Buster Keaton’s funny short silent “Cops” follows a boy, played by Keaton, who is out to “prove himself” to his girl, who insists she won’t marry him until he becomes a successful businessman—the “respectable” bourgeois American ideal. Buster tries; but his day’s misadventures reveal the tension between his desire to please his cold-hearted girl and his contrary desire to prove himself to himself. Here is one more glorious example of Keaton as a befuddled boy eager to grab at evidence of his manhood.
Initially, it appears that good luck is Buster’s companion. A “successful” businessman’s wallet, flush with cash, falls into his innocent hands. This instance of serendipity is ironically undercut and is tempered by our recollection of the film’s launching shot: a closeup of Buster speaking to his girlfriend from behind bars. While it turns out that Buster is not in jail, that the two are on opposite sides of the daunting gate to the girl’s family home (the disparity in their garb likewise underscores the class divide involved here), Buster is in a sense imprisoned, by his girlfriend’s—and, by extension, society’s—demands and expectations. Buster’s “good luck,” which the bill-loaded wallet seemed to indicate, turns to bad.
On this particular day, the city’s police force is in full, except for one officer, participating in a regal parade; its practiced orderliness is juxtaposed with the messiness of Buster’s innocent because inadvertent and unknowing “participation” in a series of crimes that eventually make him the target of a vast police chase. However, Buster is himself monolithic in his determination to elude capture, which would put him in jail, as he runs from the police, maintaining Keaton’s cool trademark blank expression. Revising Robert Browning’s dictum that “Love is best,” Buster wants his freedom above all—freedom from his girl’s domination and society’s invasive strictures as well as from the police and the political repressiveness they represent. No one grasps the depth and import of Keaton’s “Cops” without appreciating that the bomb-tossing anarchist at the parade is, on one level, a projection of Buster’s desire to bust out of the prison he has come to realize he is already in. His reckless tossing out the bomb that has been tossed at him signals his determination to come into his own.
Some may be bothered by the film’s open-endedness wherein Buster is left running from the police, never actually “escaping.” I prefer to note—for this is what I feel—that the film ends without Buster’s capture by the police. The inconclusive conclusion that scenarists Edward F. Cline and Keaton have devised, with its marvelous anticipatory glimpse of Existentialism, encapsulates the enduring effort that the impulse toward individual freedom requires. Beneath all the visual gags in “Cops,” Keaton’s acrobatic stunts, the lighthearted brevity, the rapid reversals that befall both the protagonist and, vicariously, us the audience beats the film’s essential seriousness of purpose. We “get it,” laughing all the way.
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