[Go West] may also have struck too personal a note with [Buster Keaton], something very private in his character that he didn’t want revealed.
I was so startled to read that in James Curtis’ newly released biography Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. Of course it’s speculation, and Curtis doesn’t elaborate beyond the accumulated inference that our supremely reticent Keaton avoided sentiment in his work. We don’t know if this particular film did indeed reveal something uncomfortable for Keaton. At this point with all we have of his words, we can’t know.
And it doesn’t really matter because the personal reading aside – the biographical fallacy, wahey – there is so much to love about Go West. The plotting is pretty much flawless – look how the iconic traveller’s red handkerchief is set up and then used in two different ways through the film, and how its absence leads to a whole new costume and gag sequence. What gets me is how the shaving set is established from such an early point and becomes significant much much later, used in another delightfully clever way.
The sly depiction of the capitalist chain of money in Cops is here crueller and more concentrated in the general store scene. Our protagonist Friendless isn’t so much innocent or bewildered as resigned to the outrageous stupidity of having to buy a few of his own possessions back. It speaks to such a Twenties cynicism about money.
Then there are the gags galore, wresting so much humour from the various situations in a cowboy life. Not to mention the fact that Keaton’s beautiful muscular bottom is on full (clothed) display in this film, framed ever so well by the chaps. And the little easter egg glimpses of Joe Keaton perched on a hatstand, and Roscoe Arbuckle in full drag as a teenage girl with mum in a department store. I fully admit I try to work out on every watch if the leading thread is visible from Keaton to Brown Eyes. (I’ve only seen it once.) Just like I always wonder whether the hat catch was planned or totally spontaneous because Keaton has perfect spatial awareness.
It’s my favourite of the features but I can see why he wouldn’t have been satisfied with it. Yes, the climactic cattle sequence is nowhere as high-octane as possible. But it’s still hilarious and so very entertaining. There’s a sublime wickedness in watching Keaton and Brown Eyes calmly leading a thousand head of cattle through the streets of 1920s Los Angeles while people panic and run screaming from them. Despite all his panic and scrambling earlier in the film, quite a lot of the comedy in Go West comes from Keaton waiting or staying calm while things go wrong around him or flat out don’t happen.
For me, the editing isn’t as flawless and seamless as the other features, and I never know whether that’s just what’s available to us here and now or whether that’s what he saw onscreen too. I always wonder if he winced at the bits that don’t match perfectly. But there are so many bits of perfect formalist framing of Keaton alone in the landscape or the frame.
Likewise, more than once in the climactic sequence, a room crowded with things and people and steer is emptied of everyone but Keaton. And some of the camerawork is positively thrilling, particularly the bull pov where it’s obviously a fake bull head mounted before the moving camera but still so effective to see going right for him and thwarted at the last moment or Keaton himself moving serenely out of the way.
I love how Friendless goes from being scared by every critter around, terrified by this hostile landscape, to being completely unruffled by cattle stampedes and shooing them on with a matter-of-fact impatience. He adapts to his environment, even taking on the trappings of masculinity with the cowboy accoutrements and exaggerated walk. But he retains his own qualities with the hat, the little gun obviously made for a woman, and that aching loneliness.
Friendless is quite similar to Ronald from College in that quality – alone in the desert and alone on the track and field while the cowboys and athletes congregate elsewhere. Every time Friendless attempts a connection, he’s rejected, whether it’s the dog outside the general store, the riderless horse, or the foreman’s daughter at the well. He can’t even time his meals to the rest of the ranchhands, and none of them wait for him or even notice him at the table.
I remember the first time I watched this, I was really quite shocked at how hard Keaton went on that characterisation. And maybe that’s why this is my favourite, the emotional heart of the film. To me at least, it doesn’t feel like treacly sentiment. It’s brutal and unvarnished solitude that isn’t chosen but forced upon this forlorn little guy in an indifferent landscape. Not that different to those of us alone in an indifferent city or town.
No wonder my heart melts and overflows when Brown Eyes licks his hand. That emotional response after so much rejection is hard to resist, such relief for both us watching him and us for ourselves, buying into the concept of human-animal sympathy and the desperate conviction that there has to be some requited connection somewhere for the lonely ones. It’s also such a long moment, his reaction and then his approach and his stroking of her that turns oddly pensive, like he’s fully feeling the preciousness of this long-awaited connection. There’s a deep almost grim poignancy that is so recognisable to those of us who struggle to form connections and don’t ever take our meaningful relationships for granted.
No wonder his affection for her is so automatic and so fierce. He thinks nothing of her following him into the sleeping quarters, of course he wants her in there with him. Of course he’s so cross at the other cattle crowding her in the car, I love how he smacks them away and yells. I love how he runs full pelt to her rescue. (As if Keaton has any other mode of running.) I love how stricken he looks when she’s ordered to the slaughterhouse, and that the same horror goes through me. The emotional gravitas has been well and truly earned by then. And of course my soppy heart melts all over again when he attempts to guard her all night with a rifle against the coyotes. It’s ridiculous and I love it.
It isn’t enough in their meet-cute that he removes the stone and throws it away. He goes that extra step of burying it so there’s no further danger to her, and he tips his hat and walks away, the perfect courtly gentleman in the midst of the desertscape. And then he gets so bossy and possessive of her, telling her off for tussling with the other cattle and inspecting her for possible injury. He watches her go, back straight, hands on hips, every bit the authoritative owner-husband. It’s so very amusing and a little bit arousing.
I also wonder if he fights harder for Brown Eyes than he does for any of his other leading ladies, or if the stakes (sorry) are that much higher for their love. Even with all the violent and waterlogged shenanigans of Our Hospitality, Friendless is much more visibly passionate and distressed than Willie McKay. Notably, it’s only after he develops a strong relationship with Brown Eyes that the actual girl in the story takes particular notice of him and then develops a sympathy for him. But of course that ending is the perfect blend of hilarious and sweet. No human girl will usurp Brown Eyes in the heart of our hero.
They cast her so well. With her big lustrous eyes and angular face, she’s a perfect match for Keaton and the perfect height too. Naturally she’s my favourite of his leading ladies, sorry Sybil Seely I still love you. But Friendless + Brown Eyes 4 eva.
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