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Brown, Don Mack Made Movies; written and illus. by Don Brown.
Roaring Brook, 2003 [32p]
Library ed. ISBN 0-7613-2504-2 $23.90
Trade ed. ISBN 0-7613-1538-1 $16.95
Who could have predicted that the hindmost part of a vaudeville horse would advance to the foremost rank of Hollywood producers? Yet in Don Brown’s picture-book circle of acquaintances, such strides are commonplace. If straitlaced Victorian spinster Mary Kingsley can jaunt off to West Africa (Uncommon Traveler, BCCB 7/00) and bookish monk Columcille can ignite a war (Across a Dark and Wild Sea, BCCB 5/02), why shouldn’t a no-name, bit part, showbiz wannabe become one of the founding fathers of Tinseltown? As Brown’s story goes, Mack Sennett’s scrabble from Canadian farm to tower office on a movie lot is natural as can be.
The self-dubbed “King of Comedy” begins his theatrical career with a string of disappointments, compressed here into a few pages of wry recap. There’s the infamous horse debut, some musical blundering, and, at last, some modest stage success with slapstick (“Audiences loved it. Mack did, too”). Then, with Sennett’s gamble on the exciting new film industry, the action takes off. Sennett schleps scenery, directs corny romances, learns the craft, and ultimately establishes his own studio, where he makes the “goofy, guffawing, golly-gee movies” he loves. Kids see the Sennett star in action: Mabel Normand pitching a pie, the Keystone Kops thrown from their car “like water from a shaking dog,” Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp glancing down from his publicity poster at the throng of theater patrons. And although the text concludes with Sennett at the apex of his career (because the audience, of course, should leave smiling), an endnote admits to the studio’s eventual bankruptcy and Sennett’s lengthy retirement.
Brown has been consistently adept at establishing the powerful relationship between his subjects and their surroundings, and most of his explorer and adventurer biographies have required him to express visually the vulnerability of tiny but resilient individuals against overpowering backdrops of mountain, jungle, desert, and sky. Mack Sennett, though, operates in a mundane human milieu, with no call for artistic sweeps of landscape. Nonetheless, Brown knows right where Sennett belongs—tucked in among a crush of moviegoers, buried in a crowd of stagehands and extras, intimately sharing his own story while perched on an overturned bucket, and often left out of the picture altogether. What could be more appropriate? The measure of Sennett’s success is in the accomplishment of his actors and the reaction of his audiences, all gloriously realized in Brown’s controlled, spidery lines and monochrome watercolor washes. A most dissatisfied audience regards Sennett’s early dance routine with forehead slaps, downed thumbs, rude “razzberries,” and a gallery of facial expressions ranging from ennui to outright disgust. In later, happier times, actors plunge head-first into vats of plaster, slip in puddles, dangle from flagpoles, tumble off “Kop” cars, and, of course, catch pies in the face. Brown clearly understands that Sennett’s trademark pandemonium must take center stage and that to capture “people chasing people, people chasing cars, people chasing dogs, dogs chasing people—anything, as long as it was funny” is to capture the man himself.
It would be nigh impossible to discuss the early days of filmmaking without examining the principle behind the motion-picture camera and some of the logistical challenges inherent in the recording process, and Brown deftly reduces the technicalities to a few neatly integrated observations. After noting Sennett’s decision to switch from stage to screen, Brown takes a brief intermission to explain just what the young man’s getting into. A single page of diagrams displays a hand-cranked camera aimed at a posing pup, a coil of film displaying the dog as it “moves” through successive celluloid frames, and a man viewing the dog as it goes through its paces: “The camera captures the action as a series of still pictures. The still pictures are displayed quickly one after another to give the impression of movement.” Any questions? Then please direct your attention to the pointing finger, and “Flip the pages to watch the dog dance.” A quick riffle of the lower-right corners does indeed set the pup prancing in an effective and entertaining demonstration of persistence of vision. Then it’s back to the main feature, as Sennett learns his craft from the bottom up. Simply cranking the camera is something of an art: “If they were cranked too slowly, the actors on film appeared to jump around like kangaroos. If cranked too fast, the picture seemed to crawl in slow motion.” Sets are ramshackle and sunlit, staffed with limited personnel; rain cancels a day’s schedule, and even the boss must handle the grunt work: “I was telephone operator, bookkeeper, actor, director and film cutter. It took a lot of physical endurance to get through the work. My hair turned white.”
Children who are familiar with the Don Brown canon may wonder at first how Mack Sennett slipped onto his roster of explorers and adventurers, people who made their mark on foreign soil and even in thin air. Sennett should feel right at home, though, since “his breakneck pacing left audiences breathless.” And that is exactly what adventurers do.
Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer
Cover illustration by Don Brown from Mack Made Movies
©2003. Used by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
This page was last updated on May 1, 2003.