- The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture
'Pie-flinging clowns, knockabout policemen, and haywire automobiles': these are images for which filmmaker-comedian Mack Sennett and his Keystone Kops are often commemorated. They are also images that Rob King, in The Fun Factory, argues are worthy of critical interrogation. In this superbly crafted book, King shows how the practices and output of [End Page 282] Sennett's short-lived Keystone Film Company both reflected and cemented an extraordinary social transformation in American culture between 1912 and 1917, when the distinctions between working-class (popular) and middle-class (genteel) values were effaced by the emergence of a commercialized mass culture that addressed a cross-class demographic. 'The history of comedy,' writes King, 'is the history of the changing social patterns that produce and permit laughter'; Keystone's productions of slapstick comedy, a genre defined initially by its repudiation of genteel codes in favour of anarchic and ethnic humour, gradually assimilated 'highbrow' values and rendered physical comedy a central form of mass culture. King weaves this thesis deftly through six chapters, each of which comprises skilful analyses of films and consummate accounts of an array of archival documents.
Reflective of the book's central distinction between popular and mass culture, The Fun Factory divides into two parts: 'Satire in Overalls' and 'More Clever and Less Vulgar.' In the first, King shows how Sennett resisted the film industry's resolve to culturally uplift. As most producers made the transition from single-reel to multiple-reel films that demanded middle-class standards of narrative coherence and moralizing, Keystone's pre-1915 films featured loose narrative structures, parodies of ethnic stereotypes, vaudeville-inspired knockabouts and chases, and, as illustrated by King's superb analysis of Charlie Chaplin's short, Dough and Dynamite (1914), an increasing number of jokes predicated upon the 'tramps and millionaires' trope. King's observations culminate in a wonderful, chapter-long examination of Keystone's first feature-length film, Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), which establishes narrative coherence and a social hierarchy among characters, only to jettison it all in the film's final two reels. Here, King's conception of comedy as a genre that positions narrative and gags in a relationship of interdependence, rather than of dialectical opposition, makes a refreshing contribution to studies of film comedy, not to mention other genres that pit narrative against potentially disruptive moments of spectacle (such as the musical).
The second part of The Fun Factory picks up with Sennett's signing, in 1915, with Harry Aitken's Triangle Distributing Corp. Aitken sought to circulate films 'for the masses with an appeal to the classes,' and although Sennett's early shorts clashed with the distributor's lofty ambitions, his later comedies gradually appropriated genteel values, attracting a wider demographic that traversed boundaries of class and culture. Two final chapters address the films' articulations of a homogenized, commercially driven mass culture. Chapter 5 shows how the studio's use of mechanical contraptions associated with modernity 'redeemed physical comedy' for a mass audience, and chapter 6 recapitulates King's central argument by tracing the evolution of Mabel Normand from working-class heroine and [End Page 283] knockabout star to one of Keystone's bathing beauties, a paragon of the period's transformation of leisure into conspicuous consumption.
The Fun Factory is sociocultural film history at its finest, in part on account of its thorough mining and synthesis of archival research and in part because its story never excludes other historical mechanisms, such as the economic imperatives of corporations, the institutional division of labour at Keystone, and the studio's development of technologies. Further, although the book is by no means a 'Great Man' history, King recounts the working-class background of individuals who were responsible for the studio's most salient changes. I was skeptical at first of the argument that the class upbringings of Sennett, Normand, and Ford Sterling would surface so readily in the stylistic and thematic traits...