d. Buster Keaton / USA / 69 mins.
Around the midpoint of Buster Keaton's western comedy Go West, our hero — a man from the east who is out of his element in the frontier, descriptively named Friendless — is asked to brand the cow for whom he has developed a sympathetic and convivial camaraderie. His approach is distinctly Keatonian: apply a little shaving cream to her hind quarter, trim away some of her hair, and let that stand instead of a painful branding. But the scene also reflects what's wrong with this middle-brow but not altogether problematic film. Keaton's own approach to the material mirrors his character's careful shave. It's a little here, a little there, and a gentle pat at the end. Compared to the fast and frenzied world of Keaton's more searing pictures, Go West is a little limp.
The film's strengths are in its themes in rather familiar territory: Friendless (Keaton) is a bit of a loner struggling to find fulfillment in an Indiana town who heeds the long-heralded advice of Horace Greeley: go west, young man! However, once he arrives, he realizes he's not much more of a success there than he is back east — maybe more so as the rancher cowboy lifestyle doesn't quite seem to fit his skill set. His one joy forms in the unlikeliest of places, a relationship with a Jersey cow named Brown Eyes, who he spends the rest of the film trying to save from a journey to the slaughterhouse.
Although the territory is familiar, the execution is not — or at least not as tight, focused, and inventive as Keaton's previous works. It is not so much that the film occasionally stumbles as it is that the film never seems to lift off. This is heavy with plot and story, frequently without any of the physical prowess that makes a Keaton film what it is. Some have theorized the film is a sly take on the romantic films coming out of Hollywood, but Go West is no more critical of conventional love and romance than the self-deprecating and outsider takes on romance in Keaton's other films. (Incidentally, Go West is the only Keaton film where he doesn't whisk off into the sunset with the female lead.) The behind-the-scene dynamics could explain why it lacks the impresario's touch. Keaton drafted the story and directed the film almost entirely on location in Mohave County, Arizona, but lost much of his regular creative and technical crew. Writer Jean Havez died unexpectedly, and writer Joseph A. Mitchell left Keaton to work for Universal; Keaton's loyal gagman Clyde Bruckman took meantime work on Harold Lloyd's For Heaven's Sake. All three had been instrumental from his short films through his early masterworks like Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., and The Navigator.
Most of the slapstick is handed off to others, with Keaton standing as the calm center, particularly when he lets a train full of cows out onto the streets of Los Angeles and attempts to nonchalantly avoid them. Keaton's on-screen relationship with Brown Eyes might be the most impressive stunt in a relatively stunt-free film (at least by Keaton standards). Marion Meade, in her essential book Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase, notes that Keaton trained the cow with a rope halter and by feeding her tidbits. In a little more than a week, he and cow had bonded so well he could lead her around with sewing thread tied to his finger. Life began imitating art, and the cow wanted to follow Keaton as far as his dressing room. That anecdote alone is ample demonstration of how delightful the synergy between Keaton and Brown Eyes is. Go West is obviously not without its charms, but the fact that it is rather heavy and sentimental is unexpected and unfulfilling.
17 August 2009
d. Buster Keaton / USA / 69 mins.