‘Cops!’ (1922) – Short Film Review

The next film on my watchlist of everything featured on Disney’s Great Movie Ride is Cops! (1922), a Buster Keaton comedy…And wow, was this refreshing as a short comedy after a rather slow (albeit still enjoyable) full-length feature.

The plot of Cops! is straightforward, and I think that’s really what makes this short so fun to watch. Buster Keaton’s un-named character (only credited as Young Man) is chased all over Los Angeles by cops after misbehaving during a city parade.

A clip from the film was shown in the finale montage of The Great Movie Ride, and even without having seen the actual short before, it made for an entertaining part of the ride’s ending the way it was pieced between other scenes from actions and comedies.

With such a simple plot, the writing by Edward F. Cline and Keaton himself makes for just a quick, fun watch. It’s only 18 minutes long, but provides lots of visual antics as Keaton runs from the cops and a subtle romance that manages to come through in such a short time with all of the action and helps to wrap up “The End” nicely.

Despite being chased by the cops, Keaton’s character is not necessarily portrayed as a bad guy, and it seems like the intent is for audiences to root for him despite all signs pointing to his escape being, well, hopeless. While reading up on the film, I did learn that the sense of hopelessness portrayed while still keeping the film a comedy may have been influenced by the Fatty Arbuckle trial that was going on during production. If you’re interested in researching it further, the trial is a whole rabbit hole you could easily go down in which Arbuckle, another famous actor from the time, was accused of raping and murdering aspiring actress Virginia Rappe.

The scandal was significant news at the time, with several reports circulating multiple different versions of what had actually happened (there are so many elements to what happened to Rappe leading up to her death that you really could just do a deep dive into all of that) but in short, Hollywood was split on whether to support Arbuckle throughout the trials or not. Both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton shared statements in support of Arbuckle, which reportedly earned Keaton reprimands from some of the studios he worked.

As far as Keaton’s connection to the Arbuckle controversy goes, Keaton later purchased and released a film titled The Frozen North (1922) that Arbuckle wrote as a parody of William S. Hart, another actor who made statements pointing to Arbuckle being guilty.  Keaton co-wrote, directed, and starred in The Frozen North, and given all of that, many film historians have speculated that the trial may have had an influence on at least the tone of Cops! where it was happening during filming.

All of this controversy aside, Cops! is a fun 18-minute watch if you’re looking for a quick look at Keaton’s performance and storytelling style or perhaps an introduction to a more true crime-style look at 1920s Hollywood if you want to research further what was happening at the time.

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