Friday, July 4, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Go West (1925)

Go West (1925)
Directed by: Buster Keaton.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Lex Neal & Raymond Cannon.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Friendless), Howard Truesdale (Owner of the Diamond Bar Ranch), Kathleen Myers (His Daughter), Ray Thompson (The Foreman), Brown Eyes (Herself), Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle (Woman in Department Store), Joe Keaton (Man in Barber Shop).

Go West is one of the least known of Keaton’s 12 silent features as a director – it’s the only one that doesn’t appear in the Leonard Maltin’s book, and was one of the only features I hadn’t of his before I began this series. Watching the film for the first time – following Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The Navigator and Seven Chances, all of them great in their own way, I was easily able to see why Go West isn’t as well-known as those films – it quite simply isn’t as good. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie – it isn’t – just that when compared to Keaton’s other efforts, Go West seems a little too laid back, perhaps even a touch lazy. It’s Keaton coasting on his genius a little bit, and while the result is overall amusing and pleasant, it never reaches the heights of his best films. I didn’t really laugh out loud at anything in Go West, and Keaton really didn’t make my jaw drop either with some stunt work. The film does have an appealing (to me anyway) melancholy to it – even more than most Keaton films – and it is the oddest love story in Keaton’s career – so while Go West may be the one of the least of Keaton’s features – that doesn’t mean it is without its charms.

Keaton stars as “Friendless” a city boy who has trouble finding work. He goes to a store and sells off his worldly possessions for $1.65 – but then has to buy some of them back, as he didn’t think they were included in the first place. But he heeds the call to “Go West, young man” and boards a boxcar – full of barrels – and heads out. Eventually, sitting on those barrels is something Keaton can no longer sustain – and in one of the films funnier sequences, he tries in vain to stay on the train, before he rolls out inside a barrel, which smashes as it lands. Keaton picks himself up, dusts himself off – and heads to the ranch right next to the tracks, where he becomes a cowboy – despite the obvious flaw that he has no idea what he’s doing – when he tries to milk a cow, he simply puts the bucket underneath her, as if he’s expecting her to pee milk into it. Friendless quickly finds the love his life however in Brown Eyes – a cow. She protects him from some rampaging bulls, and in the film’s climax, he’ll do his best to protect her from being sent to the slaughterhouse.

Structurally, the film is similar to Keaton’s other 1925 film – Seven Chances, with a story that drifts from one gag to the next for the first two-thirds of its hour running time, before climaxing with an action sequence. It worked well enough in Seven Chances – but not quite as well here because the gags in the first two-thirds aren’t as consistently funny as they were in Seven Chances (they are funny, just not as funny) and while the final sequence – with Keaton and the cows running around on the streets of L.A. is quite inspired – and the sight of Keaton remaining his Stone Face self, as the hordes of people panic and run away from the cows get into one thing after another that they shouldn’t – is quite funny, it’s also a little bit one note, and drags on a little too long. The sequence before that climax – a gunfight battle with a train involved – is similarly one note – and a little disappointing given what Keaton normally did with trains in films like Out Hospitality and The General (and even Sherlock Jr. in that one scene with the water tower).

Go West has been called by many to Keaton’s most sentimental film – and even has some suggesting that Keaton was moving towards Chaplin-territory with the film. It’s true, that Keaton’s love of Brown Eyes is his most sentimental relationship in all of his films – but the fact remains, it’s a love story with a cow. If Keaton was deliberating echoing Chaplin, I have to wonder if it wasn’t his way of gently mocking his rival – Keaton was not above parody, particularly in his shorts, and his first feature Three Ages – so by making a love story with a cow, Keaton very well could be pointing out how ridiculous he found some of the love stories in Chaplin’s work to be. Or perhaps it was just an expression of misanthropy – people are cruel to Keaton throughout the film, but Brown Eyes is always there for him.

It’s also been said that Go West was a personal favorite of Keaton’s – which may strike some as odd, given how it isn’t listed by anyone as one of Keaton’s best. But I have often found that directors feel that way about some of their lesser work – that it didn’t get a fair shot and that makes them love it even more (Hitchcock saying that his rather lame comedy, The Trouble with Harry, was one his favorites comes to mind). Go West is hardly a bad film. It’s amusing and diverting throughout – and the relationship between Keaton and Brown Eyes – whatever its intention – is interesting. I just wish that relationship was in a better overall movie. Go West is a fine film – but when compared to the best of Keaton’s features, it doesn’t really come close.

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