Go West (1925)
Director: Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale, Kathleen Myers
Synopsis: With little luck at keeping a job in the city a New Yorker tries work in the country and eventually finds his way leading a herd of cattle to the West Coast.
Some have suggested that Buster Keaton’s Go West was something of a dig at fellow comedian Charlie Chaplin’s sentimental approach to storytelling, and it’s not difficult to see how they might arrive at that conclusion. Keaton’s Friendless is a down-on-his-luck loner who sells his belongings for less than a couple of dollars — and then has to pay to retrieve the belongings he forgot to take out of a chest of drawers before completing the sale. Virtually penniless, he makes his way to New York where he literally becomes one of the downtrodden masses on a busy street.
Realising city life isn’t for him, Friendless decides to head West where he lucks upon a job as a ranch hand on the Diamond Bar Ranch. It soon becomes apparent that Friendless is no more suited for life in the countryside than he was for one in the city, but he does make one friend: Brown Eyes, a misfit cow who doesn’t get on with the other cattle on the ranch and is marked for the abattoir because she doesn’t yield enough milk. The simple act of removing a stone from Brown Eyes’ hoof is enough to earn Friendless the cow’s undying devotion, and the hapless cowboy subsequently finds himself followed by her wherever he goes. A bond quickly develops between the two loners, but their friendship is threatened by the ranch owner’s decision to include Brown Eyes in a shipment headed for the abattoir in Los Angeles.
This attachment between Keaton and Brown Eyes can, of course, be compared to the relationship between Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid, but Keaton keeps well clear of the kind of heavy sentimentality that sometimes tempered the brilliance of Chaplin’s comedy. The depth of the attachment between Friendless and the cow is the driving force of the story, but it never becomes the sole focus of the story because Keaton fills the movie with comical observations of life in the West and the unsuitability of Friendless for such a life.
The highlights are too numerous to mention, but the film builds to an epic climax which sees Friendless, dressed in a red devil’s outfit, pursued by a huge herd of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles. It’s a surreal image for sure, but ironically it proves to be something of a let-down due to the repetition of scenes in which bystanders flee in terror from the cattle which stray into the stores on their way through town. Keaton does save one big laugh for the finale, however, when the owner of the Ranch, grateful to his strange little ranch hand for averting disaster and successfully herding the cattle to the cattle yard, offers him anything he wants. You’ll have to see the movie to find out what it is that Friendless chooses, but it’s safe to say it will frustrate any pre-conceived romantic notions you might have.
Go West doesn’t quite find Keaton at the top of his game, but he’s not far off.
(Reviewed 9th August 2014)