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The Keystone Cops (often spelled "Keystone Kops") were fictional incompetent policemen, featured in silent film comedies in the early 20th century. The movies were produced by Mack Sennett for his Keystone Film Company between 1912 and 1917. The idea 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, Sennet shifted the Keystone Cops from starring roles to background ensemble, in support of comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. The Keystone Cops serve 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.
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 feature Hollywood Cavalcade had Buster Keaton in a Keystone chase scene. However, during his own silent film career, the nearest Keaton had appeared in a "police comedy" was The Goat (1921) and Cops (1922). 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.
The term has since come to be used to criticize any group for its mistakes, particularly if the mistakes happened after a great deal of energy and activity, or if there was a lack of coordination among the members of the group. 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 which investigated the response of the Canadian energy company Enbridge to a July 2010 pipeline spill in Michigan where millions of litres of oil began to pour in and around the Kalamazoo River compared the company’s handling of the spill to the Keystone Cops.
The Keystone Kops re-emerge every year in Cedar Springs, Michigan during their Red Flannel Festival, in Sitka, Alaska during the Alaska Day festival, and in Anchorage, Alaska during the Fur Rendezvous Festival.
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 soccer match where a defensive error or a series of defensive errors leads to a goal.
In the second season of the comedy short TV series Portlandia, in an episode called "Cops Redesign," the main characters describe and mimic the Keystone Cops, while considering how to "soften" the image of the Portland, Oregon police force.
In the Arrested Development episode "Queen B." (season 4, episode 10), Lucille 2 refers to the Bluths as being a "Keystone Cop family."
In 1983, a video game called Keystone Kapers was released for the Atari 2600, 5200, and later Colecovision. Playing as Keystone Kop Officer Kelly, the player's objective is to stop would-be robber Hooligan Harry from escaping Southwick's Mall. The game, which became a hit, was produced by Activision; a similar later game, whose title features similar alliteration, is Bonanza Bros. (1990). The Keystone Kops also appear in the computer game NetHack, usually when the player steals from one of the shops. They are more dangerous than their cinematic inspiration, however; they typically surround the player's character, so escape is impossible, and then mercilessly beat the player with rubber hoses from all directions, while temporarily blinding the player with cream pie.