They’re wild, they’re zany. They are more than a hundred years old. They come from a time before women had the right to vote and cars had to be hand-cranked to start. And yet the Keystone Cops live on, at least as a figure of speech.
To be a “Keystone Cop” is an expression still regularly applied to an individual or a group that appears extremely incompetent while exhibiting an uncommon amount of energy in the pursuit of failure. In other words: ineffectiveness on steroids, chaos on wheels.
As In …
“ I just came back from Financial Aid. Boy, did they seem to go out of their way to get my records messed up! I think the place is run by Keystone Cops.”
Origin of the term “Keystone Cops”
So where did this constabulary idiom come from? Well, Hollywood, of course, a long time ago.
In 1912, Mack Sennett, 37-years-old and already a veteran of New York City’s vaudeville and motion picture scene — actor, singer, dancer, clown, set designer, writer, director — opened Keystone Studios in Los Angeles after obtaining financial backing from East Coast bookies/movie producers Adam Kessel and Charles Bauman.
And what was Sennett’s initial business plan? To make comedies, and lots of them. Short one or two reelers, light on plot, heavy on action, featuring chases, slapstick routines, and of course no spoken dialog. (Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, and considered to be the first feature-length ”talkie,” wasn’t released until 1927.)
Sennett’s productions helped launch the careers of silent stars including Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, and Gloria Swanson. W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby also appeared in Sennett’s later talking and music shorts.
But beyond any single actor, actress, or film, Mack Sennett is most remembered today for the antics of his beloved Keystone Cops, a troupe of officers of the law who appeared numerous times in his films. Their kinetic harebrained antics and seemingly death-defying chases set the standards forever for slapstick comedy and action scenes alike.
Even today, a century after their introduction, “Keystone Cops” remains a well-known signifier of ineptitude in action. Why? Because the antics of these cops STILL REMAIN FUNNY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS! Side-splittingly so.
Perhaps the British comedian, Benny Hill (1924 – 1992), provided the most popular modern homage to Mack Sennett in the ending chase scenes that were always part of his comedy TV shows. These skits were filmed without dialog, and yes, they usually involved young women in swimsuits or miniskirts, or cops … er …”bobbies” (with the female officers always dressed in, you guessed it, miniskirts).