The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture

Rob King,
The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009
ISBN 978-0-520-25537-1
$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

Frankly, I’ve never been a huge connoisseur of slapstick comedy, having inherited an innate prejudice of all low-brow culture from my European parents. With the exception of Keaton, Chaplin, and Max Davidson, viewing silent, slapstick comedy has been more a matter of duty to film history for me than of real visual pleasure. Not surprisingly, I had embraced many of the stereotypes surrounding Max Sennett’s Keystone Film Company, encapsulated in images of custard pies, cops, and bathing beauties. And while I’ve acknowledged attempts to read silent American slapstick comedy as a form of resistance to Hollywood’s classical modes of address, I’ve never bought into the thesis – often propagated by European critics – that such comedy also articulated a resistance to ruling class ideology. Rob King’s The Fun Factory moves beyond both critical perspectives to present an extremely nuanced reading of that seminal company’s comedy output as it transitioned from working class entertainment to a purveyor of a seemingly classless mass consumer culture. Indeed, Keystone’s brief but extremely important history from ca. 1912 to 1917, marks several transitions: from a cinema of attractions to classical Hollywood narrative, from the production of shorts to features, from small independent producer-director production units to the studio system, and from low-brow culture to what would be termed Hollywood’s middle-brow culture. In contextualizing these transitions, King goes well-beyond the hagiography of most writing on the Keystone Company and its famous comics to demonstrate the company’s importance for history beyond the artistic merits of its individual performers.

In his introduction, then, King articulates two questions which will structure his investigation: 1. To what degree did Keystone’s early output reflect working class experiences and practices?; 2. How did the evolution of what is termed mass culture change the dynamics and content of Keystone’s cinematic output? The premise of the first question already flies in the face of the accepted wisdom of revisionist film historians, like Ben Singer, Miriam Hansen, and others who argued that the cinema in its earliest days was never solely a working class entertainment, but rather always a heterogeneous mixture of middle and working class patrons. The second question, on the other hand, presupposes a much more nuanced ideological critique of Hollywood than most left-wing critics have presented. What is at stake then, is much more than an analysis of Keystone’s comic world, rather, King provides a theoretical grid for the articulation of Hollywood film history in this transitional phase from cottage industry to industrialized studio system.

In his first chapter, then, Rob King must do two things: He must prove that Keystone’s aesthetic of filmmaking addressed working class audiences and was indeed received by that audience. The author documents the latter by first pointing to a Russell Sage survey from 1910 that 78% of all cinemagoers in New York City were blue-collar (p. 21), and secondly, by looking at which cinemas/nickelodeons in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago were playing Keystone product, noting that these were not the high-priced houses of the middle class, but rather situated in working class neighborhoods or overwhelmingly patronized by workers and their families (p. 51). He begins to address the question of aesthetics by noting that Keystone’s particular brand of slapstick consciously bucked the general industry trend towards genteel forms of melodrama: “Both within and outside the field of comedy, cinema’s drive for respectability had entailed a move into the realm of genteel moral discourse, associated with notions of female moral authority and the idealization of domesticity.” (p. 40) While such a trend implied the production of plot driven narratives with a moral point of view, Keystone’s early films were essentially plotless narratives which featured slapstick spectacles and easily recognizable ethnic and gendered stereotypes.

The last-named point is undergirded in King’s second chapter, which traces the origins of these stereotypes of accented Germans and Jews, rowdy and drunk Irishmen (and women), and black-faced minstrels to 19thcentury saloon and fairground entertainments frequented by the working class, which then became popular in contemporary burlesque and vaudeville theatre. He goes on to argue that from its beginnings in 1912, “…the Keystone Film Company firmly grounded its slapstick-style in the comedy of ethnic impersonation.” (p. 70) Thus, Ford Sterling, Keystone’s first first-string comic, was strongly identified as a “Dutch” or German ethnic comic: pompous, slow-witted, but ambitiously and aggressively pursuing middle class status. Within two years, however, Charles Chaplin, who joined Keystone in 1914, would be seen as symbolic of a turning point from a “comedy of ethnic difference into the comedy of class hierarchy.” (p. 81) Chaplin’s tramp, like Keystone’s other comics in the wake of Chaplin’s departure in 1915, would be identified vaguely as working class characters, who invaded spaces reserved for the wealthy; this master plot would significantly increase Keystone’s and slapstick’s fan base in the middle classes, since it was less grounded in “vulgar” ethnic stereotyping.

Indeed, it is just such a plot that defines Keystone’s first feature film, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (USA 1914), starring Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand and Charles Chaplin. King devotes all of chapter 3 to the film’s production history, reception, and textual analysis. He argues that while the film followed industry trends towards longer, more genteel films with moral plots, it is also indicative of Keystone’s resistance to those very trends, and must ultimately be seen as a hybrid work: “Rather, its final two reels move in the direction of total narrative and social disorder, as plot developments are abandoned to the forces of comic spectacle.” (p. 130) In other words, the exact opposite of the kind of return to order and narrative closure that other Hollywood features were striving to achieve.

However, as King’s next chapter demonstrates, Keystone forsook features almost immediately again for shorts, once it was integrated into the ill-fated Triangle Film Company, where it was to function merely as a supplier of shorts for Triangle’s high-class features. Apart from the mismanagement in Triangle’s corporate offices, Keystone’s slapstick was in fact antithetical to the high brow cultural aspirations of Triangle’s front office, leading ultimately to Keystone’s abandonment of working class themes in favor of a commercially driven mass entertainment that obliterated differentiation between low and high culture, between middle and working class distinctions in its audience, i.e. the goal became finding the lowest common denominator. This mass entertainment was characterized by pathos and sentiment, the visualization of conspicuous consumption, and by supplanting class conflict with moral conflicts, whereby bogus counts and other degenerate characters, rather than factory workers, now invade the spaces of the upper crust.
Rob King’s last two chapters focus on the role of technology (as a marker of modernity) and gender issues, respectively, in Keystone’s 1915-1917 output. Both chapters also illustrate the Company’s movement towards mass entertainment and commercialization. In the former case, “technological spectacle redeemed physical comedy for a broad, cross-class audience” (p. 190), morphing the threatening mechanization of modernity into pleasurable experiences associated with amusement park rides, thereby heralding the industry’s drift to ideologically conservative values. Meanwhile, Keystone’s biggest female star, Mabel Normand, moved from working class heroines unafraid to engage in knock-about comedy and openly partisan leftwing politics (pre-1915) to upwardly mobile and “classless” girls who work to get ahead. Furthermore, Normand’s unique physical beauty is supplanted at Keystone by the serialized, assembly-line prettiness of Max Sennett’s “Bathing Beauties”; these young women are born to consume and demonstrate to the ever-growing movie audience of young women that physical fitness, make-up and new clothes trumps class distinctions.

In conclusion, Rob King’s book on Keystone reinvigorates leftist critiques of the American film industry by clearly demonstrating the Company’s working class allegiances, at least until the merger with Triangle. At the same time it cautions that liberating tendencies in a comedy of disorder seldom translate into changes in political consciousness or social reform. Furthermore, King illustrates clearly how quickly such strategies of resistance to middle class, genteel norms were supplanted by amusing mass entertainments. This book should thus also be essential reading for all those film historians not necessarily interested in slapstick comedy.

Jan-Christopher Horak,
UCLA, Los Angeles.

Created on: Tuesday, 1 December 2009

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →