chapter  7
23 Pages

“uproarious inventions”: the keystone film company, modernity, and the art of the motor rob king

In October 1917, the film magazine Photoplay published an essay describing a recent “improvement in . . . slapstick comedy.” Whereas “the old slapstick effect” had formerly been achieved with “the familiar pie,” argued writer Alfred Cohn, one studio had, in recent years, developed a new slapstick style centered upon “the super-stunt in which the camera is the chief performer, aided by derricks and piano wires.” The “chief policy” of that studio, Cohn wrote, was “to ‘thrill ’em as well as make ’em laugh’ ” by “hitting the victim with an auto or blowing him up with a bomb.”2 Cohn did not mention the company by name because he did not have to; any movie fan would have known he was referring to the Keystone Film Company. Nor was he alone in making these observations. As another critic had noted two years previously, “Almost every Keystone comedy contains at least two or three mechanical or spectacular surprises,”


adding that “the secrets of many of these would be worth fortunes to less resourceful competitors.”3 Certainly no other aspect of the studio’s output ever received such unanimous praise, as, week after week, reviewers wrote in amazement of the films’ “mechanical contrivances,” “trick, mechanical effects,” and “uproarious inventions.”4