Recommended Reading

"Chase: A Tribute to the Keystone Cops"

compiled and edited by Lon and Debra Davis (BearManor Media, 2020, 331 pages)

Review by Dean Thompson

This anthology compiled by Lon and Debra Davis likely will stand as the seminal work on the Keystone Cops. Who among us has not smiled at the image, even the thought, of these lovable (if slightly challenged) law enforcers? Lea Stans, one of several film scholars whose essays give this volume its considerable worth, delineates what comes to mind when we think of them:

"While they might not have had distinct characters of their own, as a group the Cops had a specific performances style that could be spotted from a mile away. They ran with batons flailing and knees lifted high, creating a cartoonish effect. Their scrambles were often punctuated with what former child actor Coy Watson Jr. called the 'Keystone hop'--'a jump straight up in the air, pulling their feet and knees up high and then back on their feet a bit off balance.' . And the shots of the Cops running single file along a roof or a hilltop have taken on their own iconic status."

We learn just about all there is to know concerning these icons of early film: their initial and many appearances under Mack Sennett and the recent discovery of shorts long thought to be lost (augmented by an annotated chronology of their 1912-1917 works); the atmosphere, camaraderie, and unwritten rules of comedy at Keystone; notes on film veterans (including Keaton, Sterling, and Chaplin) who did their apprenticeships at Keystone before moving on; the truth (or not!) about seemingly zillions of custard pies; later, post-Sennett appearances of the Cops; studies of Sennett and Keystone available in print and home entertainment; the many reissues of their works; truly absorbing biographies of the many members of the troupe; and so much more, all garnished with profuse illustrations.

Speaking of illustrations: you will have your own favorites here, but I particularly love a shot from 1962, some forty-five years after the Cops' heyday, with the by-now elderly troupe members in uniforms, brush moustaches, and helmets, billy clubs ready for flailing, all the old Cops perched at varying angles not on a Model T, but on a VW Bug. Even nearly half a century later, their spirits were willing, and nostalgia shook hands with a warm and enduring sense of fun.

But there is so much about this book that will endure: its rigorous scholarship, its abiding love for this raggedy band of icons, its breadth and comprehensiveness. and maybe best of all, its sparking your desire to order the beautifully restored Sennetts now available from Flicker Alley. Watching those films anew, one marvels at the exhilarating era in film that the Cops captured; reading this book, one extends deepest gratitude (not to mention a Keystone hop) to the scholars and editors who have given these pioneers their due.

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