• James L. Neibaur

Book Review: CHASE! A Tribute to the Keystone Cops

Bear Manor has released a fascinating collection of essays, compiled and edited by Lon and Debra Davis, where expert comedy film historians discuss the inimitable Keystone Cops.

Pioneer comedy filmmaker Mack Sennett came up with the concept of a group of bumbling policemen as a method to attack authority with slapstick comedy. This was both funny and gratifying to core moviegoers, many of whom were American immigrants struggling and often being hassled by the law. The Keystone Cops have since become a concept in movie history -- the representation of a primitive comic style containing frenetic action, flailing arms, bulging eyes, and acrobatic stunts.

Of course there is much more to the Keystone Cops than the base concept they provide in generally vague terms for those only marginally acquainted with silent comedy. They represent early developments not only in slapstick, but in satire, and in parody. They also exhibited how a core idea of several performers could help enhance a film, even when not particularly central to its narrative.

Lon and Debra did a magnificent job of gathering some of the finest minds among silent comedy historians. One of the very best essays in the book is from the youngest contributor, Lea Stans, whose understanding of cinema's development is both remarkable and commendable. Lea's essay acknowledges the often vague awareness of who the Keystone Cops were and what they did, dispels the misconceptions, and points out their very real significance to screen comedy's evolution. Veteran writer Joe Adamson explores how visual comedy was created and written. Randy Skretvedt discusses how various formations of Keystone Cop representations permeated the culture well into the 1970s. John Bengston offers one of his always fascinating then-and-now chapters on the Keystone feature "Tillie's Punctured Romance," which was enhanced by a Keystone Cop climax. Michael Hayde investigates the various reissues over the years. Editor Lon Davis teams with foremost Keystone expert Brent Walker to provide actor profiles, and a filmography. Marc Wanamaker's chronology puts everything into perspective. Other contributors include Paul Gierucki, Rob King, Mark Pruett, and others.

As this volume expands upon the pioneering studies by Karlton Lahue and Samuel Gill -- the book is dedicated to the late Mr. Lahue, and its Foreword is penned by Mr. Gill.

The amount of important, varied information provided in this anthology is quite plentiful, covering history, aesthetics, marketing, cultural impact, and the continued significance of the Keystone Cops, their contributors, and their works. The book's significance to a better understanding of comedy film's origins, development and process cannot be overstated. This book is an absolute must for any library, research center, or personal collection that attempts to be at all comprehensive. And for fans of silent comedy, it is indispensable.

The book can be ordered here: CHASE!

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