[Note: This post is a bit unusual for The Last Picture Blog. Every film I’ve reviewed here to date has its own separate post, except (I think) for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Pts I and II, which I dealt with in one go (and what a sexytime that was; I can still picture Shia LaBouef’s pimply backside repeatedly bobbing up and down if I stare at a blank wall for long enough). Anyway, I’m dealing with four short silent films here that range from about 10-30 minutes in length, and the truth is I don’t really have that much to say about any of them, but they’re all made by Keystone and they all feature early appearances by the Keystone Cops, so it makes sense to lump them together under one post. Plus I did actually watch them in the order I’m going to write about them, which I suppose fits with the diary nature of this site.]
For the uninitiated the Keystone Cops were a bunch of fictional, incompetent policemen who primarily appeared in a number of Mack Sennett comedies throughout the 1910’s and 1920’s. I’ve been a fan since I was a kid because – for shame – they performed the kind of simple slapstick that I’ve always found funny, i.e. people running into one another or tripping up (and thudding into the ground, more often than not, but occasionally landing in water). Their popularity waned with the advent of talking pictures, but there have been a few Hollywood revivals since (primarily during the 1940’s and 1950’s), as well as the occasional reference elsewhere in popular culture; those of you who can remember the cartoon Wacky Races or its spin-off The Perils Of Penelope Pitstop may also remember The Ant Hill Mob, a bunch of tiny hoodlums in a car who vaguely resembled the Keystone Cops, while British football commentators still make reference to the bumbling policemen when presented with the kind of hapless defending that professional, well-paid sportsmen should really be above.
Some people believe that 1913’s Bangville Police was the first time the original (seven-strong) Keystone Cops appeared on screen, but technically it’s Hoffmeyer’s Legacy, which was made a year earlier. Yet Bangville Police is described by aficionados as their ‘real’ debut, and it’s also the film that made them popular, though in actual fact it’s an inauspicious start to the Keystone Cops era. There are barely any laughs to be had and one can only feel sympathy for a heavily emoting Mabel Normand, who desperately tried to inject some life into proceedings as a woman being menaced on a farm by two burglars. All told it’s pretty forgettable, but Sennett’s 1915 film Love, Loot and Crash is better. The growing popularity of the KCs had by this stage translated into bigger roles, and they come out of this one quite well, though the film is still more notable for being the screen debut of one Harold Lloyd; the internet assures me that he’s in there somewhere, though I can’t say I managed to spot him. It also features Charley Chase – one of my favourites of the silent era – and ends with some some amusing pratfalls and vehicle-based shenanigans on a pier, but I’ve seen something similar recently in Sennett’s earlier 1914 comedy Tillie’s Punctured Romance, and the results there are far funnier.
When Love Took Wings is a one-reeler that – like Love, Loot and Crash – riffs on elopement, and it’s directed by and starring Fatty Arbuckle, with decent support coming from his wife Minta Durfee. The Keystone Cops only appear briefly, with Fatty flying an aeroplane over their heads in a field and manually dropping bombs on the hapless policmen that could well be coconuts; there aren’t any big explosions, anyway. The first few minutes of When Love Took Wings amounts to little more than a few men falling over or kicking each other up the backside or in the stomach, but hey…it’s a silent comedy from the 1910’s and I’ve seen at least three 2016 blockbusters with $100m+ budgets recently that offer roughly the same level of mental stimulation, if not less. Durfee and Arbuckle also star in Charles Avery’s 1914 film The Knockout (also known as Counted Out), which is the best of these four films by some distance: it has the clearest narrative and it’s also the most consistently funny. Here Fatty plays a guy named Pug who enters an amateur boxing competition – amusingly refereed by Charlie Chaplin, whose role is far smaller than the poster for this film suggests – and the short makes full use of the big guy’s physicality, with lots of slapstick fighting and wrestling before the boxing match eventually erupts into a gunfight in the streets. Chaplin doesn’t show up until roughly halfway through, and the Keystone Cops only appear for the last four minutes, but their presence this time is of far more value than in the other films above, and there’s plenty of silliness involving the group as they give chase to the trigger-happy Pug. You can see that they were starting to hone their shtick by this point, although it’s a little bit disappointing that Avery also opts for the pier as the setting for the ending, as well as the big group dive into the sea. For all the invention and wonderful choreography here – particularly during the big fight – it’s pretty indicative of Keystone’s adherence to formula that three of the last six of their comedies that I’ve watched have finished in the same way.
Directed by: Henry Lehrman (Bangville Police), Mack Sennett (Love, Loot And Crash), Fatty Arbuckle (When Love Took Wings), Charles Avery (The Knockout).
Written by: Henry Lehrman (Bangville Police), Mack Sennett (Love, Loot And Crash), Fatty Arbuckle (When Love Took Wings), Charles Avery (The Knockout).
Starring: Fred Mace, Mabel Normand (Bangville Police), Josef Swickard, Fontaine LaRue, Charley Chase (Love, Loot And Crash), Fatty Arbuckle, Minta Durfee (When Love Took Wings), Fatty Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin (The Knockout), The Keystone Cops (all four).
Cinematography: Uknown (first three), Fran D. Williams (The Knockout).
Editing: Unknown (all four).
Running Time: 8 minutes, 11 minutes, 13 minutes, 27 minutes respectively.