It was 100 years ago that movie comedy made its grand entrance – slipping on a banana peel and dodging a pie as it came through the door.
This was due mainly to one studio: Keystone, Mack Sennett’s pioneering slapstick factory, where such talents as Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin himself took their first pratfalls.
What most people don’t know is Keystone’s keystone. The first building block in Sennett’s media empire was an office or small studio – no one’s really sure which – in Fort Lee, which Sennett opened in the spring of 1912.
"It was around Kaufer Lane, at the intersection of Lower Main Street, but we really don’t know much about it," says Tom Meyers, executive director of the Fort Lee Film Commission, which honors cinema’s little-known pre-Hollywood roots in Bergen County.
This is a banner year for them: In addition to Keystone, Universal Studios and the long-defunct Solax USA (important because it was the home base of film’s first major female director, Alice Guy-Blache) got their start in Fort Lee in 1912.
But Keystone is the key – because it’s the fount from which flowed all modern movie comedy, from Jim Carrey to Zach Galifianakis. To celebrate the big year, the film commission is spearheading several events. A production of "Mack & Mabel," Jerry Herman’s 1974 musical about the romance of Sennett and his leading lady, Normand, is being staged Friday and Saturday by students of Fort Lee High School, with $10,000 in funds raised by the commission. And the "Reel Jersey Girls" exhibit at Fort Lee Museum on Palisade Avenue, continuing through July 1, contains a whole section devoted to Normand and the Keystone comedy universe she helped to create.
"This was all new," Meyers says. "Before this, there was no pie-throwing in movies. They were all very staid affairs, almost like a stage play. Mack Sennett’s only message was laughs. He reached out to the audience, grabbed them by the lapels and shook them. Not subtle. He was about as subtle as an atomic bomb."
Although most people these days haven’t seen a Keystone film, many probably have a rough impression of what these frantic early comedies were like. There were chases, falls into mud puddles, kicks in the rear end. There were fat men, thin men, cross-eyed men, pop-eyed men, men with walrus mustaches and baggy pants. There were pies in the face, of course, usually blackberry pies, not custard ones (blackberry photographed better). There were pretty girls in bathing suits. All this, plus the famous, bumbling Keystone Kops.
Pushing the envelope
"Do you know why American cops gave up that old-fashioned look, with the [tall] hat? Mack Sennett is responsible," Meyers says. "No police officer in America wanted to look like a Keystone Kop."
Sennett’s twitting of authority, by today’s standards, was mild. But to the American audiences of 1912 and 1913, who were emerging from a century of Victorian correctness, it was almost subversive. "He was pushing the edges of the envelope," Meyers says. "He was throwing a pie in the face of respectability."
At the center of this circus was the ringmaster, Sennett, with his principal comedienne and love of his life, Normand. The two never married, but their apparent lifelong romance, at the center of "Mack & Mabel," seems to have started around 1911 in Fort Lee, where Sennett was apprenticing with film pioneer D.W. Griffith.
"His two true loves were making movies and Mabel," says Jonathan Portee, 18, a Fort Lee High School senior who will be playing Mack to Sarah Moore’s Mabel. "He was definitely passionate about both those things. More one than the other, at certain points in his life."
In Normand, Sennett found not just a pretty face but also an exceptional comic talent. It was with her, and around her, that Sennett launched Keystone. Their initial phase in Fort Lee lasted just one hectic summer: After making about a dozen films in New Jersey, they relocated to Hollywood, which was then just getting established as a film town.
"She was quite a funny lady, a prankster," Meyers says. "There were stories that she would pick people up from the Fort Lee ferry to bring to Keystone, and she would scare them by driving her open-air roadster, backwards and at high speed, right up River Road."
The next level
Though Sennett’s base of operations after 1913 was California, he returned to New Jersey between 1915 and 1916 to create a second unit at Fort Lee’s Fox Studio on Main Street and Linwood Avenue, under the direction of one of his biggest stars, "Fatty" Arbuckle. But the writing was on the wall: Sennett’s brand of comedy was being upstaged by the far richer, funnier, more subtle work of one of his protégés: Charlie Chaplin, the little man with the mustache, cane and bowler hat who had started working for Keystone in late 1913.
"Sennett brought him into the movies," Meyers says. "Obviously, he surpassed Sennett in the art of film comedy. He took it to a different level. He was more nuanced. Sennett never left the pie-in-the-face, pull-your-pants-down comedy. But he was the one who opened the door for Chaplin to become the great comedian he became."
WHAT: "Mack & Mabel"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Fort Lee High School, 3000 Lemoine Ave., Fort Lee. 201-693-2763 or fortleefilm.org
HOW MUCH: $10
WHAT: "Reel Jersey Girls"
WHEN: Noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, through July 1
WHERE: Fort Lee Museum, 1588 Palisade Ave. 201-693-2763 or fortleefilm.org
HOW MUCH: Free