‘Shows you how things go, huh? Another inch, half an inch maybe, a turn of the head and my whole fuckin’ career could’ve been over. There was this nice kid. A rich kid. Harry Cooper. His father owned a bank or something. And he had this sonofabitchin’ Bugatti roadster. And I was out with him one night, and he was showing off his god-damned car. You know how it is with some guys. They think a car is like a part of their body and they want to show you how hot it is. So all of a sudden, wham. And I remember how I thought it was just beautiful, like a fireworks explosion, glass in a terrific pattern, and I passed out…’
So said Carole Lombard to director Garson Kanin in 1941 recounting the horrific car crash that derailed her career in 1925, ending her contract with Fox. You know, it’s quite something to think of all the Canadians who played a part in the shaping of early Hollywood. And we certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Toronto born director Allan Dwan who spotted 12 year old tomboy Jane Peters playing baseball with her friends and decided to cast her in a picture.
As I am currently looking at William Powell’s silent pictures, I also want to delve into the nascent careers of his friends. Although Bill and Carole didn’t meet until 1930, I was curious about this pragmatic step that she took after the car crash to join Mack Sennett’s company. The crash had left some scarring to her face, with obvious implications for her future, but Carole was determined to return to the motion picture business as soon as she could and in whichever way was possible.
Mack Sennett was born Michael Sinnott in Richmond, Quebec, in 1880, although the Sinnott family eventually moved to Northampton, Massachusetts. In his late teens Sennett worked in factories but what he truly yearned for was a theatrical career. Now later on Mack spun this yarn about Sinnott family lawyer Calvin Coolidge (yes that one), writing a letter of recommendation about his young client to Marie Dressler – native of Cobourg, Ontario. Regardless, starting at the Bowery Theatre, New York, Sennett became a chorus boy, eventually moving onto Broadway shows.
In 1908 Mack Sennett got a minor role with the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company thus beginning his long career in motion pictures. Under the tutelage of D W Griffith his expertise in motion picture making progressed to such an extent that during 1908 Sennett moved on from being merely a player to also writing and directing two reel shorts. There was an opportunity for Sennett here as Griffith wasn’t keen on comedy but made comedy shorts anyway due to their immense popularity. And more opportunity for Sennett arose in 1912 when the New York Motion Picture Company needed a comedy studio and thus the Keystone Film Company was born, located in Edendale, California.
Sennett discovered and gave a start to some truly legendary comedians in particular Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. And let’s not forget Gloria Swanson, although Gloria was adamant that she was never a ‘Bathing Beauty’. Mack Sennett started the Bathing Beauties initially to drum up publicity, but found that the antics of this troop of girls increased the popularity of his pictures. This then provided an avenue for Carole’s return to motion pictures in 1927. Certainly after many long months of convalescence to heal the scars caused by the accident Carole Lombard was back on the scene in a big way burning up the Cocoanut Grove’s dance competitions.
However Mack Sennett’s glory days were long behind him, hence the move to Pathé, who were also struggling and in need of some quick wins. The Sennett brand of slapstick tomfoolery was becoming a bit old hat, and the dawn of the talkies would usher in a more verbose style of quick witted humour through the Thirties. Sennett had introduced himself to Carole at the Cocoanut Grove before the car crash and couldn’t have cared less about her scarring. He just needed a nice looking girl who was game for anything. And he was more than happy to proffer useful advice for Carole: “We gotta get some meat on you. Carole, honey, you go right home and eat some bananas, a lot of bananas,” he said. “Just keep on eatin’ ‘em. That’ll fatten you up, especially in the tits.”
Carole was elated to have this opportunity to resume her career and was determined to make full use of it, starting off in small parts and graduating to larger roles in shorts such as ‘Run Girl Run’, ‘The Campus Carmen’ and ‘The Campus Vamp’.
In these comedies Carole tends to play a boy crazy sporty girl, in contrast to Daphne Pollard’s bossy girl, Madalynne Fields as the funny fat girl and Sally Eilers as the good girl.
It’s difficult to know whether the Sennett movies created or merely developed the cheeky side of Carole Lombard’s personality, but in the films Lombard is more recognisable as the Carole Lombard comedy persona we know than in her early Paramount pictures where she sometimes seems nervous and affected. There’s no doubt that she’s literally throwing herself into the parts wholeheartedly – at one point during a pillow fight in ‘The Campus Carmen’ she takes a pillow full on in the kisser leading to an exquisitely executed pratfall off the bed and onto her back leaving just a visible pair of shapely gams!
‘My best tutor was Mack Sennett. He is the old maestro of comedies. Sally Eilers and I were the last of his bathing beauties to get somewhere. Mack Sennett is a wonderful teacher. His knowledge of comedy, of timing, use of pantomime, of sudden changes from comedy to tragedy, from laughter to tears – well he has grasped the psychology of the human mind.’
‘Mack Sennett’s was the school of hard knocks. There I started working up from the bottom. It was the most delightful madhouse imaginable and life was one fall after another. There was a lusty, rowdy spirit of freedom there that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. I recommend it. It exposed the sham of pretension, it exploded the petty hypocrisies of people in high places, it flung pies at false dignity. What’s more, Sennett’s develops the sense of humour, toughens the constitution, nurtures the ambition and teaches you the game as it should be played. Two years there gave me a thorough grounding. I left fully prepared to face the world.’
This piece forms part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Ruth at Silver Screenings and Kristina at Speakeasy – pull up a bucket of poutine, a four pack of Oh Henry bars, and a can of Molson Canadian as you relax and read some of the great posts on there.
Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century Star – Michelle Morgan
Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A Historical Overview – Brent E Walker