US (1925) Dir. Buster Keaton
Before the Marx Brothers and long before the Village People, Buster Keaton was the first to Go West, and although this film isn’t as well remembered or particularly outstanding as some of his other classics, it is by no means to be overlooked.
Typically the story is fairly straightforward as Keaton stars as Friendless, a young lad fed up with going nowhere in his small town who decides to try his luck in the big city. After a harrowing few minutes in New York Friendless heads west but falls off the train mid-journey. Luckily he lands near the Diamond Bar Ranch where the owner (Howard Truesdale) gives Friendless a job.
Once again our hero is unable to fit in but he does make a friend in an outcast cow named Brown Eyes with both looking out for each other. However the ranch isn’t doing so well and the owner needs to send 100 cattle – including Brown Eyes – to a slaughterhouse in Los Angeles otherwise he’ll go bankrupt. Friendless travels on the train with the cattle to save Brown Eyes but intervention from neighbouring ranchers means he is alone in LA with 1000 rampaging cattle.
It’s fair to say that this film is a slight deviation from the norm for both Keaton and the comedies of the time since the desires of the male protagonist have nothing to with a girl (well not a human one anyway). There is a girl on the scene, the owner’s daughter (Kathleen Myers), and it seems that of all the burly ranch hands this small feckless chap from out-of-town might be the one to sing her to sleep at nights – not that daddy would approve of course, but that is all part of the fight.
There is also a different way we are asked to view our hero since the crestfallen no hoper is supposed to encourage our sympathies and pity yet Friendless is someone we actually admire for his tenacity against all adversity. It is difficult not to feel something for him; in the first act when he sells his entire goods for $1.65 to a store owner he is then forced to buy back his own possessions which he took out of a drawer after he sold it – including a picture of his mum. Awwww.
As ever Keaton creates a character for whom luck is a rare commodity yet somehow it is always on his side as is evident in how he manages survive at the ranch with no experience or clue as to what he is doing. He also incorporates his usual guile and invention to circumvent any aspects of the job that involves Brown Eyes which earns our respect as well as raising a few laughs along the way.
And as mentioned earlier the intention for once is to laugh with him and not at him, a tact which may have been too subtle for audiences of the time – and possibly even today – to explain why this film slips under the radar when evaluating Keaton’s legacy.
One thing that makes Keaton’s works stand out from his peers was that his features would often end with a huge stunt filled event or ambitious set piece rather than just be a film crammed full of gags and pratfalls. In this case it involves the train load of cattle from the ranch sightseeing in Los Angeles. You can see the genuine awe and bewilderment of the general public as Keaton and his bovine co-stars took over the streets and many a local establishment which adds so much to the experience.
The climax revolves around getting the cattle to the slaughterhouse in time to save the ranch and Friendless remembers that red will catch the cattle’s attention. A small handkerchief won’t do but what a devil costume with horns and tail? I shouldn’t have to say anymore than that except it is quite the spectacle, heightened by the fact this was completely utterly real with no men in costumes, models on wheels or animation, even when they have invaded a department store or a barbers.
I’d love to know how Keaton and his crew managed to get the cattle to co-operate and behave as well as they did, obediently stampeding down the streets of Los Angeles on cue. A fantastic and under appreciated sight seen in cinema if there ever was one .
For all you trivia fans, keep your eyes peeled for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Keaton’s friend Fatty Arbuckle in one of his rare but uncredited screen appearances after his career destroying court case. Arbuckle appears in drag as a large female customer who takes a tumble in a department store lift but in wide shot only; in close up the woman was played by Babe London.
In all honesty it isn’t too difficult to see why Go West hasn’t made the same impact in the minds and memories of film fans as it is a change of pace and tact for Keaton; perhaps people had high expectations after his previous works and weren’t prepared for something so subtle and quietly challenging. However Keaton’s trademarks are present and his keen eye for detail, gag construction and invention are still very much at the forefront and are to be admired and applauded as always.
Does it measure up against the “classics? Perhaps not but don’t write it off either. Check this film out – you may be surprised.