On The Keystone Kops

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The fact that the true “star” of any Mack Sennett film was always the ensemble is evidenced by his studio’s most famous legacy (after Charlie Chaplin), the Keystone Kops. The phrase has become proverbial for any bungling police department (or really any incompetent organization of any kind) but as time rolls along, one imagines fewer and fewer people know the source of the reference.

The Keystone Kops were a popular feature of Keystone comedy shorts chiefly during the years 1913 to 1915, although they certainly made appearances after those years. The Kops weren’t branded at the time per se, their name wasn’t included in any title, it didn’t appear in posters or marquees. They were simply part of the Keystone universe. People in trouble frequently need to call the police, and the characters in Keystone comedies were always in trouble.

As far as the audience was concerned, the Kops didn’t have names. They’re just the fat one, the tall one, the skinny one, the short one, and the one with the walrus moustache. Nearly all of the male Keystone comedians donned the uniform at some point: Ford Sterling, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Fred Mace, Edgar Kennedy, Chester Conklin, Slim Summerville, Al St. John, and dozens more, including (it was not discovered until 2010) Charlie Chaplin.

The Kops have been much romanticized in retrospect, largely as the result of nostalgic compilation films produced in the 1950s and 60s, and tributes, such as Abbot and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955). In reality, they were usually only a small part of the comedies in which they appeared; just brief appearances at the climax of a film. You’ve undoubtedly seen the ritual in many an anthologized clip if not in one of the actual Keystone shorts. The desk sergeant takes a phone call. He summons the unit. They stand sloppily at attention (those who can stand). And then they run to their car, where they will zoom to the scene of distress and undoubtedly do more harm then good.

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Posterity remembers the Kops because they make a strong visual impression. In motion, they are similar to Warner Brothers’ Tasmanian Devil character – a sort of tornado-like blob with many heads, arms and legs, a dust cloud full of detritus moving as a single unit, bouncing off things, falling down. Not surprisingly, the Kops call to mind a troupe of circus clowns, the way they chaotically arrive in an open-aired automobile, and tumble out in a tangle. This herd-like quality of the Kops reminds me more than a little of the police chorus in Pirates of Penzance. Given the fact that Sennett was a serious music theatre lover one can’t help but wonder if the germ of something was planted in Sennett’s head by the popular Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. One notes with interest that there was a prominent revival of the show at the Casino Theatre in June 1912. But this is just a theory. Sennett himself mentioned the gendarmes in early French comedies as one of his inspirations.

I suspect that the guys who played the Kops would be very amused to learn that the uniform they wore has been permanently branded as a Keystone Kop costume. At the time, that was pretty much just how actual policemen dressed, with the bobby type helmet, and the thigh length overcoat with a row of brass buttons down front. Ironically, it was the Kops who ran this style of police uniform out of fashion. All of the sudden, it started to seem like law enforcement officers across the country were dressed like clowns. Once that image had been planted, there was nothing to do but change the uniform…

Now, the folks who created this video below have done us all a service. I was in a quandary about what clip to attach. As I said, there’s no real Keystone Kop movie. The Kops usually show up at the end of a film, and they’re only in a few shots or scenes. If I attached a typical comedy short in which they appeared, you’d have to sit through most of it before we got to them. However, these folks have done us all a solid by editing a bunch of their best scenes together into what is sort of the ultimate Keystone Kop sampler. And there’s even a helpful list of what films the excerpts are from at the end:

For much, much more about the Keystone Kops, please see my book  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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