Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Go West (1925)

Go West is one of Buster Keaton's more low-key films, but also one of his strangest, focusing on a gently sentimental romance between a man and a cow. Keaton plays an out-of-luck drifter, tellingly named Friendless, who sells off all his possessions — but forgets to take his clothes out of his dresser first, forcing him to buy them back — and heads west to try his luck as a cowboy. For much of its length, the film ambles amiably along, carefully spacing out its modest gags about Keaton's hapless attempts to become a cowboy. His efforts are unsuccessful, of course, but he does succeeding in befriending a cow named Brown Eyes by taking a rock out of her hoof, causing the animal to follow him dutifully around for the remainder of the movie. When the ranch owner sends her off to the stockyards with the rest of his cattle, Keaton follows along, hoping to rescue the damsel in distress from her fate.

It's a goofy premise, and a likeably goofy movie. The pace isn't as non-stop hilarious as Keaton's best work, and structurally it's rather similar to his previous feature, Seven Chances, with two-thirds of it drifting along a bit slowly before picking up the pace for a wild chase sequence finale — although in this case, the herd of pursuing brides from Seven Chances has been replaced by a herd of stampeding cows, chasing Keaton through the streets of Los Angeles.

This finale is the film's best part, mainly because the sight gag of all these cattle swarming through the city streets, with people fleeing in every direction while Keaton strolls casually through the throngs, is just so inherently funny. There's a madcap quality to this whole sequence, which basically has one joke — cows wandering into inappropriate places — that Keaton elaborates and riffs on over and over again, to very enjoyable comic effect. The best gags come when he complicates the scenario, as when the cows enter a clothes store where Keaton and the cows careen around with a man on roller skates, another hapless customer who flies across the store on a zip line, and an out-of-control elevator. Keaton's impeccable sense of motion and timing brings all these elements together in satisfying ways, creating loopy slapstick action that's all about kineticism for its own sake. At one point, a barber shop employee, trying to escape the cows, leaps over a wall and lands on a cow, which runs out from the other side of the wall with the man on its back; as the cow trots out of the store, he reaches over and grabs his hat on the way out. Later on, in a gag so random it's almost surreal, this cow-riding shoeshine man suddenly appears in the middle of the police station, chasing the cops out into the street.

The whole sequence memorably climaxes with Keaton putting on a devil costume so that he can attract the cows with something red. The sight of this man in a devil costume running through the streets with a herd of cows racing after him is hilarious, especially when a drunkard, stumbling upon this sight, acts unfazed and simply begins directing "traffic." In the end, Keaton's Friendless is able to lead the cows to the stockyards, making him a hero to the ranch owner, who grants Keaton any wish he wants. "I want her," a title card reads, and Keaton seems to be gesturing towards the farmer's daughter (Kathleen Myers), who'd been hanging around the fringes of the movie as a rather lackluster love interest. Of course, Keaton's actually talking about Brown Eyes, who he leads out from behind the fence that had been hiding her, and this little gag underscores the strangeness of the film, which mocks the romantic subplot with this ending, pushing the girl aside in favor of the cow.

The film takes a while to build up to that gloriously ridiculous climax, and the earlier parts of the film are much more low-key, with few truly hilarious moments. There are a few nice sight gags involving Keaton's incompetence as a cowboy, like the fact that he's equipped his horse's saddle with a rope ladder to help the diminutive ranchhand get mounted, or the tiny gun that gets lost in his massive holster, requiring him to tie it to a rope so he can draw it without digging around in the holster. There's also a quasi-serious, if not very developed, subplot with the rival ranchers who are trying to stop the cattle shipment from reaching its destination, which leads to a prolonged shootout with Keaton haplessly trying to join in. Soon after, there's one of Keaton's beloved train sequences, with him doing his bowlegged cowboy saunter across the roofs of the train cars, running towards the engine to get the runaway train under control. This sequence is brief but still has some nice gags, notably a cow spearing a mail pickup on its horns as the train rushes by, and later dumping it on an unsuspecting passenger waiting on a platform.

Go West isn't one of Keaton's best features, but as with all of his silent work it's an enjoyable comedy, even with a somewhat slower pace and fewer brilliant jokes than his peak efforts. At the very least, it has a fantastic climax, and a memorably irreverent tone towards the predictable romantic resolution that, even in one of Keaton's more sentimental pictures, confirms the artist's distinctly unsentimental sensibility.


Sam Juliano said...

Indeed, the film's final third, much like SEVEN CHANCES, is where the big comedic payoff occurs. The devil costume gig is one of the great sight gags, and you hit the nail on the head by noting Keaton's 'unsentimental sensitivity' in one of the great stone face's most sentimental films. Brilliant review!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. Keaton has a few of these slow-burn films where things don't get really great until the last act. Love that devil costume!