Buster Keaton’s Go West was on TV last night, and I think you probably know that I have a minor Keaton obsessive, minor not in its intensity but in the sense that I know what true obsession is like, and I’m sure there are many far, far more obsessed than me. The image above claims to be from the movie, but I suspect it's a publicity shot rather than a still. It is, in any case, just wonderful.
Go West strikes me as an infinitely clever and infinitely subversive film. It subverts the very notion of “going west,” and it especially subverts that familiar, cloying Chaplinesque sentimentality. Yes, Keaton plays a deeply sad and sympathetic character named Friendless (there’s a reference to D.W. Griffiths’ Intolerance there), and he does eventually find love, but it’s not with a woman, it’s with a cow.
Buster Keaton was one of the most physically supple and eloquent men ever to walk in front of a movie camera, and there’s a scene quite early in the movie where he decides he needs to become a cowboy, so of course he has to get the walk right, and in a scene that doesn’t last more than a couple of minutes he adopts the gait of a “genuine” and (within the fiction of the movie) utterly bconvincing westerner. Of course, this being a comedy, he also falls over in the process.
At the end of the movie he dresses up as a devil – we’re told his costume is bright red, though since the movie is in black and white we have to take this for granted. The notion is that steers will follow anything that’s red, and the idea is that he’ll become a kind of Pied Piper, leading a stampede of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles. Movie history has it that the scene never quite worked, that he couldn’t actually get the cattle to stampede and follow him, and some scenes had to be speeded up or shot on a back lot. This is a shame, but of course, even Keaton’s misfires seem pretty wonderful to some of us.
I can’t help wondering whether Keaton’s devil costume was some kind of precursor of Where The Wild Things Are, but I dunno. Dave Eggers could probably tell us.