The Films of Mack Sennett: Credit Documentation from the Mack Sennett Collection at the Margaret Herrick Library

Every so often a new book dealing with the history of motion pictures appears on the horizon. Historians and fans wait with anticipation, baited breath and hope that it will be a definitive look at creative motion picture artists of distinction. The latest offering is The Films of Mack Sennett, primarily based on the remaining archival information that Sennett donated to the library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, also known as the Margaret Herrick Library. Mack Sennett’s own papers are the drawing card for this historical overview of production information. However, there is good news and bad news.

The good news. As compiled and edited by Warren M. Sherk of the Academy, this book is an astounding detailing of 855 films produced by the Mack Sennett Company from September 1912 through 1933. The films are listed in alphabetical order without regard to years and are numbered in ascending order from 1 through 855 (there is a chronological index of titles in appendix B). Each entry includes production information and cast. Unfortunately, synopsis’s of the films are not included. Other information presented includes a sampling of Sennett’s actual records, a section that will benefit those who collect production stills by identifying the production numbers for each film and working titles of each film. (It should be noted that the working titles are already listed with the production information for each entry and really didn’t need a separate section listing identical information.) The only other printed source that I have been able to find a comparable compilation is D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Company, by Cooper C. Graham, Steven Higgins, Elaine Mancini and Joao Luiz Vieira (Scarecrow Press, 1985). Working many years compiling filmographies, I can appreciate the Herculean task that it took to sort and compile the vast amount of material in the Sennett collection. These cast credits will send serious researchers and filmographers into a frenzy discovering additional film credits for so many comedic performers heretofore unknown films.

The bad news. The strength of this reference book is that it is gleaned from Mack Sennett’s personal production records. The fact that the book relies on what exists in the Sennett holdings almost exclusively is also its weakness, for there are some major omissions that cannot be overlooked. Incredibly, not one Chaplin film is listed – this discovery was like a icy cold spritz from a seltzer bottle! It is not known why Chaplin’s 35 film credits are not in the Sennett papers. The editor does not provide an explanation. The only comment about these omissions are, “No material from Sennett’s Biograph period and very little Keystone material are to be found…. There is material on nearly all of the films that Sennett Produced from mid-1915 to 1933, with the major exceptions being the feature films Tillies’ Punctured Romance (Mutual/Keystone, 1914), Mickey (W.H. Productions, 1918) and Married Life (Associated First National, 1920).”

In checking the film listings from The Films of Mack Sennett against the Davide Turconi Italian publication of 1961, Mack Sennett and his French publication of 1968 (both translated into English), which listed more cast credits than his earlier work, I came up with an additional 266 missing film titles known to exist. I checked these two sources twice to be on the safe side. In addition, there appear to be 7 films released in 1935 by Sennett. These are referenced in the Turcorni books listed above, though he does seem to question their validity, he nonetheless listed them. (It should be noted that Chaplin biographer David Robinson used the Turconi indexes while compiling his Chaplin filmography in his definative book Chaplin: His Life and Art {McGraw-Hill, 1985})

Besides the Chaplin omissions, there were scores of known and documented films that were not listed: at least 19 films are missing from 1912, 50 from 1913, 131 from 1914, 25 from 1915 and 27 between 1916 and 1935. These include films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Charles Murray, Wallace MacDonald, Phyllis Haver and Daphne Pollard. There were amendments made by the editor using other sources, such as Motion Picture News, Moving Picture World and The Catalog of Copyright Entries, Motion Pictures, 1912-1939, that filled in some of Sennett’s existing information.

What is puzzling is that missing films were not also noted from these same outside sources. Perhaps they should have been listed with an asterisk denoting that they were from other material not included in the Sennett papers they were using. And perhaps a thought might have been given to including the Biograph films, even as a separate index. The Biograph films that Mack Sennett acted, wrote and directed from 1908 through mid-September of 1912, when he left Biograph and founded Keystone, are also missing. They total at least 347 films. A simple alphabetical listing by year would have given this superb book a truly definitive coverage of all the work of Mack Sennett productions under one umbrella. The handful of scholars who are familiar with Sennett’s output will probably not find it difficult to fill in the missing films. However, the novice researcher and beginning scholar should be aware that The Films of Mack Sennett is not a definitive Sennett compilation.

It is interesting and exciting to know that the Sennett collection contained between 40,000 to 50,000 photographs of scene stills. Unfortunately, barely more than a baker’s dozen of these stills were used to illustrate The Films of Mack Sennett. For researchers, however, the Sennett collection at the Herrick Library is available for study by special appointment. It is a boon for film scholars to have access to all the information from the collection that could not be contained in this book.

Regardless of the above missing information, please note that I do not intend in any way to blemish or negate the hard work that went into creating this book. For all those who worked with Mr. Sherk to bring The Films of Mack Sennett to fruition I extend my hearty congratulations.

Madison Morrison