The great screen comedians need to create a world of their own. In their best films, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields and others inhabited a universe that was governed by their own set of rules. I think this is one of the reasons comedians have such a hard time sustaining their careers. They tend to choose projects where they get to do funny things, instead of choosing projects that will allow them to be themselves. Woody Allen has been more successful than many, I think in large part because he writes and directs his own movies. Steve Martin can be brilliant, but his films are often crippled by directors who seem more focussed on framing the action than creating a world where the star can be his eccentric, outrageous self. Richard Pryor is one of the greatest comics this country has ever seen, but aside from his concert documentaries, he generally ended up in movies where the makers seemed to have no idea what to do with him.
For a time, Buster Keaton managed to create a world on film that was his alone. While his movies usually have a love interest, and there’s always an assortment of supporting characters, Keaton is the only one who truly has a presence. The rest are two-dimensional figures drawn with a few bold strokes, staying on screen just long enough to fulfill their purpose. In a Chaplin film the supporting players often have a life of their own. We might recognize them as people we’d meet on the street, and sometimes they have surprising emotional depth. The laughs in Laurel and Hardy’s silent films come out of their absolute inability to cope with everyday situations. They just aren’t equipped to deal with the real world. But Keaton’s films have little to do with the real world. They take place entirely in his imagination.
Cops starts off with Keaton’s girlfriend telling him to get lost. He’s not successful enough, and she doesn’t want to marry a loser. In the very next scene, Keaton finds a wallet full of money. It’s actually not quite that simple, but it would be impossible to describe the high-speed, knockabout ballet that ends with our hero making his getaway with a wad of cash. Now having the necessary capital to invest, our hero runs across a man sitting on the curb next to a mountain of furniture. The man says he’s just been evicted, and has to sell his belongings. Keaton, trying to act like a real businessman, makes the purchase, thinking he can sell everything for a tidy profit. Naturally this would impress his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the man on the curb doesn’t tell him that the furniture is not his. It actually belongs to a family that’s getting ready to move. They’ve put everything they own out on the sidewalk to have it ready for the expressman.
Soon Keaton is driving a horse-drawn wagon, the back piled high with furniture. The magical series of misunderstandings leading up to this is completely absurd, but in the context of the movie it all seems to make perfect sense. After a fairly prosaic beginning, this tight little two-reel film is rapidly moving into the realm of surrealism. A boxing glove is transformed into a turn indicator, which works well until a policeman is decked. Keaton decides it’s easier to communicate with his horse by calling him on the phone. One minutes he’s driving down an empty street, the next minute he’s in the middle of a parade, doffing his hat to the cheering crowd. As if all this weren’t enough, out of nowhere an anarchist tosses a bomb, and all hell breaks loose.
Of course, Keaton gets the blame for it all. He has gone from being a rising entrepreneur, calmly driving his cart down the road, to being public enemy number one, now fleeing from an army of cops. And it gets worse. Completely in keeping with the film’s absurd logic, it turns out that the head of the household that lost all its furniture is a policeman. And to take it even further, the father of the girl he’s trying to impress is the chief of police. Soon Keaton is dashing madly down the city’s streets, pursued by a horde of cops that seems to keep growing larger and larger. In the hands of a less talented man, this might seem like overkill. In the world that Keaton has created, it seems like the only possible outcome. Years later, Edgar Ulmer directed Detour, a noir classic which tells us in the starkest terms imaginable that there’s no point in running. We can’t escape our fate. Cops basically has the same premise, but in this case it’s played for laughs. It’s not surprising Samuel Beckett was such a big fan of Keaton’s work.
If you’d like to take a look at Cops, here are a couple of links you can follow….
The reason I’m giving two links is not because the prints offer different versions of Cops. It’s the music. The first one was scored with a small chamber ensemble for a contemporary release of the film. The second one is scored with a large pipe organ, which is much more in keeping with what you would’ve heard in a theatre back in the twenties.
I have to say I’m not totally happy with either version. While the chamber score is certainly a nice piece of music, it doesn’t capture the spirit of Keaton’s world. The music is too genteel for this rough and tumble comedy. The organ soundtrack, while probably close to the accompaniment Cops would have had in the silent days, is too big and too busy for my taste. It doesn’t give the film room to breathe, and doesn’t capture the subtlety that was so much a part of Keaton’s genius.
I’d prefer something in between the two. Actually, I remember a night years ago when the Silent Movie Theatre was still actually showing silent movies. They had a Keaton night, and I’m pretty sure Cops was on the bill. At any rate, to accompany the films they had a guy on piano, and I thought he really nailed it. He knew how to complement the action on the screen without competing with it, and he had a light touch where it was needed. I was so impressed with his playing, I went up to him during intermission and asked him his name. Of course, that was years ago, and now I’ve totally forgotten it.