WHEN I STARTED these recollections, I opened up with some remarks that might be taken as unbecoming and even downright immodest. I claimed that it had been a long, tired time since any citizens had been rolled in the aisles of a motion-picture house or had been doubled up with laughter while watching television comedians. I was implying, of course, that my own comedies truly murdered the people.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t me, the Old Man, who was so funny; it was the comical people I had around me. I called myself “King of Comedy,” a solemn and foolish title if there ever was one, but I was a harassed monarch. I worried most of the time. It was only in the evenings that I laughed.
I sat in a heavy, creaking rocking chair in the rear of my screening room at Keystone and examined our dizzy productions with a hard eye. When there was anything to laugh at I rocked back and forth with the contented rhythm of a broad-beamed Percheron in a bareback riding act. I seldom needed to say much to my writers, gag men, and actors. They watched the rhythm of the rocker. When I was in full gallop, they assumed that everything was as ridiculous as it should be. If I didn’t rock and roar as the rushes went on the screen, everybody took it for granted that the work of art under eye was no good. Then we’d shoot scenes over again.
My main contribution to motion-picture comedy seems to have resided in my boiling point. I was equipped with a natural, builtin thermostat. It turned out that when I got up a full head of steam over a film and began to roll and spout, millions of moviegoers were likely to react the same way. I was a reliable oneman audience.
Since I did produce the Keystone Comedies, it turns out that I have been credited with considerably more inventiveness than I actually possessed. For instance, historians of the drama put me down for the creation of what was once a distinguished facet of cineplastic art—pie-throwing. I’d be glad to claim this honor, if I could claim it honestly, since a pie in the face represents a fine, wish-fulfilling, universal idea, especially in the face of authority, as in cop or mother-in-law. Also, these sequences in which we started building from the tossing of one pie, quickly increasing the tempo and the quantity until we had dozens of pastries in flight across the screen simultaneously, were wholesome releases of nervous tension for the people and made them laugh. But honor for the pie is not mine. It belongs to Mabel Normand.
Mabel was always shown on the screen as a comely girl, usually poor and unfashionable, whose fate was to find herself surrounded by ruffians, villains, and amiable boobs such as Ben Turpin, Ford Sterling, or 285-pound “Fatty” Arbuckle. As our story would begin to release doses of our stock commodity, pandemonium, Miss Normand would invariably be caught in the middle.
But one afternoon in Edendale we were having trouble shooting the simplest possible kind of a scene. Ben Turpin had to stick his head through a door. Since Mr. Turpin’s eyes were aimed in all directions, we thought the scene would be funny. It wasn’t.
“Don’t look into the camera,” I instructed Ben. “This is the kind of quick scene we throw away, casual-like.”
Turpin stared at me, or approximately at me, with the affronted dignity of a Wagnerian soprano ordered to conceal her tonsils.
“Shoot the eyes! Shoot the eyes!” he squalled. “What do millions of people go to movies for?”
If Turpin had ever seen the Mona Lisa he could have explained an ancient mystery. He would have claimed she was about to break out laughing at him.
Ben squinted, peered, and mouthed, but still the scene was not comical. Suddenly it was one of the funniest shots ever flashed on any motion-picture screen.
Mabel, who had nothing to do with this sequence, had been watching. She was sitting quietly, minding her own business for once, when she found a pie in her hand. It was a custard pie.
Miss Normand was not startled. At Keystone you were likely to find anything in your hand from a lion to a raw egg. You were as likely to meet an ape on the sidewalk as Gloria Swanson. If you were unwary you were likely to get a shock treatment in the seat of the trousers, mustard in your make-up, or a balloonful of water on your head. We lived our art.
As it turned out, the projectile in Mabel’s hand was neither a joke nor an accident. Two carpenters were having custard for dessert. Mabel sniffed, and was inspired.
She weighed and hefted the pastry in her right palm, considered it benevolently, balanced herself on the balls of her feet, went into a windup like a big-league pitcher, and threw. Motion-picture history, millions of dollars, and a million laughs hung on her aim as the custard wabbled in a true curve and splashed with a dull explosion in Ben Turpin’s face.
No one expected this memorable heave, least of all Turpin. The grinding camera, going sixteen frames to the second, was full on him. When the custard smote him, Ben’s face was as innocent of anticipation as a plate. His aplomb vanished in a splurch* of goo that drooled and dripped down his shirt front. As the camera held on him his magnificent eyes emerged, batting in stunned outrage in all directions.
Worse luck for scholars, I don’t remember the name of the picture in which the first custard was thrown. The date would have been sometime in 1913. But if we failed in later years to understand the long words laid on us by heavy-duty professors who explain our art to us, we knew a good thing when we saw it, seized upon pie-throwing, refined it, perfected its techniques, and presented it to the theater as a new art. It became, in time, a learned routine like the pratt-fall, the double-take, the slow burn, and the frantic leap, all stock equipment of competent comedians. When the Turpin pie scene was shown that night in a screening room we saw at once why it was funny.
It was funny, not only because a pie in the face is an outrage to pumped-up dignity, but because Turpin received the custard without a flick of premonition. Nonanticipation on the part of the recipient of a pastry is the chief ingredient of the recipe. And it takes an actor with a stern artistic conscience to stand still and innocent, never wagging an eyelash, while a strong man takes aim at him with such ammunition.
If you don’t run with show people you may find this incredible, but it is a fact that many actors are frustrated because they never had a chance to display their integrity and facial control by taking a pie. Franklin Pangborn, for instance, a gentle comedian and a fine artist, pined for many years to receive a custard. When he finally worked for me, we had to write in a scene for him in which he got splurched. Frank did well, too, but he said being pushed backwards into swimming pools while wearing top hat and cut-away was more in his line.
We became scientists in custard. A man named Greenburg, who ran a small restaurant-bakery near the studio, became a throwing-pie entrepreneur. Our consumption was so enormous that this man got rich. After several experiments he invented a special Throwing Pie, just right in heft and consistency, filled with paste, and inedible. He lost most of his eating customers when he began to sell them throwing custards by mistake.
Del Lord, my ace comedy director, soon became the world-champion pie tosser. And “Fatty” Arbuckle, who in spite of his suet was an agile man—the kind of fat man known as light on his feet—became a superb pie pitcher. Arbuckle was ambidextrous and had double vision like a T-formation quarterback. He could throw two pies at once in different directions, but he was not precise in this feat. The Christy Mathewson of the custard was Del Lord.
“This is a delicate and serious art,” says Mr. Lord, “and not one in which amateurs or inexperienced flingers should try to win renown. Pie-throwing, like tennis or golf, which depend upon form, requires a sense of balance and a definite followthrough.
“Actually, you don’t throw like a shortstop rifling to first base. You push the pie toward the face, leaning into your followthrough. Six or eight feet is the limit for an artistic performance.
“You must never let the actor know when you’re going to give him the custard in the choppers. Even the most skillful actor, José Ferrer or John Gielgud, for instance, finds it difficult to conceal anticipation.
“The wisest technique is to con your victim into a sense of security and then slip it to him.
“In my day, when I was the acknowledged world-champeen pie heaver, I developed a prejudice for berries with whipped cream. After the actual whomp in the face, the berries trickle beautifully down the actor’s shirt and the whipped cream besplashes his suit. This is muddy, frothy, and photogenic.”
Soon after we discovered that a pie is as theatrical a device as Bette Davis’s handkerchief or Cyrano’s nose, we made a picture called The Great Pie Mystery. Pies were thrown every time the heavy would try to do dirt to the girl or the comic. Pies came from everywhere and the audience couldn’t see who was throwing them. Our pay-off gag was that the fellow who began telling the story in the first scene was throwing the pies.
We also invented a way to throw pies around telephone poles. We did this by having an expert fly caster out of camera range atop a stepladder. After a little practice he could let fly with rod and reel and make a pie do a figure eight before it hit a guy in the face.
As I was saying a while back, we demanded at least some kind of motivation in our pictures. Always the improbable, never the impossible. The introduction of pie-throwing was no stumbling block at all to our scenario writers. They simply inserted a restaurant or a bakery into the scene whenever it seemed like a good idea to fling a pie.
In speaking of the impossible, one of our most notable laughmaking scenes was one in which we had Charlie Murray tied to a steam boiler in a basement. The boiler actually expanded before the audience’s eyes. Now that would be impossible, but that is how the boiler would seem to a man who was tied to it.
This rudimentary notion seems to be beyond the capacity of movie makers today. With my boys it was merely the beginning of a laugh sequence. They went on from the expanding boiler and had the whole house expand.
There are four kinds of laughs in the theatre: the titter, the yowl, the belly-laugh, and the boffo, according to Mr. James Agee, poet and motion-picture critic.
I don’t want to create the impression that the titter, the yowl, the belly-laugh, and the boffo were purely mechanical affairs, even when the switcheroo was as charming a device as a tastefully flung pie. Neither my rocking-chair responses nor the genius of my thinker-uppers in the gag room was responsible for all the fun. The Keystone studio was a university of nonsense where, if an actor or actress had any personality at all, that personality developed in full blossom without inhibition. Two of the most special performers who ever came my way were Harry Langdon and Ben Turpin, both prime comics, and as different in outlook, philosophy, and abilities as men could be. Like most of our people—it was some years before we employed the already famous—they came to us from the knockabout stage with no money and no fame.
Harry Langdon came from a small-town vaudeville act in which his specialty was helpless frustration with a balky automobile. Frank Capra, who had progressed from gag man to director, wanted Langdon as soon as he set eyes on him. Harry had a kind of dough-faced baby innocence about him, combined with malice, that delighted Capra. Harry Langdon actually was as innocent as an infant. He had his routines, well learned in vaudeville, and he could do them on demand, but he seldom had the mistiest notion of what his screen stories were about. Like Charlie Chaplin, you had to let him take his time and go through his motions. His twitters and hesitations built up a ridiculous but sympathetic little character. It was difficult for us at first to know how to use Langdon, accustomed as we were to firing the gags and the falls at the audience as fast as possible, but as new talent arrived, we found ways to screen it and to cope with it. I thought for a while Langdon was as good as Chaplin. In some of his pathetic scenes he was certainly as good.
Langdon was an oddly gifted fellow. He drew cartoons for Judge and Puck, was an expert designer, and curiously handy at carpentry.
On screen he resembled Chaplin in one kind of appeal. He was always the small figure of frustrated good will beset and bewildered by a cruel world of hard rules and economics. But Chaplin, who could be as pitiful as a kicked spaniel or as forlorn and brave as he was in that wonderful scene in which he ate his shoes in The Gold Rush, was a man. He was adult. His impulses were often venal. He chased girls with pretentious gallantry and they never took him seriously. He gave you to know, though, that, if ever a girl had taken him seriously, he might have made a fool of himself in her boudoir but he would have known exactly what to try to do. Langdon was infantile.
Ladies pursued him. He not only didn’t know what was expected of him, he didn’t even know they were after him. Everything from sex to money was college algebra to Langdon.
Like Charlie, Harry was a slow starter. Even after we learned how to use him—I mean, saw what his essential character was for screen purposes—we had to give him a hundred feet of film or so to play around in, do little bits of business, and introduce himself. The two were the same in their universal appeal. They were the little guys coping with a mean universe, and, since motion-picture audiences are seldom made up 100 percent of tycoons, heroes, or millionaires, a majority of people managed to identify themselves with these comedians. Charlie Chaplin, I suppose, carried out this appeal to the heights in the great pictures he made after he left me. But wonderful as Charlie was, or is, he didn’t invent being a little man.
Being a little man was being laughed at and sympathized with long before Charlie, or Langdon, or Turpin arrived in the public eye. Like the fall of dignity, it is one of the essences of comedy. We didn’t invent it any more than we invented those two other reliable stock characters, little David with his slingshot and little Cinderella with her pumpkin.
Langdon was as bland as milk, a forgiving small cuss, an obedient puppy, always in the way, exasperating, but offering his baby mannerisms with hopeful apology. Frank Capra’s enormous talents first showed themselves when he saw all this as something that would photograph. Chaplin was a waif, but an adult waif who thumbed his nose at anything.
Under Frank’s easy guidance Harry soon became a Keystone star in two-reel comedies. His salary went up to several thousand dollars a week. Langdon became important and unfortunately realized it. Suddenly he forgot that all his value lay in being that baby-witted boy on the screen. He decided he was also a businessman. His cunning as a businessman was about that of a backward kindergarten student and he complicated this by marital adventures, in which he was about as inept as he was on screen. He was soon behind in alimony payments.
He decided that if Harry Langdon pictures could make so much money for Mack Sennett, they could make all that money for Harry Langdon. He heard about the wonderful grosses of big pictures like The Miracle Man and The Birth of a Nation and concluded that this kind of enterprise was for him.
Other companies were always ready to grab my stars after they had been tested and proved profitable. Soon enough Langdon had an offer from First National. It was a wonder, too. First National offered him $6,000 a week and 25 per cent of the net provided he would make six pictures in two years with a limit of $150,000 production cost per picture.
Langdon was delighted by these fat figures, hired Harry Edwards as director at $1,000 a week, Capra at $750 a week, and Bill Jenner as his personal manager at $500 a week.
Then he forgot all this outgoing money was actually his own, merely his advance from First National. He blew the entire $150,000 production budget before he got his first story written.
Poor Langdon failed wretchedly as a producer, and lived brokenhearted and in near-poverty around Hollywood for many years. He did his last work at Columbia, where he attempted to dance in a musical comedy. But working and rehearsing all day exhausted the little fellow. He went into a coma and died of a stroke after lingering for about eight days.
He was bankrupt and neglected, forlorn and forgotten. His shy charm and his gentle humor have yet to be matched on the screen. I wish he had stayed with me. He was a quaint artist who had no business in business. He was hurt and bewildered at the end and he never understood what had happened to him.
Ben Turpin, the cross-eyed man, was an artist too, but another breed of cat.
All comedians, as I keep saying, are sensitive, egotistical persons. They require audiences, applause, security, and reassurance. Some are tender and some are tough. Some are both, but the combination of clown-poet-intellectual is a rare bird and occurs only once in a lucky generation, as in Chaplin.
Turpin came to us from the circus and the vaudeville stage. One of his demands on the studio as soon as his face became known all over the world was that we take out an insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London which would pay him one million dollars if his eyes ever came uncrossed. It took only the simplest examination by an honest oculist to assure Lloyd’s their money was safe. Ben’s eyes were permanently fixed and so were his notions.
This skinny, strutting little man with a Polish piano player’s mane of hair and a neck like a string was obsessed by money and by the conviction that he couldn’t be funny after 5 P.M. He had a five-o’clock quitting time in his contract. When the bell rang he left no matter what it cost the studio.
Mr. Turpin had several wives. I was not acquainted with all of them, but he brought one to the studio and introduced her around. She was the one who was stone-deaf.
“Mr. Sennett,” he said, “I want you to meet my wife. I got the old bag in trouble and had to marry her.”
The deaf Mrs. Turpin smiled graciously and acknowledged the introduction.
Ben went on to find Mabel Normand.
“Mabel, I want you to meet the wife,” he said. “She used to be a tattooed woman in a honky-tonk. Don’t have anything to do with her. She’s a blackmailer and a dope smuggler.”
Mrs. Turpin beamed fondly on Ben and was delighted to meet his friends.
We paid Turpin $1,500 a week at the height of his powers. He invested all his money, bought apartment houses, and became a rich man. He always saved a few dollars a week by personally doing the janitor work at all his apartment houses.
He seldom drove an automobile—a frantic thought at that: who knows how many directions he would have tried to drive at once? He preferred to save money by traveling by streetcar. As he would enter the trolley, he would draw his wrenlike physique up to full strut and squeak at the top of his voice:
“I’m Ben Turpin! Three thousand dollars a week!”
Before taking a seat he would treat the passengers to a 108.
A 108 is an acrobat’s term for a comic fall which only the most skillful athletes can perform without lethal results. One foot goes forward, the other foot goes backward, the comedian does a counter somersault and lands flat on his back.
I’ve seen Turpin perform the 108 not only on streetcars but on concrete sidewalks—if there was an audience handy to whom he could announce himself as three-thousand-dollars-a-week Ben Turpin.
Turpin was an emotional little man, especially under the influenee of money or the bottle. Once when we had leased a special train to take a company to Lake Tahoe, scheduled to leave at seven in the evening, Del Lord found Mr. Turpin hitting erescendo in the throes of a crying jag. On such occasions Turpin demanded the attentions of his attorney, his business manager, and his priest.
When Del arrived at the roaring Turpin establishment, Ben had decided that he was all right, but that for reasons obscure to everyone else, his wife (the deaf one) was dying.
Since Mrs. Turpin was blooming with health, Del dismissed the lawyer and business manager, took the priest home, and called up Tommy Lofthaus, chief of the Los Angeles Motor Patrol. Mr. Lofthaus was a good friend because we often gave his cops jobs on off-duty days.
Turpin arrived at the station under full siren, delighted with his police escort. He dashed into his drawing room, belted down a scotch and soda, and went through the entire train announcing himself as Ben Turpin, $3,000 a week. He performed a 108 in each car.
We got him to Lake Tahoe in fancy fettle, but Turpin immediately became victim of a new terror. We had a scene in which the giant Kalla Pasha, wearing a black fur suit, worked interchangeably with a live bear which closely resembled him. The script called for Turpin to hop into bed with the fur-bearing Pasha. Ben winced and keened over this idea, said it was frightening enough to send a valuable actor to the looney bin just to think of getting into bed with Kalla Pasha, let alone a dangerous, man-eating critter. Anyway, Turpin complained, he had no faith whatsoever in the integrity or the human kindness of anybody connected with Keystone and Mack Sennett. He was dead sure he was being framed and would wind up in the embrace of the bear.
During this tantrum our bear got his teeth into his trainer’s arm and almost chawed it off. This upset all of us to some extent. The accident was particularly dismaying to Turpin.
As things came out, we had to do away with that bear as a safety measure, but it seemed a shame to waste him. We put the warm corpse in Kalla Pasha’s bed and inserted Mr. Turpin. Ben’s histrionics made a notable scene for a few seconds. He never forgave us.
It is honorable to give credit where credit is due. It was Mabel Normand who connived the bedding of Ben Turpin and the bear.
Turpin seldom invited guests into his home. On the few special occasions when he did you knew immediately how you stood with him the moment you entered his parlor. Unless you were an extremely welcome guest you never got to see his furniture. He kept every piece draped with white cloths which he removed only as a delicate compliment of friendship.
Ben could fall, tumble, and prank with the best of my roughnecks, but his special and universal appeal was, of course, like Langdon’s and Chaplin’s, the appeal of all undersized gents who stand up against Fate anyway. Ridiculous to everyone, yes, but never to himself. In Von Stroheim breeches and monocle Turpin reduced Von Stroheim and all domineering Prussians to absurdity. With cross-eyes batting with passion he could lie on a tiger-skin rug and make the heaving sultriness of Theda Bara (or all pretentious love-making) a silly joke.
The thing was, he seemed to take himself with utter seriousness. You never felt sorry for him no matter how you laughed. You had to see that Mr. Turpin was very, very brave.
This was true also of Buster Keaton. Keaton carried out comic courage to its ridiculously logical absurdity. He never batted an eye or changed an expression, no matter what catastrophies threatened him. “Fatty” Arbuckle brought him to me. The two worked funnily together for several pictures. But these films were so hilarious that Keaton was immediately swamped with offers of more money than I could pay him.
He went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he became, in my opinion, the greatest comedian the greatest studio ever had. His pictures eventually cost $200,000 to make and always brought in at least a couple of million dollars—a long cry from our cut-rate productions. Keaton married Natalie Talmadge, sister of Norma, Metro’s biggest star at that time.
I fondly claim Buster Keaton. We could have done improbable things together. But the Great Stone Face was cut out for larger works than we had to offer. He was one of the first to set the pattern that kept me in trouble the rest of my life: start with Sennett and get rich somewhere else!
Ben Turpin died rich and having fun. After his retirement it was his hobby to direct traffic at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue. With eyes crossed and arms flailing he engineered some of the most outrageous automotive jams in the history of congested Los Angeles.
He yelled to every motorist, “Ben Turpin, three thousand dollars a week!”
From Mack Sennett, King of Comedy (New York: Doubleday, 1954), pp. 135-46.
* Splurch: A technical and onomatopoetic word coined by Mack Sennett; applies only to the effect of sudden custard in the puss.