- The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture, and: Universal Women: Filmmaking and Institutional Change in Early Hollywood
Two recent studio histories provide valuable contributions to our understanding of the emergence of studio-era Hollywood and revivify a genre of film history still—long after the so-called historical turn—too thick with annotated filmographies, biographical chronicles, and narrow industrial histories. The significance of the 1910s to the shape that popular cinema would take has long been known, and among the decade's most significant innovations were the emergence of the feature-length film, the studio system's hierarchical division of labor, the star system, the acceptance of cinema as a legitimate cultural form, and the victory of southern California over other production centers. At first glance, the subjects of Rob King's The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture (University of California Press, 2009) and of Mark Garrett Cooper's Universal Women: Filmmaking and Institutional Change in Early Hollywood (University of Illinois Press, 2010) would appear to reside outside the industry's mainstream. But in accounting for practices seemingly out of step with much of the industry, both books advance our understanding of how that mainstream formed.
By the midteens, mainstream cinema had largely abandoned the working-class and immigrant audiences of the nickelodeon era and had excluded women of the nickelodeon era and had excluded women from positions of authority. However, as these two books establish, at Keystone and Universal such configurations did exist—at least for a time. Both books share a similar structure: six chapters in two sections, the first accounting for the presence of unrefined, working-class cultural forms and female directors, and the second charting how these studios came into alignment with the rest of the industry. In neither case is this latter process construed as a simple surrender to an exogenous dominant, and this is the principal virtue shared by both volumes. For King, the transformation of [End Page 61] Keystone's brand of slapstick from a popular entertainment to mass culture required complex hybridizations of cultural forms, and, for Cooper, the fortunes of female filmmakers were determined by complex institutional practices, such as the geography of the workplace, management hierarchies, and the function genre would perform in feature production. The tight focus shared by the two works—each treats one studio and covers about half a decade—permits the authors to demonstrate how two particular features of mainstream cinema were instituted at two particular studios.
King's The Fun Factory argues that Keystone should not be recalled nostalgically for its pratfalls and bathing beauties but, rather, should be understood as instrumental to the early twentieth century's most significant cultural shift, from a "hierarchical cultural order that reinforced social divisions to a commercially driven 'mass' culture that tended to obscure those divisions" (8). Keystone, at first, exploited those divisions, as King demonstrates in his first chapters. Shortly after its founding in 1912, Mack Sennett's Keystone found a niche as a working-class reply to the uplift movement's genteel pretensions (like those of Sennett's former employer, Biograph). Moral melodramas were countered with slapstick spectacles that often dismissed narrative development and frequently burlesqued the conventions of Griffith's last-minute rescues. The second chapter traces how, at Keystone, humor initially centered on ethnic stereotypes of Germans, Irish, and Jews (all staples of nineteenth-century popular entertainments), but these images were supplanted by classed figures, such as Chaplin's paradigmatic tramp, as immigrant and native-born workers began to forge a common, working-class identity. Pushing ethnic humor to the margins also helped expand Keystone's audience into the middle class. Paradoxically, at the moment when Keystone most clearly foregrounded class as comedic content, it also began to modify the working class's popular...