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The Keystone Kops was a series of silent film comedies about a totally incompetent group of policemen. The movies were produced by Mack Sennett, for his Keystone Film Company, between 1912 and 1917. The idea came from Hank Mann, who also played police chief Tehiezel in the first film before being replaced by Ford Sterling. Their first film was Hoffmeyer's Legacy (1912), but their popularity stemmed from the 1913 short, The Bangville Police, starring Mabel Normand.

As early as 1914, Sennet shifted the Keystone Kops from starring roles to background ensemble, in support of comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. The Keystone Kops serve as supporting players for Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand, and Chaplin in the first full-length Sennett comedy feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), as well as in Mabel's New Hero (1913) with Normand and Arbuckle, Making a Living (1914) with Chaplin in his first screen appearance (pre-Tramp), In the Clutches of the Gang (1914) with Normand, Arbuckle, and Al St. John, and Wished on Mabel (1915) with Arbuckle and Normand, among others.

Two Keystone Kop players who starred in the Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (which starred Sennett in a cameo role-as himself) were Heinie Conklin as a elderly studio Guard; and Hank Mann as a prop man. Comedian/actors Chester Conklin and Jimmy Finlayson were also Keystone Kops.


Mack Sennett continued to use the Keystone Kops intermittently through the 1920s. By the time sound movies arrived, the Keystone Kops' popularity had waned. In 1935, director Ralph Staub staged a revival of the Sennett gang for his Warner Brothers short subject Keystone Hotel, featuring a re-creation of the Kops clutching at their hats, leaping in the air in surprise, running energetically in any direction, and taking extreme pratfalls. This footage has been used countless times in later productions purporting to use silent-era material.

The Staub version of the Keystone Kops became a template for later re-creations. 20th Century Fox's 1939 feature. Hollywood Cavalcade had Buster Keaton in a Keystone chase scene. However, during his own silent film career, the nearest Keaton had appeared in a "police comedy" was The Goat (1921) and Cops (1922). Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955) included a lengthy chase scene, showcasing a group of stuntmen dressed as Sennett's squad. (An original Keystone Kop in this movie was Heinie Conklin.) Mel Brooks directed a Keystone Kops-type car chase in his comedy film, Silent Movie.

By the 1950s, any surviving silent-movie comedian might be pressed into service as a Keystone Kop, regardless of whether he appeared with the troupe authentically. In the This Is Your Life TV tribute to Mack Sennett, several Sennett alumni ran on stage—dressed as Keystone Kops.

In popular culture

The term has since come to be used to criticize any group for its mistakes, particularly if the mistakes happened after a great deal of energy and activity, or if there was a lack of coordination among the members of the group. For example, the June 2004 election campaign of the Liberal Party of Canada was compared with "the Keystone Kops running around" by one of its parliamentary members, Carolyn Parrish. In criticizing the Department of Homeland Securitymarker's response to Hurricane Katrina, Senator Joseph Lieberman claimed that emergency workers under DHS chief Michael Chertoff "ran around like Keystone Kops, uncertain about what they were supposed to do or uncertain how to do it". Another example is a statement by Peter Beattie, Premier of the Australian state of Queensland, on the counter-terrorism investigation into Gold Coast doctor Mohamed Haneef in July 2007. After the Australian Federal Police committed a series of blunders, the Premier likened their actions to those of the "Keystone Kops".

Representative John Dingell (D-Michigan), Chairman of the House and Energy Committee likened the government's response to the 2008 salmonella outbreak to an episode of Keystone Kops.

In the documentary Confessions of BTK, serial killer Dennis Rader refers to the police as "Keystone Kops" in relation to why it took over 30 years to identify him as the BTK killer.

The Keystone Kops re-emerge every year in the town of Cedar Springs, Michiganmarker during their Red Flannel Festival, and also in Sitka, Alaskamarker during the annual Alaska Day festival.

The Police Academy movies that began in 1984 are frequently considered a modern day version of the Keystone Kops.

In the first season of The West Wing, in the episode "In Excelsis Deo", the White House Chief of Staff's character Leo McGarry refers to Sam Seaborn and Josh Lyman as the Keystone Kops.

In Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, the actions of the police are described as 'Keystone Kops style'.

In the film Con Air, DEA agent Duncan Malloy, on an angry tirade about the incompetence of the prison guards, accuses Vince Larkin of running a "Keystone Kops" operation.

In an episode ("Syzygy") of the US Television series The X-Files, a Keystone Kops movie is showing on all of the channels on Mulder and Scully's hotel room TV. It is also shown on every TV in the video game which the series inspired, The X-Files: The Game.

An episode of Batman had a brief segment of "Keystone Kops" silent movie. Ironically, this episode had two silent movie actors in speaking parts: series co-star Neil Hamilton and guest star Francis X. Bushman.

In sport, the term has come into common usage by television commentators, particularly in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The rugby commentator Liam Toland uses the term to describe a team's incompetent performance on the pitch. The phrase 'Keystone cops defending' has become a favourite catchphrase for describing a situation in an English soccer match where a defensive error, or series of defensive errors lead to a goal.

Video games

In 1983, a video game called Keystone Kapers was released for the Atari 2600 and 5200. Playing as Keystone Kop Officer Kelly, the player's objective is to stop would-be robber Hooligan Harry from escaping Southwick's Mall. The game, which became a hit, was produced by Activision. The Keystone Kops also appear in the computer game NetHack, usually when the player steals from one of the shops. They are more dangerous than their cinematic inspiration, however; they typically surround the player's character so escape is impossible, and then mercilessly beat the player with rubber hoses from all directions, while temporarily blinding the player with cream pie.

See also


Further reading

  • Basinger, Jeanine, (1999), chapter on Keystone Kops (also covers Mabel Normand) in Silent Stars, (ISBN 0-8195-6451-6).

External links

Feature films

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