There are some books out there on Mack Sennett and the Keystone empire -- Kalton C. Lahue's and Terry Brewer's Kops and Custards (1968), Gene Fowler's Father Goose (1934) and Sennett's own fanciful autobiography King of Comedy (1954). However, none of these seems to completely satisfy. The most recent effort, Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett (Faber and Faber, Inc., 2003) by Simon Louvish (who has also written biographies of Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields), comes a little closer.
Louvish is the first Sennett biographer to have full access to the archive of personal and business papers donated by Sennett to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences back in 1951 (it took 40 years to catalog them). Using these papers, Louvish does a commendable job of trying to sort myth from reality. He questions, and rightly so, many of the sources we have had up this point, with the most distrust given to Sennett's own recorded recollections. Unfortunately, many of the questions will remain unanswered forever regardless of the availability of Sennett's papers -- questions (that Louvish addresses) such as the real reason he and Mabel Normand never married, what is the real reason he gave Normand her own studio, why did Sennett never marry, was he gay?
At various points throughout the book Louvish gives us a typed copy of an original story outline which may be skipped over if the reader wishes. However, a little too much space is given in the main body of Louvish's text to a variety film synopses which slow down his storytelling. Also, as the title suggests, mini-biographies, up to a full chapter, are given for several of the Sennetts clowns such as Normand, Arbuckle, Turnpin, Bevan, and Langdon -- these are good.
Louvish quotes heavily from the above-mentioned Sennett/Keystone books, as well as period publications from Keystone's heyday. Admittedly, he doesn't always present these as authoritative, but, instead, uses them to try to piece together a logical conclusion about some aspect of the Sennett/Keystone story. It's a noble effort on Louvish's part, and certainly this book does try to dispel the myths that Sennett himself created over the years -- not to mention the conflicting accounts of many of Sennett's contemporaries. However, Louvish allows the reader to decide for himself what's fact and what's fiction.
Keystone is recommended for anyone wanting to get to the facts about this man and his legendary company, even if the passing of time won't allow everything to be crystal clear in the end. Well-written, enjoyable to read, a good sprinkling of photos, nice quality book.
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