This screening was presented with live piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, whose work was excellent and deft as ever. I always worry I should try to have something more precise to say, but if he had been unduly drawing attention to his playing, it would hardly have been so successful; instead I was fully engrossed in the Keaton comedy.
There’s plenty of ink that’s been spilled over the years (although that’s not entirely an apt metaphor for this modern era) discussing the differences between the various silent film comedians, along with people’s personal preferences. I’ve not seen enough by any of them (although I did, rather briefly, review a screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! last year) to contribute much that’s worthwhile to that discussion — which I can only hope will be a blessed relief to readers, who should be free to make their own judgement on this matter. I will say that of the famous ones, I’ve seen the most films by Buster Keaton, a disparity that’s hardly going to be rectified by the BFI’s current Keaton retrospective season. Amongst his fine body of work, Go West is it seems a little underappreciated, but over a series of vignettes set in the Wild West, Keaton mines plenty of humour, and even a bit of pathos.
Plot isn’t really what this kind of comedy is about, so much as the set-up. In this case, Keaton plays a friendless loner (called “Friendless” in the credits, indeed) who is evicted from his home and, exhausted by city life, hops on a train headed to Santa Fe, where he falls in to working at a cattle ranch run by a gruff but kindly Howard Truesdale. This of course motivates a series of comedic set pieces that test the untrained city-slicker neophyte against this new world, leading to slapstick pratfalls (primarily from donning chaps and spurs), incompetence (trying to lasso a calf, or milk a cow), imperilment (at the horns of some rampaging bulls) and fights (squaring up to a poker cheat). But Keaton’s Friendless also discovers a determination and tenacity prompted by his newly-kindled love.
Of course, being a comedy, the love interest angle is hardly straightforward. When Friendless shows kindness towards a cow named Brown Eyes, the cow devotedly follows him, which initially seems played for laughs — especially given the ranch owner has a daughter who is seen making eyes at Friendless. However, it soon leads to something akin to genuine pathos, as a mutual affection develops between the two that leads Friendless to want to save his love from imminent death. But this is hardly a proto-animal-welfare message movie: the last third of the film has him show loyalty to the ranch owner by trying to ensure his cattle are delivered to the slaughterhouse stockyards, which motivates a manic slapstick stampede through the local town.
Keaton’s touch is everywhere evident, not just in the unconventional relationship dynamic and in his trademark pork-pie hat (which he continues to wear even as a cowboy), but elsewhere in a number of little throwaway moments, like him catching his hat as it’s blown off in a passing breeze, staying in his stony-faced character as his poker-playing antagonist holds a gun on him and demands he smile, or leaping back onboard a runaway train so that he can comfort Brown Eyes rather than try to stop the train. There’s also a lovely sequence later on showing a black street dancer plying his trade while Friendless watches captivated, all of them happily oblivious to the growing number of stampeding cattle approaching from the back of the shot.
The film is really a framework within which to accommodate all these (and many other) virtuoso moments. There’s no point where things stop to deliver a message about character growth or the importance of friends; Keaton keeps things far subtler than all that. Instead, clichés of romantic love are skewered within the familiar fish-out-of-water scenario, and even the ‘riding off into the sunset’ shot gets a laughable twist. This film shouldn’t, therefore, be just for fans of Keaton or silent comedy: there’s plenty for everyone to love. Even farmyard animals.
Director Buster Keaton; Writers Raymond Cannon and Keaton; Cinematographers Elgin Lessley and Bert Haines; Starring Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 21 January 2014.