This simple two-reel short confirms Buster Keaton’s genius before he had moved on to the production of comedy features later in the twenties. While limited in terms of plot and character, it takes the basic concept of the chase, a staple of film since the beginning, and “runs with it” (pun intended) for all it’s worth.
The movie begins by establishing its simple premise – Keaton speaks to a girl (Virginia Fox) through bars, as if in prison. Then, she turns and walks away from him, and the new angle shows that he is standing at the gate to her home, and that she is on the grounds of a large estate. She tells him in an intertitle that in order to marry her, he will need to be successful in business. And thus, Buster is set into motion. A short distance away, he sees a man (Joe Roberts) hailing a taxi. He accidentally drops a large wad of money. Buster retrieves it and, rather than steal it, offers it back to the man, expecting a reward. The man ignores him and seems annoyed. He then tries to help the man to the taxi, still hoping for a tip, but each effort he makes backfires and the man is tripped and becomes increasingly angry. When the taxi pulls away, Keaton starts counting the money he has lifted during the scuffle. The man, however, realizes the money is gone and has the taxi return, grabbing it from Keaton’s hand in motion. He gets only the wallet, so the taxi turns around again and this time he gets out, ready to confront Buster, but Buster just gets into the cab from the other side and drives off. Only now do we see the man’s badge, indicating that Buster has just had his first run-in with the law.
Buster has the taxi pull over elsewhere in town, and foolishly flashes his wad of bills when he pays for the ride. A con man (Steve Murphy) sees this, and also sees a family hauling furniture to move from a nearby apartment. He sits in front of the pile of furniture and begins weeping loudly. When Buster comes over to investigate, he tells him that he’s being thrown out on the street with nowhere to go and no money. Buster feels sorry for the man, but also thinks that maybe the furniture would make a good investment for him, so offers to pay for it. The man grabs most of the wad of bills and skedaddles. With only $5 left, Buster looks around and sees a horse and cart with a sign draped over the horse, saying “For Sale $5.” He gives this money to a hobo (Edward F. Cline, his co-director), assuming he owns it. The man takes the money, and Buster leads the horse away, and we see that the sign was actually attached to a jacket on a mannequin from the store behind. Cline gives the bill to the store owner and takes the jacket.
Now Buster has illicitly (accidentally) obtained a huge pile of furniture and a means of transport. He begins loading, and the father of the family sees him and takes him for a moving man, so begins to help loading the cart. Soon, Keaton sits down and lets the man and his family do all of the work for him. The man gives him a scrap of paper with an address to take the furniture to, but Buster has no interest and tosses it away. He begins to ride into the street, with a huge pule of furniture and a very slow horse. While signaling a left turn with his hand, he gets bitten by a dog, and puts on a boxing glove. Then he has the bright idea of putting it onto an extending rack and uses that to signal his turns (evidently he always turns left). The first time he tries this, it works well, but then he comes to an intersection where a cop is directing traffic, and the boxing glove knocks him down. Buster becomes tired of the slow pace and naps, letting the horse take her own head. When the horse stops moving altogether, he unhitches it and takes it to a “Goat Gland Specialist.” The horse emerges full of energy and raring to go.
Now an intertitle makes a humorous comment about always being able to find a policeman once a year and we see shots of a police parade. Buster is struggling with the horse again, but falls into line in the midst of hundreds of cops. On the reviewing stand is the mayor and his daughter – Buster’s girl! Just as he drives past, a bearded fellow throws a bomb from a rooftop, landing in Buster’s cart, right next to him as he searches for matches to light a cigarette. At first, he is unaware of the danger and lights up using the wick. But, as people panic and start running, he realizes the danger he is in and tosses the bomb behind him, where it lands and explodes in the middle of a rank of police!
The rest of the movie is fast action and defies simple summation, as Buster flees from hundreds of police and wreaks havoc as he goes, knocking over a fireplug and causing water to spray all over the reviewing stand, crashing his cart and having police swarm all over the furniture, even coming across the man whose furniture he stole in the first place (also a cop) and being chased by him and the cop whose money he stole. The mayor demands that the police chief “get some cops to protect our policemen.” Buster runs down streets with huge masses of cops behind him and at one point “catches” a moving car with his arm and is borne away at top speed. At various points, he cleverly hides in a chest, in a doorway, under an umbrella, and in a car, using his necktie to make a phony mustache and beard. There’s a great bit with a ladder and a fence that is reminiscent of “Neighbors.” At the end of the film, Keaton’s character locks up the cops in the police station. However, the girl walks past and makes clear her disapproval of his behavior and gives him the cold shoulder. Therefore, he unlocks the police station and is immediately pulled in by the cops. The film ends with the title “The End” written on a tombstone with Keaton’s pork pie hat propped on it.
According to Wikipedia, some writers have explained this movie’s tone and perspective by noting that it took place during Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s trial for manslaughter after the death of Virginia Rappe at a party in San Francisco. This seems dubious to me, and author Daniel Eagan, writing for America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry agreed. He says, “the inspiration behind Cops seems purer, or at least more abstract. He seems intent only on making the best possible chase, one freed from the confines of the stage, and even from most narrative demands” (p.82). If Keaton were really arguing for Arbuckle’s innocence in making this movie, his character should be more guileless than he in fact is – for example not stealing from the first cop when he doesn’t get the reward he thinks he deserves. At any rate, the movie as it exists transcends any historical developments, it manages to be truly timeless.
Furthermore, the tone and themes of the movie fit well with work Keaton had done for years before, for example in “Convict 13” and “The Goat,” both of which involve accidents that lead to his innocent character being pursued and/or punished by the law. The tombstone image at the end fits nicely into the trend of morbid humor at the ends of Keaton shorts that I’ve commented on, for example in “The Electric House” and “Day Dreams.” In this instance, it serves as a simple code for Keaton’s character’s losing out in the end – it doesn’t seem to imply that the cops in the building have literally torn him apart, or that he is executed for throwing the bomb – unlike those other cases where a specific form of death is suggested and then turned into a joke. It’s just a final grim chuckle at the end of a laugh riot.
The chase movie has a long and noble history in film, going back to the very beginning of editing, in which movies composed of more than one shot were stitched together to create a narrative. Simple examples such as “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife…” and “A Winter Straw Ride” consisted of shots of first the pursued, then the pursuers running over the same ground with no sense of rhythm or suspense. “The Great Train Robbery” is in essence a kind of chase film for most of its run time, and some examples like “Race for the Sausage” show improvement on this theme. D.W. Griffith finally introduced suspense by showing a chase from the point of view of two simultaneous events, for example in “An Unseen Enemy,” where if the protagonist doesn’t arrive in time, the consequences for the heroine are dire. By the 1920s, however, no one would sit still for something so predictable, and Buster Keaton takes this format to new levels by simply surprising the audience at every opportunity. When you expect him to zig, he zags. As spontaneous as it all feels, it is also obviously very carefully planned out, with throwaway gags like the ladder bit taking considerable set up and coordination of multiple people who couldn’t see one another.
This is probably my favorite Buster Keaton movie up to 1922 (there’s better to come, but that will have to wait), and I was honored to be able to review it for this year’s Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Silentology. Please take time to look at the other entries, listed here.
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Camera: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox, Edward F. Cline, Steve Murphy
Run Time: 18 Min