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.
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.”
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
Mann 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.
Orphaned 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.”
While 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.
Born 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!”
A 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.
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.
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.
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.