The Goat (1921)
Director: Buster Keaton, Mal St. Clair
Cast: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts
Synopsis: A series of misadventures is triggered when Buster is mistaken for evil bad guy, Dead Shot Dan.
Buster Keaton strays close to Chaplin territory for a while in The Goat, playing a down-on-his-luck hero standing at the end of a bread line which refuses to move. He doesn’t realise until it’s too late that he’s been queueing behind a couple of store mannequins, and that the queue has long since moved on. He finds himself chased by a trio of cops whom he repeatedly loses only to stumble into them a few scenes later. Between these chases he watches arch criminal Dead Eye Dan (co-director Mal St. Clair) having his mug shot taken by a police photographer. But Dan ducks at the crucial moment so that it’s Keaton’s face that fills the photograph. When Dan makes his escape, it’s Keaton’s mug that appears on the ‘Wanted’ poster, complete with a reward of $50,000 for his capture ‘Dead or Alive’.
The Goat — not sure of the significance of that title, unless its short for Scapegoat — is packed with gags, moving at a relentless pace from the very first scene. It has to be one of Keaton’s most physical shorts, but still has time for some directing tricks that illustrate just how versatile Keaton was behind the camera as well as in front of it. One shot has a train hurtling towards the camera from distance, and it’s only just before it halts in front of the camera before we realise the stone-faced Keaton sitting impassively above its cow catcher. There’s nothing particularly funny about that shot, but it’s achieved with such astonishing, unexpected simplicity that it impresses us in the same way that his most physically dangerous stunts would.
Keaton regular Joe Roberts (One Week, Neighbors) provides a worthy foil in the role of a police chief in hot pursuit of the star. His bulk means he might not possess the physical dexterity necessary to match Keaton’s kinetic performance, but he nevertheless acquits himself well.