First appeared in Arizona Magazine in 1974

Robert Cox sorted through the mementos he had spread on his coffee table and reminisced about something that started in 1913. "We didn't have a name at first. I guess we must have fooled around in four or five Sennett comedies before the public dubbed us The Keystone Cops." Or Kops, Cox said. It was used both ways. Keystone came from Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio in Edendale, California.

"I appeared in close to three hundred one-reelers in the four years I worked with Sennett," Cox said. "We filmed on the average of one a week, and yet the Cops never got any billing. We were just on publicity posters. It didn't seem to matter, though; the public loved us."

Cox was seventeen and working as an extra on another lot when he first became a Keystone Cop. He is now seventy-eight. [Robert Cox was born on May 12, 1895; he died on September 8, 1974. -ed.]

"The thing I remember him [Sennett] always saying was, 'Make me laugh.' If you made him laugh, he liked you. His philosophy, I guess you could call it, was to send the public home from the theater laughing, and they'd come back for more. Now, most of the pictures at that time were melodramatic stories with dreary, depressing endings. He filmed the comedies to follow those dramas. You've got to give him credit. Sennett had vision."

The Fun Factory

Cox pushed aside autographed pictures of silent stars and outlined a square area with his finger. "Our first studio was shaped like this, with all bare ground and a house here. There was a great big room in the house and we all used it to make up. We threw up a big platform outside the overhead wires and pulleys and lightweight fabric of some kind. This was so we could pull the material back and forth, controlling the light for filming," he explained.

"Indoor scenes were done there, but most of the time the Cops were on location in and around Los Angeles. It seems to me like I spent an awful lot of time walking on the bottom of every lake near the studio."

Cox selected a yellowed snapshot from the table. "See this guy? This is my friend Slim Summerville, one of the original Cops, a real easy-going person. I'll never forget what happened to Slim the day we were shooting a lake scene with Mabel Normand, one of Keystone's early principals.

"Sennett explained to all of us what he wanted us to do. He never worked from a script," Cox recalled, pointing to his head. His only script was up here. [Sennett did use scripts-quite detailed ones-but that was after this period. Surviving examples of Sennett scripts date from 1916; in the 1913-1915 period that Robert Cox was describing, films such as A Muddy Romance were indeed extemporized. -ed.] He wanted to film a scene with Mabel out in a boat. He told her to yell for help and then instructed us to arrive on the scene, run off the dock and into the water to save her. It was pretty cold that day and Sennett had us doing so many antics in the water that Slim turned blue," Cox said.

"Sennett told me to take Slim someplace to get him warmed up. I borrowed the Stutz Bearcat that Sennett had given Mabel and took Slim to a Turkish bath. I finally got him looking halfway human again and then I asked him if he wanted anything. He looked at me and said, 'Coxie, get me a clean collar, a pint of whiskey and tell the Old Man to go to hell! I won't be back to work today.' And he wasn't, which was unusual for a Cop. We just didn't miss filming in those days unless we were injured, which wasn't very often. We worked from sunrise to sunset, and we weren't any of us temperamental. Sennett would have fired us if we had been."

Cox shook his head. "I always seemed to be changing into a dry uniform. We were issued two pairs of trousers, two coats, two white collars, one helmet, one truncheon and one belt from wardrobe. I don't know how many outfits I wore out in those years. Must have been quite a few.

"Since Sennett didn't work from a script, whatever he thought was funny at the time was what we did. One day he asked us, 'Any of you ever been on roller skates?' We all looked at one another. My friend Al St. John, who was the only one of the original Keystone Cops who was a former stuntman, said he was pretty good on skates, but no one else knew how. It was my first time. So naturally Sennett sent over to a costume place and got twelve pair.

"We put 'em on and you should have seen the mess," Cox said, slapping the arm of his chair. "Cops all over the place, falling, reeling, sprawling on the floor, running into each other. Billy Hauber said later he was on his feet once in the whole scene. This was one time we didn't have to add any little business of our own to make the scene funny. It was genuine, every bit of it. And the Old Man-I guess Sennett must have about twenty-eight at the time -he ran around egging us on, calling out instructions to his cameraman, Arthur Miller [According to his autobiography, One Reel a Week (co-written with Fred J. Balshofer), Arthur Miller was on the East Coast during this period, shooting features and The Perils of Pauline serial. -ed.], and chewing on a cigar. He always had a big fifty-cent cigar in his mouth and in all the years I knew him I never once saw him light one.

"When we were all exhausted and black and blue all over, he let us stop. I was really bruised up. We all were except Al St. John, but Sennett said it was one of the funniest pieces of film he'd ever seen."

Fellow Inmates

"I was always the littlest Cop there," Cox continued. "I couldn't have weighed more than ninety-five pounds. I usually brought up the rear or was the one swinging out on the ladder we used to use. One bit I especially liked was when Ford Sterling, the big man with [the Dutch makeup] who played the chief, would pound his gavel on the desk. Everyone but me would spring up from the bench, and naturally the bench would tip over and I slid onto the floor.

"Each comic at that time had some distinctive bit of business that was his alone. Ben Turpin used the cross-eyed bit. I've heard people say that he wasn't really cross-eyed. That's just not so. One time Hank Mann, our prankster, got Turpin to direct traffic at a big intersection. You can imagine how he looked," Cox said, crossing his eyes. "It took several real cops a couple hours to straighten out the mess Turpin made. Sennett thought it was great, but of course he was used to making use of real events for his filming. The public never complained. They loved to watch us work."

Cox reached across the table and picked up a studio portrait of a sad-eyed man, inscribed
To Coxie,
Lest we Forget the Old Keystone days,
Your Old Friend,
Chester.

"Conklin was in the original group, and so was Rube Miller. [By "original," Mr. Cox was referring to any actor who played a Cop at Keystone during the studio's 1912-1917 existence. -ed.] About that time [1913] we got Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. You know he was Minta Durfee's husband? We also got Charley Parrott and Mack Swain. Parrott later changed his name to Chase and was a director for Hal Roach.

"With all the coming and leaving in the Cops we musta had thirty or so guys that were Cops at some time or other."

Cut to the Chase

Cox recalled the Keystone Cops chase scenes. "Sennett had us using streetcars, horses, skates, Model T's. We lost one of those one day when the whole lot of us went off the end of a pier. We had one car that came apart for trick photography. We used real fire engines, bicycles, scooters, anything we could get our hands on to add fresh humor. Sennett generally rode with Miller in a Packard touring car.

"We always seemed to be on a collision course with a train. It wasn't as dangerous as it looked, because Sennett used trick photography and we'd trained ourselves to move in a jerky way that was characteristic of the comics of that day. All his film was shot at the speed used today. [Sound film is shot at 24 frames per second; silent films in 1914 were 14-16 fps. The fast-motion effects used in the Keystone films came from undercranking the camera. -ed.] We had gotten to be pretty adept stuntmen by that time. We used to extend ourselves out full length from the back of a moving object using just the strength of our arms. Many's the time I was sore all over because I hadn't fallen just right. It's hard to do pratfalls." [This is an understatement. Cox had broken one of his arms so many times that he was ultimately unable to bend it. His knees, too, ached continuously from the stunts he had performed. -ed.]

Genius in Training

"Money was what finally caused a lot of principals to leave Sennett," Cox explained. "Even the Cops were grumbling because we only made twenty-five a week. But [Sennett] couldn't pay more and so he lost people. Chaplin was one Keystone lost. Chuck was getting about a hundred-fifty a week with Sennett. When he went over to the Essanay Company, he was getting twelve-hundred-fifty a week.

"Before he left Sennett I got to know Chaplin pretty well. He was the type of man that if he liked you he would do anything for you, but if he didn't like you, look out. We used to sit around and talk and he'd tell me about his plans and ambitions. One of them was to play Romeo. He was a funny guy, and at the same time, kind of sad and pathetic. And he played this to the hilt. He was also a perfectionist who was never satisfied with his performance. He was always reaching out to do better.

"I knew he would make it. He knew who he was. You know, he used to keep his money under his bed in a box. He didn't trust banks. And he was a little tight with it. I'll never forget the time he wore out his derby. He couldn't find one to suit him here, so he ordered one from England. He was really put out when the studio made him pay for it."

His New Job

The public's taste in comedy began to change, and Sennett changed with them, Cox explained. "Sennett began bringing in bathing beauties along about nineteen-seventeen, and we all began to drift away from the Cops. I had a choice to make. Stay with the Cops or go with my friends when they left. When Harold Lloyd left Keystone he wanted me to leave with him and become his assistant. I turned him down. I'm not sure why. I guess I just wasn't ready to leave.

"A few months later this job came up at Famous Players, Jesse Lasky's studio. I took it and was assigned to work as assistant to Jimmy Cruze, one of Lasky's directors.

"The first film I made with Cruze was The Dictator (1922) with Wallace Reid, Lila Lee and Walter Lang. It was a Mexican revolution drama. We filmed it in San Diego. I really enjoyed myself on that picture. I learned to speak pretty fair Spanish because as assistant I had charge of the extras." He held up several photographs. "See how authentic looking the Mexicans are in these pictures: We'd brought some of our people, but we'd had to wardrobe them, and the Mexicans had their own costumes. We paid them five dollars a day and their box lunch.

"I'd known Cruze quite a while when he announced that he was getting married. He built this great big house in Topanga Canyon and decided to have a housewarming party to celebrate. Everybody was invited.

"At that time I was living with Alan Hale and his wife. She was pregnant and since he was doing so much night filming, he wanted someone to be there with her.

"Well, before we went to the party, Hale said, 'Coxie, we can't go up there empty-handed. We've gotta take something with us. I'll call my bootlegger and get us some liquor. He did, and so we went with four big bottles of gin," Cox said.

"Of course when we got there, there was a big crowd, plenty to eat and drink. Hale wondered what we should do with the gin. If we left it in the car someone would steal it. So we decided to take it in with us and hide it in the oven in the kitchen. No one would ever think of looking for gin there."

Cox leaned forward in his chair and began to chuckle.

"Well, along about one or two o'clock in the morning someone decided to make some coffee and have a bite to eat. We never thought anything more about the gin. When they lit the stove and the gin heated up, well, it exploded and blew a great big hole outta the back of Cruze's new house.

"Everybody came running and they all looked at the place where the wall had been, and they blamed it on the stove. Hale said, 'Let's get the hell out of here. We can tell him about it sometime when he's cooled down.' And we went home."

Cox found another snapshot on the table. "That's Cecil B. DeMille. I worked with him on The King of Kings (1927). I had been assigned to take care of twenty-five camels and about a hundred extras dressed as Arabs. Those camels. They spit food right back in my face a couple of times. Every time they were ready for a scene with the Arabs and camels, DeMille would pass the word, 'Bring out the camels!' and I'd say to myself, 'Oh, hell, here we go again,' and then I'd trot them all out and try to herd them in the general direction of the camera.

"Some other animals I worked with were just as disagreeable as the camels. Like the time a trainer brought his lion on the set for a scene in some picture I can't remember the title of. I was a stand-in. Anyway, I was supposed to be crouching under this window and the lion was supposed to jump through the window over me. The trainer told all of us, 'He won't bother you if you don't touch his tail.' So we got ready for the scene. It's quiet on the set and everyone's watching and then the lion comes through the window before I'm ready and as he went over I instinctively threw up my arms, and naturally the first thing I got ahold of was the lion's tail. He knocked me across the room, out a door and into the back of the set where all the technicians were standing around."

Working with Legends

Cox recalled working with director George Melford when he made The Sheik (1921) featuring Rudolph Valentino. "That [Italian] about drove Melford out of his mind because he was so lazy and officious. This one morning Melford sent me over to where Valentino lived to see why he wasn't on the set when he should have been. He'd missed two days of filming. We worked around him, but this day he was needed. Was he sick? Too much to drink? What?

"Valentino had this Japanese valet. When he answered the door, he said, 'He sreeping, he sreeping, no wake, no wake.' I said, 'The hell you say! You get him up and tell him to get his ass over to the studio. He's wanted on the set.' And I left. Valentino showed up a couple hours later, yawning.

"And once you got him on the set, Medford had to tell him about six times how to play a scene. Valentino wasn't the brightest guy around. And when it came to making him up, they about had to put on his with a putty knife, his face was so badly scarred from smallpox. But I'll say one thing for Valentino. He could sure dance."

Cox changed the subject. "I went over to work at Fox about that time. I can't remember, but I think they were paying me about three-fifty, four hundred dollars a week. I know I bought a seven-room house overlooking Hollywood, hired a housekeeper and a German butler named Bill; and bought myself a Cadillac roadster. I was really living."

He sorted through a pile of photographs and laid a few out. "All of these were taken during the filming of The Iron Horse (1924). This one was taken on February tenth. The day the two crews of workers, played by actors of course, came together in the picture for the 'wedding of the rails.' You'll notice Ford here explaining something to his principals, George O'Brien and Madge Bellamy. This is the way he worked. He explained everything he wanted to his principals, [then he] ran through it a couple of times until they felt comfortable with it and then ordered a take. Anybody who ever worked with John Ford will tell you, you always knew what was expected of you. He was one of the great directors in the business.

"I always used to laugh at him, though. He had the darndest habit of chewing on his handkerchief. Always had one of the darn things in his mouth."

Cox reached over the table up and picked up several typewritten sheets of paper. "These are shooting schedules and wardrobe needs for Clara Bow in 'The Fifth Wheel.' [There is no Clara Bow feature called "The Fifth Wheel"; this may have been a working title for the 1926 film Dancing Mothers. -ed.]

"Little Clara, 'The It Girl,' the people called her, was a sweet twenty-year-old actress who was a real professional. And do you know why? Because if she knew she was expected to be in make-up at such and such a time, she was there. If she was wanted on the set at six o'clock, she was there at six, ready to work. That's a real professional in my opinion."

Quiet on the Set

"In nineteen twenty-five, twenty-six, the industry began to change," Cox said. "Rumors that talkies were the coming thing had us all worried. I wasn't worried because I'd learned to sway with the wind. But quite a few silent film stars were worried. Chaplin told me one time that he wondered if he could make it because he had a strong British accent.

"Once The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson hit the theaters in nineteen twenty-seven most of us could see how big a change we were in for."

Cox picked up the brown briefcase that leaned against his chair and began filling it with photographs and mementos from the coffee table. "When they started to make pictures where I couldn't see a plot, no reason for doing anything, why I knew it was time to quit, get out of motion pictures. I'd opened my big mouth a couple times and they didn't like it."

He waved his finger in the air. "I thought pictures should have a little more romance, a little more family life shown. I retired in nineteen thirty-three.

"Oh, I miss the excitement and hard work of filming, but friends drop by and visit now and again to visit and we talk about old times. The Duke [John Wayne] comes by and we sit and talk. He's very cagey because he's always asking how I'm doing. Never comes right out and asks, just beats around the bush. I know what he's up to," Cox said as he buckled the briefcase.

"Movie people are like that, the best in the world. When I was making pictures I was in a position to help anyone down on their luck. I don't know how many actors I kept going on extras' salary of seven-fifty a day. We didn't have an organization like they do now. We took care of our own."

2010: Remembering a Movie Pioneer

Robert Cox was not a distinctive member of the early film industry. He never received onscreen billing, and he was similarly anonymous in his capacity as a property man for Fox and Famous Players-Lasky. After his retirement in 1933, forty years would pass before anyone expressed an interest in his motion picture career. A teenaged silent film buff named Lon Davis was told by an acquaintance that an elderly man in the Phoenix area had been one of the original Keystone Cops. Davis called him one day and arranged for a visit. Accompanying him to Cox's modest home on Polk Street was his neighbor Cheryl Lanning, a freelance feature writer.

Cox welcomed Davis and Lanning into his living room and pointed to what he insisted was a genuine Van Gogh, hanging above his sofa. More interesting to his guests, however, was his battered briefcase. Stuffed inside were dozens of stills, many of which were signed to him by the stars of the silent era. As he talked of his working for Sennett and of conversing with Chaplin and Arbuckle, it became clear that he was indeed what he purported to be. After several meetings, Cheryl Lanning wrote a three-thousand-word article, with Lon Davis working as her research assistant. The piece was published in Arizona Magazine on Sunday, April 7, 1974.

The following month, Lon Davis and Robert Cox were guests on a local television show, Sign Out, which was aimed at the hearing impaired (thirty-six years later the program is still on the air, under its current title, Community View). Cox was then contacted by a representative from the Goodson-Todman offices in New York City. They wanted him to be a guest contestant on their nationally syndicated television game show, To Tell the Truth. He was flown first-class to Manhattan, where he took part in the taping. The segment opened with a series of Keystone film clips, accompanied by piano music. At its conclusion, a spotlight hit the stage to show three older gentlemen standing side by side. Each of these men claimed to be Keystone Cop Robert Cox. The panelists (Kitty Carlisle, Orson Bean, Peggy Cass, and Bill Cullen) all but unanimously believed contestant number one (Cox himself) to be the genuine article. He had, someone said, that distinctive air of a show business veteran. When the segment concluded, he was rewarded with a standing ovation from the studio audience. It was the thrill of his life.

That episode of To Tell the Truth aired on the last day of 1974, but Robert Cox was not able to watch it. He had died suddenly of a heart attack a few months earlier. He was seventy-nine years old.

Perhaps even sadder than his demise was something that happened next. His ex-wife was given the duty of clearing out his house. Seeing the briefcase containing all of his movie memories, she blithely threw it away.

Copyright 2010 by Cheryl Lanning and Lon Davis. All rights reserved.


About the Authors

Cheryl Lanning is now a novelist living on Drummond Island, Michigan, in Lake Huron, where she retried after 23 years of teaching writing and journalism. Lon Davis is a lecturer, author and editor. He lives with his wife, Debra, in Eugene, Oregon.

Recommended Reading

For the definitive appraisal of the Keystone Cops, read Brent E. Walker's massive volume, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory: A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies with Biographies of Players and Personnel (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2010). Along with hundreds of other Sennett veterans, Robert Cox's contributions to early film history are documented at last.


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