Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Go West
This DVD is part of Kino’s The Art of Buster Keaton, a series of ten DVDs (available separately or as a box set with a bonus DVD) covering the complete output of Buster Keaton from 1920 to 1928, by far his most fertile and creative period. Each DVD contains between two and four films, so the rating for picture quality applies only to the main feature. All Keaton’s silent films were originally shot in 4:3, so you wouldn’t expect an anamorphic image, and the DVDs have been transferred at the correct frame rate. The rating for sound refers to the quality and appropriateness of the musical score – in all cases, the recording itself is in perfectly serviceable digital stereo. There are no extras apart from the supporting shorts.
Go West (1925) is a bit of an oddity in Buster Keaton’s output – although there are plenty of touches of authentic Keaton magic, it’s a rather more sentimental story than he normally permitted himself, and the “romance” between his character and a cow named Brown Eyes is one of the most touching in his entire output (though its sheer absurdity has led some critics to argue that the film is actually a sly, subtle satire of the kind of overtly sentimental comedies that his competitors were making). But whether heartfelt or satirical, it’s still great fun – of all the relatively minor Keaton features, Go West is probably the most fruitful discovery.
Keaton plays a character identified only as “Friendless”, which pretty much sums him up. Sick and tired of life in the big city (where he spends much of the time being all too literally downtrodden), he hears the call of the West and vows to make something of himself. Hiding in a train travelling across the US, he accidentally causes it to shed its load mid-journey, and himself with it, ending up on a farm where he attempts to fit in with the tough, rugged cowboys despite not bearing the faintest resemblance to them either physically or in terms of general outlook – indeed, the only character he finds he has anything in common with is the similarly neglected Brown Eyes (spurned by the others after being unable to produce enough milk).
Much of the first half revolves around a hilarious series of mishaps involving Keaton trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of a cowboy’s life, from milking the cows to rounding up the steers – but the plot proper starts when the team has to transport the entire herd to Los Angeles to sell, in order to save the farmer’s business. Inevitably, things go disastrously wrong, and Keaton is left alone with the cattle, trying to get them through downtown LA without being too conspicuous. This, needless to say, doesn’t work out quite so well in practice – not least when Keaton decides that the only way of attracting their attention enough to divert them from strolling through barber shops, Turkish baths and the like is to dress up as a devil (because the costume is red all over) and lead from the front…
The picture is consistently good throughout without ever managing to be spectacular – though it’s in excellent condition, with only a few minor scratches and the occasional over-exposed frame. Special praise is due to Eric Beheim, whose original score is augmented by the addition of discreet, unobtrusive sound effects at key moments. Chapter stops have been set at a generous sixteen.
Gag for gag, the 19-minute The Scarecrow (1920) is one of the funniest of all Keaton’s shorts. It starts off with Keaton and an unnamed friend living in a one-room bungalow (little more than a shed, really) transformed into a multi-room mansion through sheer mechanical ingenuity. Almost every object has a dual function:(a bookshelf doubles as a cupboard, a record player doubles as a cooker, the settee doubles as a bath (the used water being used to fill the duck pond), and so on. Here, Keaton and his friend appear to live a life of untrammelled rural bliss – but there’s just one problem: inevitably, they’re both in love with the same girl, and their pursuit of her leads to a wildly inventive series of accidents and run-ins with each other and her father, not to mention his dog.
The latter scene, incidentally, illustrates Keaton’s inventiveness at full stretch: when someone bakes a cream pie, we are of course meant to think that a traditional silent film pie fight is in the offing, though what actually happens is that the dog scoffs it and starts foaming rabidly at the mouth, leading to a wild chase involving Keaton that dominates the middle of the film which includes some spectacular acrobatics. Keaton’s friend, helpfully, goes to the local chemist to buy bandages, ointments and crutches to tend his soon-to-be-bitten partner – which come in very handy when he’s run over by a car on the way back…
And so it goes on, gag piling on gag with often breathtaking rapidity (if I seem to have given a lot away, rest assured I’ve barely scratched the surface – for one thing, I haven’t even mentioned the scene that gives the film its title), culminating in a delightful ending involving Keaton, his girlfriend, a motorbike, a vicar and a river that manages to be both deeply silly and at the same time immensely touching.
Considering that this is one of the oldest surviving Keaton films, the quality of the print is superb – remarkably little damage, and a sharp transfer with lots of detail: my only gripe (and it’s a minor one) is that it’s a bit on the grey side, and lacks contrast. The music is by Robert Israel and scored for piano and violin, and nicely accompanies both the pathos and the high-speed chases.
The 20-minute The Paleface (1921) has a more serious subtext: it’s about an Indian reservation being usurped by what the intertitles call “oil sharks” (led by a possibly unintentional bit of rhyming slang by the name of J.C.Hunt) who obtained the lease on the land by underhand methods. Unsurprisingly, the Indians don’t take kindly to being given 24 hours’ notice to quit, so they vow to kill the first white man who trespasses on their land. And guess who, playing an innocent butterfly collector, is the first through the fence?
Fortunately, after an epic chase leads to a stakeout in an abandoned shack that just happens to contain asbestos sheeting, Keaton is able to prevent himself from being burned alive, and thanks to these apparently miraculous powers, he is elected ‘Little Chief Paleface’, and becomes part of the delegation negotiating with the oil company – but will that help or hinder their cause?
(As an interesting historical footnote, the Indian blanket that Keaton drapes himself with has a swastika on it – though as the film predated the founding of Germany’s Nazi Party by a couple of years, it was clearly used in the sense of it being a symbol used by ancient cultures such as American Indians and Asian Buddhists, and contemporary audiences certainly wouldn’t have read anything else into it).
For the most part, the quality of the print is even better than that of The Scarecrow – it’s in excellent condition, this time round boasting plenty of dynamic range: the only problem occurring near the end, where much of the sequence on the rope bridge has been sourced from a drastically inferior, very contrasty copy. The multi-instrumental score is once again by the indefatigable Robert Israel, this time incorporating sound effects. Chapter stops for both shorts have been set at a generous five.
Inevitably, this DVD will probably be overshadowed when set against some of the more famous Buster Keaton titles – but it’s well worth seeking out. All three films may be low-key by Keaton’s own ridiculously high standards, but they’d be a career peak for most other comedians – and Go West is comfortably my personal favourite of all the lesser-known Keaton features.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum