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In this, Roscoe Arbuckle's first appearance in a Keystone comedy -- his
earliest screen credits date from four years earlier, even though no
sign of the effort can be found -- he plays a member of the Keystone
Kops. Gangster leader Fred Mace, tired of Roscoe's flirting with
girlfriend (she looks a bit like Barbara Stanwyck would in thirty
years, so who can blame either of them?), steals his pants... and then
he and his gang go on the rampage, stealing all the Kops' pants.
The Keystones were frequently about doing what the audience had always wanted to do to the hated authorities, and this must have been a harmless outlet, the stealing of the policemen's dignity. Soon enough the Keystone lot would be populated with people with guns and bombs to blow people up.
'The Gangsters' is a very early Keystone comedy, but already the
Keystone Cops are in their full uniforms (which wasn't the case in 'The
Bangville Police'), and there's some hilarious slapstick action which
refreshingly deviates from Keystone's usual 'chase' structure.
Nick Cogley is the leader of a gang of ruffians. It's a shame that Cogley isn't better known; he was a Keystone stalwart who played well to the strengths of better-known comedians. Here, Cogley has one side-splitting close-up as he stalks menacingly into the camera, rolling his eyeballs in ever-increasing circles.
Roscoe Arbuckle is the constable assigned to round up Cogley's gang. Just the appearance of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle in a policeman's tunic is hilarious, without Roscoe even doing anything. Of course, his character is an incompetent moron and cowardly with it. The crooks easily beat up Roscoe and steal his trousers, sending him back to the cop-shop without his police pants. A more athletic cop (unbilled actor Al St John, Arbuckle's real-life nephew) goes after the crooks next, and he too is sent back to the police station minus his trousers. Is Cogley planning to open a pants shop?
Unbilled actor George Jeske, in heavy makeup as another cop, gets a couple of amusing facial reactions. There's an uproariously funny climax aboard a barge, and on the way there we see Cogley, Hank Mann and several other plug-uglies daintily tippy-toeing across a plank so as not to fall into the river. Hilarious! I'll rate this crude but effective slapstick classic 7 out of 10.
'The Gangsters' is directed by Henry Lehrman, an important figure in film comedy who also deserves some sort of award for his slimy opportunism. Lehrman was nicknamed 'Pathé' by DW Griffith because he claimed to have worked for that film company in Europe: Griffith knew he was lying, and the name stuck. Lehrman was the first person to direct Chaplin on film, and was also one of Arbuckle's early directors. Sadly, in 1921, when Virginia Rappe died after crashing Arbuckle's party, Lehrman milked the tragedy for his personal benefit, displaying a wedding ring which he had allegedly intended to give to Rappe as his intended bride, and making false statements against Arbuckle's personal character. I cringed when I saw Lehrman's name in the credits of this film, because I knew about the harm he would inflict on Arbuckle later. Still, on its own merits, 'The Gangsters' is classic Keystone, and very funny indeed.
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