by Allan Fish
(USA 1922 20m) DVD1/2
Secret Policeman’s First Ball
p Joseph M.Schenck d/w Buster Keaton, Eddie Cline ph Elgin Lessley
Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Eddie Cline,
How many people today have really seen any Buster Keaton films? Of course many have seen the house gag from Steamboat Bill Jnr and the train sequence in The General, but who has actually seen the films in question? Hopefully, since the advent of DVD and the superb Keaton box-sets in the States, France and eventually the UK, that will be rectified, but his shorts are another matter. As with Chaplin, though the shorts are available, they are unjustly overlooked. Critics may rave about them, but rave about them to each other, rarely actually converting anyone to them. So how can I hope to convert anyone to Keaton’s shorts? The first thing is to make sure I pick the right one and, in this reviewer’s opinion, there are three all-time great Keaton shorts, all of them from the annus mirabilis that was 1922; The Electric House, The Paleface and, my favourite, Cops. It certainly isn’t that I like Cops any the more, but that it rather has a truly Keatonian narrative style. The Electric House is a joyously hilarious piece of pratfall farce exquisitely rehearsed and The Paleface a wonderful tale of Buster’s running into some Indians. Yet Cops is definitive Buster in that, like his greatest feature The General, it’s an escalation of gags. Keaton’s most typical works are like cinematic Rossini overtures, building to crescendo upon crescendo with each gag topping the previous one and the pace quickening by the minute. That much is certainly true of Cops.
It begins with a simple ultimatum delivered by a girl to her prospective suitor, our very own Buster; “I won’t marry you until you can prove to me that you can be a successful businessman.” Leaving Buster weeping at the iron gates of her abode, he sets off to prove her wrong. After a chain of events that leads to him obtaining another man’s money, he buys some furniture from a con-man who knows it isn’t for sale and belongs to someone else. Then he buys a carthorse which isn’t for sale (and makes the Steptoes’ Hercules seem like a Breeders Cup winner in comparison) to cart the furniture which isn’t his and sets off to make some money to impress his intended. However, things escalate, he interrupts a police parade, and half the city police force chase him across the city.
Many of the gags can be seen coming with the benefit of hindsight but you find yourself laughing in spite of this at the cleverness of the concept and the context of when it was made. Unlike Chaplin, Keaton doesn’t plead for audience acceptance or use pathos, he just sets out to make people laugh. So scenes are continually fastened safely in the strong box of memory, from the cops knocking each other out with their truncheons to the horse being taken to receive goat glands, from the lighting the cigarette with a bomb and being mistaken for an anarchist to the see-saw sequence with Buster as the pivot. It’s the timing of these gags that is so impressive, not just the physical timing and rehearsal but in the uncanny knowledge of just how long to build up each gag and how to keep control on a succession of gags so that the audience doesn’t miss any.
The film begins with a quote about love from Harry Houdini, and though the quote might seem misleading, both it and the nod to Houdini aren’t. On numerous occasions Keaton’s escapes from the police are ingenious enough to make Houdini proud and in the finale the quote finally gets a payback. After being chased all over town and back again by the police force (“hire more police to protect the police we’ve got” says the mayor amid the carnage), Buster manages to lock them away inside their own building while he, disguised in a policeman’s uniform, tosses the keys in a nearby ashcan. However, when he sees his girl and she is still unimpressed by him and flounces off he turns away disconsolately and realises he’s had enough. He turns back to the ashcan, gets out the keys, turns back to the door, opens it and lets the angry police mob drag him inside. It’s a typically sublime finale to Keaton’s masterpiece. The next time it turns up on Channel 4 (as it is wont to do), record it.
How Cops made the Top 100:
Peter M. No. 13
Sam Juliano No. 28
Allan Fish No. 37
Samuel Wilson No. 38
Bill Riley No. 39
Jamie Uhler No. 42
Frank Gallo No. 43
Frank Aida No. 50