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. In this age of digital trickery and fantastic stunt work by trained professionals, this stunt is still amazing, not just because it looks impossible to do with such effortless grace, but because Keaton "throws away" the gag. He doesn't draw attention to it, so don't blink or you'll miss it. Incidentally, Keaton may have gotten the idea from Arbuckle, who performed a variation of the stunt on a moving train in the 1918 short Out West.
Similar to the reality television show which shares its namesake, Keaton's Cops was filmed on the lively streets of Los Angeles, at the start of Keaton's most artistically rich decade. Keaton commands the southern California locale like it's his own backyard. For a wonderful tour of the many locations Keaton shot, check out the book Silent Echoes, by John Bengtson.
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton
Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Film Editing: Buster Keaton
Music: Gaylord Carter
Cast: Buster Keaton (The Young Man), Joe Roberts (Police Chief), Virginia Fox (Mayor's Daughter), Edward F. Cline (Hobo), Steve Murphy (Conman).
by Scott McGee