Last night, I saw three Buster Keaton shorts on cable, each from 1922, and I must say it's about time. I'm already familiar with the other silent masters of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, and now I can finally claim to see all three of the greats.
Cops was the best of those three. The other two, The Blacksmith, and The Baloonatic, aren't bad either, but it's hard enough to write about shorts, especially when they're silent as well, so I'll just stick to this one, for now.
Buster is a typically unnamed guy, who ends up stealing a load of cash from a rich fellow - in the process, he remains sympathetic, perhaps because his victim is rather obnoxious. Then the woman he has his eyes on suggests she only interested in businessmen. So, he gets ideas on what he can do with that money. One unlikely misunderstanding leads to another as he tries to parlay his good fortune into legitimacy.
Keaton not only is a wonderful physical comedian here, negotiating some truly amazing stunts (the bit with the ladder is fairly astonishing), but he also has a certain screen personality that's hard to describe. He seems not only unaware of the camera, but naturally oblivious to half of what's happening - which is at least half the humor of this piece.
Toward the end of the short, Keaton has disrupted a parade of policemen. And of course, as all such things must go, they end up chasing him. All of them. There are more than enough cop extras in this film to give a massive headache to whatever special effects gurus were responsive for the Agent Smith clones in The Matrix Reloaded. There've been more extras on film since, for sure (Cleopatra, for one, might hold the record), but I'm not sure any quite hold the same sense of chaos. The chase of brides in The Bachelor (Chris O'Donnell) probably comes the closest that I've seen - and in fact, that scene could have even been inspired by this film.
This was one of the great early shorts, and has even been placed in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
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