Admiral Dumont d’Urville, the same person who discovered the Venus de Milo, met death in the first railway accident.
The Marquis de Sade, imprisoned in the Bastille, having made a megaphone out of a gutter, stirred up the crowd at the beginning of July by announcing that prisoners were being massacred. On July 4th, he was transferred to Charenton; on July 14th, the Bastille was taken. He died in 1814, having spent almost all his life in prison.
Trelawney, who was lieutenant of De Ruyter’s privateer, lit with his own hand the log that consumed Shelley’s corpse. He was witness to Byron’s last days, married two daughters of barbarous kings, was the first to swim across the Niagara and Missouri and, at the age of 90, died in England in a calm rose garden.
All exemplary lives participate in this tragic slapstick, this lyrical humor, to the point that comedy is, definitively, only the most disconcerting form of lyricism.
Enemies of all poetry are not mistaken, in cinema as well.
The average critic, in general, listened to and respected, has only contempt for slapstick films and this qualifier is an insult from his pen.
This is why it is appropriate to place very high, on the same plane as Charlie Chaplin, this creator of lyrical and sensual slapstick: Mack Sennett.
Bathing beauties running along sandy beaches, lost sirens, tender lovers, mad inventions—he introduced a new element in cinema that is neither comedy nor tragedy but, to be precise, the most elevated form of cinema, on the plane of ethics, love, poetry and freedom.
The madness presiding over his scripts, we well know, is that of fairy tales and of those dreamers who the world despises and to whom the world owes the delights of life.
Without him, what would have become of Fatty Arbuckle (so admirable, moreover, and so unjustly forgotten, the incarnation of ferocity and hopelessness), Buster Keaton, Larry Semon or Al St. John?
The importance of the Mack Sennett Comedies in the evolution of cinema is immense. But must we not once again suspect American hypocrisy for having hindered his free development?
It is again Mack Sennett’s stunning influence that gives Harry Langdon—recently arriving on French screens—that inexpressible charm that, via a different route than Chaplin, knows how to deeply move us: Fatty Arbuckle, Larry Semon, Al St. John, Harry Langdon, as much as they remain poets, easily obtain an elevated ethics of life and passions, image and imagination powerfully serving their designs. As soon as they want to evolve on a purely moral plane, they are overburdened by psychology, which is the peak of horror.
While, in the suspended world in which he lives, Mack Sennett presides over the sensational encounter of love and sensuality, fairies—those inseparable sisters of both poetry and freedom, dead and deeply buried under twenty centuries of Christianity in the crypts of churches—are reborn and appear with their true faces and their pompous costumes. And we recognize seductive modern women, enigmatic smiles that delight us, eyes that make our own droop and, above all, love—our love—tormented by dreams, freedom, revolt and fear.
Originally published in Le Soir, April 15, 1927
Reprinted in Robert Desnos, Les Rayons et les ombres: cinema (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1992), 97-99.