The biggest contribution of Mack Sennett, the father of silent film comedy, was the creation of Keystone Kops, the band of bungling comedians who were popular not only in the U.S. but also across the world. They have inspired many comedians in India such as Mehmood, Johnny Walker and Vadivelu.
The Keystone Kops were fictional, incompetent policemen who featured in silent film comedies in the early 20th century. The movies were produced by Mack Sennett by his Keystone Film Company between 1912 and 1917. Their first film was Hoffmeyer's Legacy (1912), but their popularity grew with the 1913 short film, The Bangville Police, starring the lovely Mabel Normand.
The expression ‘Keystone Kops’ became so famous that it found mention in many classic dictionaries of the English language. The celebrated Oxford Dictionary carries an entry that reads, ‘Keystone Kops: bumbling police characters in films made by Keystone, a US film company formed in 1912, remembered for its silent slapstick comedy films.’
The Encyclopaedia Britannica too carries an entry about the famous band of bunglers. “Keystone Kops, in silent-film comedies, insanely incompetent police force, dressed in ill-fitting, unkempt uniforms that appeared regularly in Mack Sennett’s comedy movies.”
The famous actors who appeared as the bungling band of baton-waving cops included Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Al St. John, James Finlayson, Ford Sterling, Buster Keaton, Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy, and Charlie Chaplin.
Roscoe Arbuckle, popularly known as ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (he weighed 12 pounds when he was born), was the first star to emerge from the famous Keystone Kops band. In spite of his increasing bulk, he was exceptionally agile with his body and hands. Sample this: He acts as a waiter in one film. He has his back to the customers and faces a shelf with plates and dishes. He throws a sandwich at a rich lady’s plate without looking at it and it lands right in the middle of the plate much to the lady’s astonishment.
He was the first comedian who introduced the now clichéd comedy business of cream-pie throwing, which at one time was a ‘must’ in any American slapstick. Arbuckle was an expert at pie-throwing. Many movies made during Hollywood’s Golden Era had pie-throwing as their theme, including the legendary Laurel and Hardy’s full-length film The Battle of the Century. (For some reason, pie-throwing did not find favour in Indian cinema. A noted director tried it in a Tamil film, making the actors throw rava uppuma at one another. It did not go down well with either audience or critics. No one tried it after that.)
Arbuckle was born on March 24, 1887 in Smith Center, Kansas, and passed away when he was only 46 in New York from a heart attack. The reason for his early death was the two trials for alleged murder and the consequent destruction of his career and life.
At the pinnacle of his fame, Arbuckle regretfully got involved in a sex scandal that rocked Hollywood, completely smashing his life and career. He was accused of the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe in a hotel room. He was found not guilty, but the damage was done and the prudish social boycott against him began. Hollywood companies paying a fortune for his films withdrew them from circulation, killing his career. Many books have been written about the trials and how he was crucified by the American public of that prudish era. To make a living, he began to direct cheap comedies under the name ‘Will B. Good’.
Fatty Arbuckle is still remembered by moviegoers in the U.S. and the Western world as one of the greatest masters of raising laughter without uttering a single word.