The Keystone Kops

06 Jul

the keystone kops

Let us return to the dieselpunk era once more to visit an institution whose name remains with us a century later: The Keystone Kops.

The name is still around today, used in popular speech to denote a bunch of incompetent nitwits. It comes from the silent movie era, when numerous pictures would features a bunch of hyper energetic but utterly disorganized and bumbling group of policeman called of course, The Keystone Cops.

They were invented in 1912 by the legendary Mack Sennett. In 1912 Mack Sennett opened up his own motion picture company in Echo Park California. The industry was in its infancy and Mack Sennett would leave his mark indelibly stamped on it. Called Keystone Studios, Sennett literally invented movie slapstick and was the fountainhead from whence silent era comedy sprung forth. Want to know who got their start working in Sennett studio? Ever heard of Charlie Chaplin? W.C  Fields? Fatty Arbuckle (poor Fatty Arbuckle, i should do a post on him alone. His story is fascinating and utterly tragic), Raymond Griffith, Gloria Swanson, Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Bing Crosby, all of these and others giant in the field. It also should be told, the work Keystone studios did from 1912 to 1917 was the precursor which led to the appearance of the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy in the 1920s.

When Sennett opened his studio in 1912, one of his comedians, Hank Mann, pitched him the idea of a bunch of bumbling cops running around like dooffuses. Sennett shot the first Keystone Kops film Hoffmeyer’s Legacy in 1912 which featured Hank Mann as one of the seven cops. Their next short, The Bangville Police is where they hit it big however.

What cemented them in popular consciousness for the next century was not simply the shorts they made with them as the feature, but the fact that Sennett would throw them into any number of other comedic short. Thus they appear in Charlie Chaplin films, Fatty Arbuckle films as well as numerous others and they became a silent film meme and thus, immortal.

The Keystone Kops appeared well into the 20s, but when sound pictures started up, they, like most other silent movie era stars, waned. However, they had made such a mark on moviegoers of tier generation, that in the 1930s, when the kids who grew up watching them started making comedies of their own, they got dusted off and put out there again.

In 1935 director Ralph Staub revived them. He worked for Warner Brothers who had inherited much of Sennett’s material, and thus was free to use them. He recreation, Keystone Hotel was a smash and the Keystone Kops would go on to be featured on and off as the years went by, most notably with Buster Keaton in  Hollywood Cavalcade and later Abbott and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet The Keystone Kops.

The term Keystone Kops is still widely used today and no wonder. It’s an utterly iconic image, a group who is supposedly a bunch of authoritative professionals actually being a bunch of chickens running around with their heads cut off. The need for a metaphor like this will literally never die, and hopefully the Keystone Kops will remain that metaphor for a long time more.

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Posted by on July 6, 2013 in Uncategorized


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