The Keystone Cops (often spelled "Keystone Kops") were fictional, humorously incompetent policemen, featured in silent film slapstick comedies produced by Mack Sennett for his Keystone Film Company between 1912 and 1917.
The idea for the Keystone Cops 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, Sennett shifted the Keystone Cops from starring roles to background ensemble, in support of comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. The Keystone Cops served 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. Comedian/actors Chester Conklin,Jimmy Finlayson,Ford Sterling and director Del Lord were also Keystone Cops.
In 2010, the previously lost short A Thief Catcher was rediscovered at an antique sale in Michigan. The short, filmed in 1914, stars Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, and Al St. John and includes a previously unknown appearance of Charlie Chaplin as a Keystone Kop.
"Bag o' Rags," the Keystone Kops' unofficial theme music, was composed in 1912 by William "Mac" McKanless (1879-1937), an African-American orchestra leader, pianist and songwriter.
In Silent Stars, Jeanine Basinger writes:
The Kops are a brilliant concept. To take a gaggle of inept policemen and display them over and over again in a series of riotously funny physical punishments plays equally well to the peanut gallery and the expensive box seats. People hate cops. Even people who have never had anything to do with cops hate them. Of course, we count on them to keep order and to protect us when we need protecting, and we love them on television shows in which they have nerves of steel and hearts of gold, but in the abstract, as a nation, collectively we hate them. They are too much like high school principals. We're very happy to see their pants fall down, and they look good to us with pie on their faces. The Keystone Kops turn up – and they get punished for it, as they crash into each other, fall down, and suffer indignity after indignity. Here is pure movie satisfaction.
The Kops are very skillfully presented. The comic originality and timing in one of their chase scenes requires imagination to think up, talent to execute, understanding of the medium, and, of course, raw courage to perform. The Kops are madmen presented as incompetents, and they're madmen rushing around in modern machines. What's more, the machines they were operating in their routines were newly invented and not yet experienced by the average moviegoer. (In the early days of automobiles, it was reported that there were only two cars registered in all of Kansas City, and they ran into each other. There is both poetry and philosophy in this fact, but most of all, there is humor. Sennett got the humor.)-- Jeanine Basinger, Silent Stars (1999)
Mack Sennett continued to use the Keystone Cops intermittently through the 1920s. By the time sound movies arrived, the Keystone Cops' 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.[vague]
The Staub version of the Keystone Cops became a template for later re-creations. 20th Century Fox's 1939 film Hollywood Cavalcade had Buster Keaton in a Keystone chase scene. However, during his own silent film career, the only time he had been in a chase in the Keystone style was in The Rough House, by Roscoe Arbuckle. His own police chase scenes, such as in The Goat (1921) and Cops (1922), were highly realistic. Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955) included a lengthy chase scene, showcasing a group of stuntmen dressed as Sennett's squad. (Two original Keystone Cops in this movie were Heinie Conklin as an elderly studio guard; and Hank Mann as a prop man. Sennett also starred in a cameo role-as himself.) Mel Brooks directed a car chase scene in the Keystone Cops' style in his comedy film Silent Movie.
By the 1950s surviving silent movie comedians could be pressed into service as Keystone Cops regardless of whether they appeared with the troupe authentically.[vague] In the This Is Your Life TV tribute to Mack Sennett, several Sennett alumni ran on stage dressed as Keystone Cops.
In 1969, Warner Bros announced a series of Looney Tunes shorts starring cartoon versions of the Cops were to be produced, but the studio closed its animation department before anything could develop from it.
The name has since been used to criticize any group for its mistakes, particularly if the mistakes happened after a great deal of energy and activity, or for a lack of coordination among the members. 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 Security'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". A 2012 U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report investigating Canadian energy company Enbridge's handling of a July 2010 pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River compared it to the Keystone Cops.
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 favorite catchphrase for describing a situation in an English football match where a defensive error or a series of defensive errors leads to a goal. The term was also used to describe the play of the New York Jets against the New England Patriots in the Buttfumble game, with sportscaster Cris Collinsworth declaring "This is the Keystone Cops" after the Jets gave up 21 points in 51 seconds.
According to Dave Filoni, supervising director of the animated television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the look of the police 'droid is based on the appearance of the Keystone Kops. In 2018 David Blair stars as officer keystone in "Silent Times" Directed by Christopher Annino and Written by Geoff Blanchette. It also stars Olga Kurkulina and WWE legend Ron Bass