Meet The Keystone Kops

Slapstick!  Mayhem!  Incompetence!  Buffoonery!  Clumsiness!  Craziness!  Bungling!   Chasing!  Running!  Zaniness!  Now quick, say the first words that come to your mind…

…And I’ll bet the $2.38 that I have in my pocket that you just said “Keystone Kops.” Cue their most famous photo.

Image result for keystone cops

Quiz: Name the film this publicity pic is from! (The answer will be at the end of this post.)

As American as the Statue of Liberty and almost as iconic, the Kops have had a foothold in the public imagination ever since they first started tumbling from cop cars back in the 1910s.  Ask almost anyone about the Kops and they’ll probably describe round helmets, flying coattails, racing around in bewildered jumbles and sudden hops for no clear reason.  And ask almost anyone to describe a typical Kops comedy and they’ll probably say there used to be an old series about a group of incompetent policeman, always racing clumsily to the rescue and never actually solving anything.

These ideas are so familiar that today “Keystone Kops” has become a go-to phrase for describing incompetence, often showing up in news articles, blog posts, and angry message board rants (especially political rants, naturally).

The typical images that everyone knows are part of the legend–the mythology, if you will, of the Kops.  But what were they really like in their films?  Why did Mack Sennett create them for his comedies in the first place?  And lastly, who were the Kops?

Let’s start with Sennett, the “Father of Comedy.”

In his usual habitat.

Sennett was an energetic Canadian-born Irish Catholic who eventually became an actor in the vibrant theater district of New York City.  At age 28 he started working for the Biograph film company under D.W. Griffith.  There he went from bit player to writer and director, soon being in charge of his own Biograph comedy unit (supposedly Griffith once said that Sennett was “obsessed with using policemen”).  In 1912 The New York Motion Picture Company hired the enthusiastic filmmaker to be in charge of his very own comedy brand…Keystone!

Sennett is usually portrayed as a loud, easily bored, crude tobacco-spitting man conducting the affairs of his company from a bathtub.  Sennett himself thought this was the best image ever and encouraged it with pride.  However, in reality he was probably a more cultured person than is assumed, being a devoted theater-goer with a special fondness for Broadway and opera.

The first film Sennett made for his Keystone studio was likely A Grocery Clerk’s Romance (1913), shot in New Jersey before Keystone was officially on paper (he was pretty eager to get started).  That began the hectic schedule of hundreds of split-reel, one-reel and two-reel comedies to come.  They would use the talents of experienced comedians like Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle and techniques learned at the Biograph studios–and a massive dash of Sennett’s own creativity.

Certain themes began popping up in those comedies: rubes vs. city slickers, wives exasperated with flirting husbands, romantic rivals seeking revenge.  And certain characters recurred too: flirts, ethnic stereotypes, rubes…and cops.

Why cops?  In those early days of film much of the movie-going audience was made of up of the working class and immigrants.  Sennett knew this and knew these blue-collar people would get a kick out of authority figures being lampooned.  The most familiar authority figures of all?  The police, of course!

Sennett wasn’t the first person to use cops for comic effects–they show up in 1900s French comedies.  One is Georges Méliès’s The Scheming Gambler’s Paradise (1905), where an illegal gambling hall quickly transforms itself into an innocent drygoods store just before a police force enters.  Later, the force busts in again while the lights are out and start fighting each other instead of the perpetrators.

So what are the most commonly repeated “facts” about these Keystone Kops?

  1. The first film the Kops appeared in was The Bangville Police (1913)–False!  Surprisingly enough, the first Keystone film to feature cops in any form was Riley and Schultze (1912), about a constable trying to outwit his sergeant.  This was the third (third!) film Keystone released, and it was advertised as “An uproarious ‘Cop’ picture.”  The first time an entire police force appeared was in At It Again (1912).  Both films are lost.  The earliest surviving film with cops is The Man Next Door (1913).   Several months after that Bangville Police was finally released (not called ‘The’ Bangville Police).  However, the latter is significant as the first film where the Kops play a central role.  So it can be kind of be true, in a way.
  2. The Kops starred in their own series–False!  Bangville Police and a few others like Fatty Joins The Force (1913) are the rare shorts where the Kops have a pretty big role.  In almost all the others they tend to show up at the end of the film as part of a climactic chase scene.  Tidbit: Up until about 1914 they were just referred to as “Keystone’s police” or “cops” rather than Keystone Kops.
  3. The Kops were a gang of zany characters, always trying and failing to come to the rescue–Sort of!  The Kops tended to act as an impersonal jumble of policemen, rather than having clear-cut characters.  (The “police chief” role would sometimes be an exception.)  Often, supporting actors would also double as cops in the very same film.  They were indeed portrayed as incompetent, although they always had tons of energy and the zeal to try and come to the rescue on time.
  4. They were always throwing pies–Basically False!  While pies were thrown in Sennett comedies they weren’t quite as common as we might assume.  If someone asked you what the big Keystone comedy clichés were it would be more accurate to reply with “big fake mustaches” or “infidelity.”   Pie-throwing was also more likely to be done by one of the main actors than one of the Kops.  Our idea of Keystone probably stems more from later “tribute” films, which were full of pies, than from the original 1910s shorts.

So who were the very first actors to play the Kops?  It’s hard to tell.  Many actors filtered in and out of the roles–even Charlie Chaplin took a turn–but according to Mack Sennett there generally were these seven guys:

Hank Mann
Hank Mann portrait youngMann was born in Russia, and his family immigrated to the U.S. when he was very young.  He was a steeplejack (a guy whose living is scaling tall buildings ala Harold Lloyd in Safety Last to do repairs) and a vaudeville acrobat. He joined and left Keystone several times and also served in World War I.  Later in life he was a malt shop owner and freelance actor, often in demand for various “Keystone homage” films.  One of his most well-known later roles was the boxer in Chaplin’s City Lights.  

 

Slim Summerville
Slim Summerville portraitOrphaned at the age of five, Summerville lived with his grandparents until running away from home at the age of ten.  He roamed the country finding odd jobs, including a short-lived apprenticeship in a coffin factory.  It’s said that Edgar Kennedy discovered him working in a pool room and invited the lanky, 6’2″ young man to work at Keystone.  He would act in numerous comedy films and do stints in dramatic films as well, such as All Quiet on the Western Front.  He was known to be a cheerfully impulsive traveler as well as the “sloppiest dressed man in the film colony.”

Edgar Kennedy
Edgar Kennedy young portraitWhile a young man Kennedy traveled the country working whatever jobs came his way.  Eventually he became a professional boxer, once going 14 rounds with famous slugger Jack Dempsey.  His good singing voice also lead to acting in musical comedies and vaudeville, which lead to acting for Keystone throughout most of the 1910s.  Known today for his famous “slow burn,” Kennedy would eventually work with everyone from Laurel and Hardy to the Marx Brothers.

 

 

Bobby Dunn
Bobby Dunn portraitBorn in Milwaukee, Dunn started doing daredevil stunt dives at the tender age of 9.  As a young man he would perform with Dr. Carver’s Diving Horses, and he would eventually work as an actor for many film companies including Keystone.  In his years of stunt diving he lost many of his front teeth, and he lost his eye in a freak accident when he dived into a barrel and was stuck by a matchstick floating on top of the water  The glass eye he had to use made him a little cross-eyed, which served only to empower his comedic career.  You might know Dunn as the cheery shoplifter in Laurel and Hardy’s Tit for Tat–“How do you do!”

 

Charles Avery
Charles Avery portraitA performer with a long stage career before joining Keystone, Avery played in the popular play Charley’s Aunt and was Governor Shrimp in The Clansman (awkward).  At Keystone he would act a little and direct a whole lot.  According to legend that Keystone probably made up, his coat was the one Chaplin adopted when putting together his Little Tramp costume.
 

 

George Jeske
unknown_person

Jeske had a comparatively normal life as a Utah native and bit-player-turned-assistant-director at Keystone.  He would then work mainly as a screenwriter and director.  In the ’40s, with a few decades of working exclusively in the visual medium of the screen he went all out and started writing for radio.  And I can’t find any pictures of him.

 
Mack Riley
Sennett groucho glassesOkay Mack Sennett, you’re not fooling anyone with your oh-so-obvious “secret” name.  Or that really bad photo made with MS Paint, either.

 

 

 

 

I’m thinking either Slim Summerville or Bobby Dunn can duke it out for the title of “Most Awesome Life Story.”

Other Kops include: Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Joe Bordeaux, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy and many others.  Actors hoping to make it at Keystone would usually have to do their duty as a Kop first.  Anyone able to tough it out through the rigorous schedule of tumbles, pratfalls and other constant threats of injury was pretty much In.

It worked out fairly well for some guys.

Sennett’s Kops were frequently used during the 1910s, less frequently during the ’20s and by the sound era had fallen from popularity.  But it doesn’t end there–in 1935 Ralph Staub filmed a short called Keystone Hotel featuring several Sennett veterans, such as Chester Conklin and Ford Sterling.  This was the first of several homages and revivals of the Keystone Kops, such as Hollywood Cavalcade (1939)–which featured Buster Keaton even though he’d never worked at Keystone–and Abbott and Costello Meet The Keystone Kops (1955).

In fact, thanks to these revivals there’s a lot of photos that people mistakenly believe to be circa the 1910s but are actually from the ’30s or even later.  This, for instance, is much later homage photo featuring the likes of Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacClaine and Rock Hudson:

And fun photos like this are clearly reunions of older former Kops:

But whether we get our facts straight about the Keystone Kops or not, they are still inseparable from the idea of “classic slapstick comedies.”  Their hapless pratfalls and crazy stunts were the forerunners of almost everything that came after it.

As Minta Durfee, an actress who had worked at Keystone, put it: “…Every one of our Keystone Cops ought to have a dowry in heaven for what they did, enough to kill them, and for such little pay.”

Note: My main source for this article was that heartbreaking work of staggering genius, the massively comprehensive book Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory by Brent Walker.  It is an essential part of a film history fan’s library.

Ah yes, and the correct answer is…In the Clutches of the Gang (1914), a lost film.

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29 thoughts on “Meet The Keystone Kops

  1. Pingback: The Minions Third Trailer Sheds a Clue with Gru? | Otaku no Culture

  2. That was a good essay, Lea. I read somewhere that police departments were switching from the round helmets and long coats to short jackets and peaked caps around that time and Sennett acquired a bunch of surplus uniforms. San Francisco switched in that period.

    • That’s a cool bit of trivia! I heard something similar, where the uniform switch was literally the result of the police wanting to distance themselves from the inept Kops in Sennett’s comedies…probably not true, but it’s a funny idea at any rate.

    • Ah, now this would be the first time I’ve heard of such a connection. I haven’t seen that famous play, myself–care to elaborate on how it could’ve inspired Keystone films?

      • Pirates of Penzance is the original use of a dozen uniformed police attempting to execute a rescue that invariably fails. Was done in the 1800’s. There is a movie, you should watch it. Its a 10 for choreography, singing and comedy. Filmed in 19833 and true to the original script and music.

  3. Pingback: Meet The Keystone Kops | Tammy's All Things History

  4. I have a friend who has since passed away that I was told was at one time in the Keystone Kops ( but not by him). I cannot find anything about it. His name was Eugene Colton Ninde (Buck) jr .

    • Hi Ellen! Let’s see, my first thought was to check Brent Walker’s book “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory” to see if there’s anything in the index with that name (not a gratuitous plug–that book is literally THE resource on Keystone). I’m not seeing anyone with the name of Ninde, or Colton for that matter (there’s a Buck the Dog!). Unless he went by a different name altogether–some people did, you never know–it’s hard to say if he ever worked for Sennett. But! There were a ton of film companies back then who churned out comedies, Essanay, Universal, Vitagraph, etc. He could’ve worked for any one of them–maybe knowing what years he worked in Hollywood would be your first clue (the Kops’ heyday was the 1910s). Hope that helps a little bit!

  5. My step-grandfather, Walter E. Bystrom, was one of those unlisted Keystone Kops, as well as being some other silent films. He used to tell us some stories of the filming and he always had some 8 mm reels of some Keystone Kop films. On one occasion in the late 1950’s, we were out on a family outing and Walter ran into Francis X. Bushman, who had been an old buddy of Water’s during their silent movie days. I just wish that there was a more detailed history of the Keystone Kops and a better listing of those who played parts in the movies.

    • Hi Harvey, welcome. 🙂 I checked Brent Walker’s book Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory for you, which is literally the encyclopedia of all things Keystone. (It covers every single one of Sennett’s 1,000+ films, plus every person who worked with his studio in any capacity.) It’s the most detailed and definitive source possible on all things Keystone. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing anyone in the index with the last name Bystrom. Unless he went by a different name, or possibly just spent some time as an extra (not sure if extras were kept track of that carefully), I’m not sure how we would pinpoint anything else about his time there. It’s also possible that one of the other film companies he worked for also made comedies with their own versions of the Kops.

      It’s awesome that he used to work with Bushman–such a major star! Do you recall any other stories he used to tell? Would love to hear about ’em!

      • Thank you, Lea. The following is my favorite memory about Walter’s (aka in our family “Uncle Walt”) film career. On a rainy Saturday afternoon around 1959, my family was watching a John Wayne movie on TV entitled “Big Jim McClain.” It was a movie made in 1950 in Hawaii about fear of communists and the McCarthy hearings. John Wayne was a commie hunter in Hawaii.

        Toward the end of the movie, John Wayne was at an outdoor café with one of his buddies. Sitting at the next table was Walter, who had been sent down to the café to spy on John Wayne by the lead commie. I notice this and scream out, “That’s Uncle Walt!” My mother, who was paying more attention to her knitting than the movie, said, “No it isn’t.” After a fun argument, she said that we were going over to Grandma’s house for dinner the next night and I could ask Uncle Walt then.

        The next evening, as soon as I set foot inside of Grandma’s house, I blurted out, “Uncle Walt, were you in the movie “Big Jim McClain?” Walter immediately responded, “Yes I was.” We then got the story as to how he ended up in the movie.

        Walter was in Hawaii visiting his daughter. At the time, there was a strike with the airlines and he could not get back to the states. Walter went into the hotel bar and ran into some of his old film buddies who were working on “Big Jim McClain.” As they were talking, Walter explained how his trip was being extended due to the airline strike. He friends said that the production company had their own planes and suggested that if they could get him into the film, he could ride the production company’s plane back to Los Angeles. So, they wrote the three scene part for Walter so he could be in the movie and get his ride back to Los Angeles.

        Two notes of interest: (1) “Big Jim McClain” might be the worst movie John Wayne ever did. (2) If you watch the film, you will see that the writer utilized Walter’s hearing aide as a prop …. making it into a recording device that recorded John Wayne’s conversation at the café. John Wayne figures this out and gives the commies disinformation that lead to their capture.

        • Great story, Walter, thanks for sharing! “Used his hearing aide as a prop,” ah, those resourceful writers. 😀 It must be both exciting and bizarre to see one of your own relatives onscreen next to John Wayne!

  6. @Lea –

    There are a couple images here that aren’t displaying well.
    Loading the images individually returns, “Error 0004. Unable to load the image.”

    The solution seems to be here: https://en.forums.wordpress.com/topic/error-0004-unable-to-load-the-image?replies=6

    BTW, while you’re fiddling with pix, check out 1st man on the left: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e6/George_Jeske%2C_Charles_Haefeli%2C_Billy_Franey%2C_Charles_Post_-_Aug_1920_EH.jpg

    • Hi there! Ah yes, this is a common problem when you choose to copy and paste photos from other Internet sites. I do upload many of my photos, and COULD upload all of them, but want to be sparing so that my media library doesn’t fill up too fast. I revisit old articles periodically, so if there’s an image that’s disappeared it usually gets fixed at some point. (Just fixed the ones in this article.:-) )

      That’s a great picture of George, thanks for sharing!!!

  7. I have a picture of of my dads grand or great grandfather pops in a duo, dressed in top hat and cane. I was told they were two of the original key stone kops. My dad immigrated from from Melbourne Australia in 1931. Im trying to learn more about my roots.

    • Hi there Renee! Here’s a couple guidelines for you to help figure out whether this was the case:

      If you know for a fact that your ancestor was living in the Los Angeles era at least by late 1912 and working in the entertainment business throughout the 1910s, it’s certainly possible that he worked at the Keystone studio. The best resource is Brent Walker’s book Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory, which lists every known person who worked at Keystone in any capacity. Keep in mind, though, that there were many film studios in the LA area in the 1910s, and it’s possible that your ancestor worked at a different one that also specialized in comedies. (Plus, there were studios in New Jersey, Chicago, etc.) If your family didn’t come to the US until the early ’30s, he likely didn’t work for Sennett.

      Good luck! Try seeing if you can find his name in vintage newspaper databases and looking through Ancestry.com. 🙂

  8. My apologies if you’ve covered this previously, but were any of the actors doing the Keystone Cops stunts killed while performing? I’m reading a novel by Peter Lovesey taking place in and around the filming of Sennett’s Cops in 1915 and it begins with a Cop’s accidental death.
    Thank you for your time!

    • Hi Christina! I don’t believe I’ve heard of any actors getting killed while stunting at Keystone–which is pretty remarkable, when you think about it! Plenty of injuries, of course, to the point where Keystone actors would joke about it in interviews.

      Accidental deaths happened here and there at other studios (there were many, many more small studios than most people realize), but there didn’t seem to be any Sennet curse or anything. 😉

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