Hollywood attended, including Judy Canova, John Wayne, Gene Autrey, Bing Crosby, et al. They were joined by veterans of the Golden Era – Mack Sennett, Mae Busch, Louise Fazenda, W.C. Fields, James Finlayson, Chester Cronklin, Minta Durfee, Polly Moran – the list was endless. Mack Sennett gave a sentimental speech about Mabel, although, when he had initially heard of his former star’s untimely death in 1930, he had simply said “This is indeed most regrettable” and continued with his game of golf. ‘The King’ wasn’t finished there, though, and he later published his autobiography, which, he admitted, was unashamedly about Mabel.
The publication of this autobiography caused the release of a flurry autobiographies from the aging silent stars. Mack had set the goalposts, and the old stars finally knew, with some relief, what they could and couldn’t publish. As for Louise Brooks, she binned her own telling memoirs. It was clear that, if even Sennett could not publish the truth, then neither could she. There were still plenty of old producers about, and plenty of .38s. The memory of Miss Normand remained the key to Mack’s future, which he had decided lay in T.V. He plugged away at the T.V. executives, for a Mack and Mabel serial, but it was only in the early 1970s, long after Mack’s death in 1960, that the stage show, Mack and Mabel, appeared. Full of stuff and nonsense, it nevertheless served to keep Mabel’s memory alive – and that of her long-time employer we might add.
We might suppose that Mack now entered his final years in white-haired tranquility, but this was not the case. Sure, Mack never gave up hope of regaining a foothold in the media, but there were certain authorities that maintained an interest in the mad ex-director. He was never hauled before any committee to explain his non-conformist views of the past – instead he was investigated by the Revenue Service in the belief that he had millions in un-taxed profits salted away. His numerous trips to Mexico over a period of forty years had aroused suspicion that money was transferred to banks south of the border. However, in 1955 it was finally determined that Max survived on a paltry pension allocated by a movie industry charity. Details of the Taylor case continued to be pored over by various detectives, and if it had ever got out that Mack admitted carrying out the murder, then Mack would have ended his life, frying in the chair built by his old adversary, Thomas Edison.
* In the next blog we bring everything together, and attempt to characterize Mack Sennett.