The Keystone Kops

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The Keystone Kops

By the end of the 1990s, almost nine decades since their first appearance on the early silent screen in Hoffmeyer's Legacy (1912), Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops had long entered the language as a byword for bungling, absurd, and hilarious incompetency. Icons of the early comedy "flickers" that made Sennett the most significant, famous, and successful pioneer of film comedy, the Kops, named for Sennett's Keystone company, featured regularly in the American silent era slapstick movies pioneered at Keystone Studios from 1912. With the release of The Bangville Police (1913), the Keystone Kops were established as a much-loved American institution and an integral element of Sennett's production output and comedy style. Sporting handlebar mustaches and ill fitting uniforms, the conscientious but utterly inept policemen (and sometimes the Keystone Firemen) fell out of cars, under cars, over cliffs, and more often than not over themselves, all at artificially high speed, defining the art of slapstick in which Sennett specialized and which would be refined by the arrival of Charlie Chaplin at his studio in 1914.

Mack Sennett was blessed from the beginning with a stable of gifted comic practitioners, tuned into Keystone's rambunctious style with its emphasis on sight gags, pratfalls, and the throwing of custard pies (a routine that originated there), and enhanced by Sennett's under-cranked camera, speeded up frames, and skillful editing. Among these artists were Ford Sterling and Chester Conklin, the most famous members of the zany police force whose escapades, in which reality was suspended and subverted to create a world of comic chaos, characterized the approximately 500 slapstick comedies and farces made at Keystone.

Renowned for carrying out their own hair-raising, and frequently dangerous stunts, the original Kops line-up featured actors Charles Avery, Bobby Dunn, George Jesky, Edgar Kennedy, Hank Mann, Mack Riley, and Slim Summerville. Mann, who played police chief Teeheezel, was subsequently replaced by Ford Sterling, and with Sennett using the group as a proving ground for ambitious young actors seeking a career with the studio, the line-up changed frequently, at one time including Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle among its uniformed members. Despite their considerable success with contemporary audiences, however, the Kops were eased out of the regular Keystone roster within four years. Many other Sennett comedies continued to feature the group's chaotic brand of slapstick, and they were paid homage, making a return (of sorts) in Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1954).

The influence of the Keystone Kops on the development of comedy is of paramount importance in the history of the cinema. This could be most particularly perceived in the films of Laurel and Hardy and, later, in cruder form, The Three Stooges. And while, over the decades, verbal humor came either to replace or complement visual humor, the preposterously farcical elements that informed the antics of the Kops have survived in variously modified forms to the present day. Sennett's imagination has influenced the material and performances of comic artists from Jerry Lewis through Mel Brooks to Robin Williams and Jim Carrey.

—David Holloway

Further Reading:

Bordwell, David, et al. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. London, Routledge, 1985.

Dyer, Richard. Stars. London, British Film Institute, 1979.

Lahue, Kalton C., and Terry Brewer. Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Langman, Larry. American Film Cycles: The Silent Era. Westport, Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ross, Steven J. Working Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1998.

Sennett, Mack. King of Comedy. San Francisco, Mercury House, 1990.