Keystone Cops: It All Began In New York!
This is My Home
The original line up of actors who made up the Keystone Cops actually only numbered seven, though it always seemed like there were many more. The cast included Bobby Dunn, Charles Avery, Slim Summerville, Edgar Kennedy, George Jeske and Hank Mann. These men formed a supporting repertory company that provided the backbone of films that very often featured other actors. Most notable were Charlie Chaplin (in his pre “Little Tramp” days), Mabel Normand, Marie Dressler and as we shall see, the wonderful Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton.
On location in New York
(Suffolk County, New York. Route Fifty One. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons.)
The films were punctuated by a cast of bumbling police officers who spent their time getting into many a scrape (usually involving the constabulary cars) and making enormous fools of themselves. The very first of these films were created by scriptwriters who lived in and around the area of Suffolk County. The writers would often go out and observe how the police officers in that particular area worked to get ideas for scene set ups. When the filming of the initial scenarios began, the director of the film would actually invite the real Suffolk County Police Officers to be extras in the scenes.
These early films are credited with actually inventing the classic car chase scene, although it didn’t really take off properly until the mid 1950s, the very earliest examples of such antics have their roots in these films. The cop cars featured were usually dilapidated jalopies that struggled to cope under the weight of so many bumbling officers. More often than not they used prop or stunt cars that were built specially for the films, for which the need of things like used car loans or guaranteed car credit simply wasn’t necessary. However, they would sometimes use real Model T Fords, which required more in the way of delicate care if any accidents or breakdowns occurred.
While the action was observed in Suffolk County, the filming actually took place in and around the town of Bayshore in the Keystone Building. At this very early stage of film making, right at the beginning of the twentieth century, techniques were still very rough and ready. There simply wasn’t the technology that we have now, well over a hundred years later. The reason that this location was chosen to make the early films was because it had the most natural daylight and therefore made it easier to shoot movies without too many cuts, retakes or repositioning because of bad light. In fact, one of the most famous of all the films was shot at Coney Island for this reason.
One of the most famous films
(Coney Island beach on American Independence Day, eighty years on from the original film. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons)
It’s true that some of the more well known films of this era very often featured the Cops in more of a supporting role to other stars who would eventually go on to become major names during the 1920s. This film, featured in it’s entirety below, is a two reeler featuring Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton and is centred more or less entirely on the area of Coney Island.
Filmed in 1917 it tells the story of a rather hapless young man played by Arbuckle who decides he wants to go Luna Park to play on the amusements. To do so he has to shrug off his wife, which he manages to do, only to end up competing with Buster Keaton’s character for the affections of a young woman they both meet and fall for. The film develops with Arbuckle ending up dressed as a woman and getting the rival for his affections arrested (where the Cops come in).
(Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and The Keystone Cops in the 1917 film “Coney Island”)
It might not be the classiest film ever made and it might not be as funny (in places) as it once was, but it offers the viewer a wonderful opportunity to see a part of New York as it was at more or less the turn of the last century. Of course, not everything the Keystone Cops did was brilliant. Their detractors, quite rightly, in some cases argue that once you’ve seen one car chase, you’ve seen them all and that they were one trick ponies, however, we shouldn’t forget that above all what this film and the other earlier efforts do is afford us an opportunity to revel in the bumbling adventures of a group of silent film clowns that are celebrating their centenary and deserve to be brought back to public consciousness again.
Submitted by Eve Robinson
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