COPS (Buster/Eddie Cline Keaton, 1922, USA, 18m, BW)
Directed by Edward F. Cline
Produced by Joseph M. Schenck
Written by Edward F. Cline
Starring Buster Keaton
Edward F. Cline
Edited by Elgin Lessley
Distributed by First National Pictures Inc.
Country United States
Language Silent film
English (original intertitles)
Background and plot
This very Kafka-esque film was filmed during the rape-and-murder trial of Fatty Arbuckle, a circumstance that may have influenced the short's tone of hopeless ensnarement. Even though the central character's intentions are good, he cannot win, no matter how inventively he tries. He gets into various scraps with police officers throughout the film. Eventually, he unwittingly throws a bomb into a police parade and ends up being chased by a horde of cops.
At the end of the film, Keaton's character locks up the cops in the police station. However, the girl he is trying to woo disapproves of his behavior and gives him the cold shoulder. Therefore, he unlocks the police station and is immediately pulled in by the cops. The film ends with the title "The End" written on a tombstone with Keaton's pork pie hat propped on it.
One of Keaton's most iconic and brilliantly-constructed short films, Cops was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry in 1997. Keaton plays an easy-going soul whose girlfriend refuses to have anything to do with him until he makes something of himself (a problem that also plagued Harold Lloyd in his pictures). Without any effort, Keaton seizes a golden opportunity: he pays a con artist for a horse and wagon that don't belong to him and aren't for sale. Then he ends up buying furniture that also isn't for sale. It just so happens to be owned by a cop.
So here's Buster, lazily guiding a wagon full of furniture, towards a future that will be pleasing to his girlfriend. Alas, things do not work out as planned. En route, Keaton inadvertently gets jammed in a policeman's parade. Thinking he should be looking his best, Keaton decides to light a cigarette. It's the classy thing to do, you know. Needing a match, Keaton finds a light that has plopped down next to him on the carriage. The "light" is actually the lit fuse of a bomb, thrown by an anarchist from a rooftop, intended to wreck havoc on the city's celebration. Keaton, oblivious to the danger, lights his smoke and casually throws away the bomb...right into a crowd of policemen. Thus sets off one of Keaton's most inventive short films, an epic chase that finds an innocent, if unobservant, man being pursued by hundreds of uniformed policemen. It's a situation worthy of Kafka but played for comedy.
What wasn't funny were the serious circumstances under which Keaton made Cops. At the time, his friend and mentor, Fatty Arbuckle, was undergoing a third trial for manslaughter (the first two trials ended in hung juries). Arbuckle was eventually exonerated, with an official apology from the jury, but his career was effectively over because of the negative publicity he attracted from the court case. Thus, Keaton's probable inspiration for Cops wasn't exactly a laughing matter.
The distributor for Cops was not particularly overjoyed either about the terrorist bomb sequence and how audiences would react to it. Just two years earlier, thirty people were killed and many more injured when an anarchist exploded a bomb on Wall Street. So public sensitivity was high regarding scenes of terrorist acts in movies but Cops didn't ignite any controversy over this subplot since Keaton kept the action moving too fast for audiences to really make any topical connections. From beginning to end, the short is consistently hilarious and inspired with several famous scenes, especially one where Keaton is fleeing his pursuers. In long shot, Keaton runs towards the camera through an alleyway. He stops in the middle of a road, just as the cops are making their way through the alleyway. Just then, a car zooms by the hapless fugitive, and in the wink of an eye, Keaton grabs hold of the back of the car and is lifted into the air and out of the frame, now safely hitchhiking on the back of the speeding vehicle.
The comedic chase has a long cinema tradition, perhaps dating back to James Williamson's "Stop Thief!" (1901) or "Chinese Laundry Scene" (1895), the latter of which was based on a vaudeville act. Then, there were the Pathé comedies and those of Mack Sennett's Keystone, which were greatly derived from them. Keaton came from vaudeville and worked under one of the premiere early comedians, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, to begin his on screen career, so he was fully immersed in this tradition.
In "Cops", there are some good visual jokes that rely on film technique, such as following a close shot of Keaton behind bars with a reverse long shot that clarifies the opening scene. Keaton's mechanical inventiveness is demonstrated during the horse carriage sequence. And, there's plenty of physical comedy during the great chase finale. Keaton's sense of matured, restrained comedy is also important here, which is perhaps best characterized by his retained stoic expression throughout any chaotic misadventure.
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