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Stopping the Show: Funny Cinematography and Very Special Effects in Mack Sennett Slapstick Comedy of the 1920s

Project: Research project

  • Jacobs, Steven (Project coordinator)
  • Op De Beeck, Hans (Co-promotor)
  • Biltereyst, Daniël, Universiteit Gent, Belgium (Co-promotor)
  • D'haeyere, Hilde (PhD student)
  • Nys, Sophie (Project participant)
The project investigates the practise of adding attractions to the slapstick comedy shorts produced by the Mack Sennett Studios in the 1920s. The term 'stopping the show' is generally used in theatrical milieus for acts who are so spectacular and so jaw-dropping that they stop the flow of the show and, in so doing, expose the structure and the mechanisms of the medium. The attractions added to Sennett slapstick films boost production values by introducing cinematographic novelties and high-brow photography for classy acts appealing to an informed and a fashionable audience. The project focuses on cheesecake photography, the experimental use of natural colour processes, special effects photography and the use of found footage. Each of these techniques harks back to practises already introduced in Sennett's Keystone years (1912-1917), which are reinstated during the 1920s in a strategy of self-reference. By drawing attention to the mechanical possibilities of the medium film, parodying cinematic styles and genres, exploiting current events and commercial tie-ins, and favouring slapstick movies that deal with the making of slapstick movies, Sennett foregrounds anti-illusionistic devices as comic tools. However, while show-stopping motives apparently operate as unveiling instances, which expose comic methods, techniques and mechanisms, they might also work as re-mythologizing devices in a strategy of self-parody and media-reflexivity. This comic 'cycle of recycling' will be traced in a publication and a film, using juxtapositions of still and moving pictures of both slapstick films and promotional photographs.