Friday, March 8, 2013

Cops (1922)

WHO: The great Buster Keaton wrote, directed and starred in this, along with his frequent co-writer and co-director Edward Cline, who in this instance also appears in the film in a small role.

WHAT: Leave it to Buster to take one of the most overused clichés of silent cinema, the chase involving a bunch of bumbling police officers, and turn it into something brilliant and sublime, just by extending the scale of the trope well past the point of any semblance of logic. While the Keystone Kops films were extremely popular in the 1910s, one might say Cops expands on their concept in a way most appropriate to how the popular view of policemen changed after Prohibition.

This is not the only topical aspect of this film. There's a gag that depends on knowledge of "goat gland" treatments, a chapter in American quackery that is almost entirely forgotten today, but was widely enough known in the 1920s to become the nickname for silent movies which contained one reel of talking scenes, uniformly for publicity and not artistic purposes, when sound came to cinema later in the decade. Goat gland treatments were disgusting enough that I'm not going to get into their so-called "medical" details, but if you want to understand this gag you might want to read about John R. Brinkley, but please, not while eating. Honestly, it's just one gag and not "getting it" won't hinder the rest of the film in the least.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the beautifully restored and shamefully underused (as a film screening space, at least) California Theatre in downtown San Jose at 7:00.

WHY: Cops plays as part of the Cinequest Film Festival's annual silent film presentation at the California Theatre, always with a live organist performing. The festival ends with the weekend, but before it does there are three full days of screenings, including the local premiere of Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children a week before its appearance at CAAMFest, an Argentine film featuring film critic Jorge Jellinek, last seen on screen in A Useful Life, and a 4K digital presentation of the restoration of Dr. Strangelove that San Francisco Silent Film Festival audiences got to see a sample of last summer. (It had phenomenal clarity compared side-by-side against an unrestored 35mm print- perhaps too much clarity, as it might be distracting to be able to make out background details I'm not sure Stanley Kubrick expected to register on screen.) 

HOW: Cops screens prior to the feature-length Harold Lloyd comedy Safety Last!, both in 35mm prints, with live musical accompaniment by my own favorite silent film organist Dennis James, whose performances at local venues I try hard not to miss, yet somehow I'm not sure I've heard him perform for a Harold Lloyd film before- he's certainly excellent with Keaton, and is the one who reminded me of the aforementioned "goat gland" gag while I was preparing this post. He also had this to say about Harold Lloyd:
I spent the entire Summer of 1972 as a guest at 'Greenacres'- Harold Lloyd's mansion up in Benedict Canyon above Hollywood. Harold had died earlier that year and my residency was arranged by the executor of his estate. They had kept the house staff under employment, so I had a laundress, cook and even chauffeur plus vintage Rolls Royce at my command . . . talk about seeing just how those movie stars lived!

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