by Matt Levine
Most Western-movie heroes are stoic loners, wandering through a desolate desert landscape that seems to overwhelm them. “Friendless,” Buster Keaton’s typically stone-faced character in his 1925 Western lampoon Go West, is no different, although this time Friendless’ solitude isn’t exactly by choice. A poor, diminutive, but resilient New Yorker who hops a train “out West” (following Horace Greeley’s aphoristic advice) and absurdly becomes a cowboy on a cattle ranch, Friendless is—like many Keaton heroes—oblivious in the face of danger and impossibility. He survives and triumphs by sheer luck and determination; he takes to rustling cattle in the same unassuming way that Johnnie Gray, Buster’s character in The General, assumes the cavalier role of Confederate spy.
Director: Buster Keaton
Producers: Buster Keaton, Joseph M. Schenk
Writers: Buster Keaton, Lex Neal, Raymond Cannon
Cinematographers: Bert Haines, Elgin Lessley
Cast: Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale, Kathleen Myers, Ray Thompson, “Brown Eyes”
US Theatrical Release: November 1, 1925
US Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn Distribution
Friendless isn’t completely alone, though; once he arrives at the cattle ranch, he immediately befriends a sweet-tempered cow named Brown Eyes. He comes to her aid by removing a stone from her hoof; she responds in kind by saving him from the horns of a charging bull. This is the first instance of a repeated visual motif in which a model bull’s head is affixed to the front of a rapidly tracking camera—a surprisingly convincing effect that demonstrates Keaton’s ingenuity as a director as well as actor and stuntman.
Friendless and Brown Eyes become inseparable companions, which is fortunate for Friendless as he’s shunned by the rest of the cowboys. He is indeed a sorry sight on this ranch: he can only mount his gargantuan horse by climbing up a rope ladder attached to the saddle, and discovers the fastest way to herd cattle is by waving a red flag at them so they’ll charge into the corral. There is surprising tenderness in Friendless and Brown Eyes' companionship; they're both outcasts hiding their loneliness beneath an impassive demeanor, with him isolated by his out-of-placeness and her by her inability to produce milk. There’s also the ranch owner’s pretty daughter (Kathleen Myers), who seems charmed by Friendless’ shyness, though a brilliant punchline at the end of the movie shows that Friendless cares little about her affections—or at least prefers the company of his bovine friend.
The dizzying climax of Go West arrives when the down-on-his-luck ranch owner sends thousands of cattle to the abattoir to be slaughtered—including Brown Eyes, forcing Friendless to hop aboard the cattle train and attempt a last-minute rescue. Once the train arrives in Los Angeles, though, Friendless recalls the bitter words of his employer—that he’ll be ruined if the cattle shipment doesn’t arrive—so he decides to march the massive herd of cattle (except Brown Eyes) down the city streets to the stockyards, unsure how else he would transport them. This provides a marvelously surreal climax to the film, as massive steers and bulls infiltrate the city’s beauty salons, department stores, and saloons, sending the civilized folk scrambling for the exits.
This absurdist finale is pushed into sublime territory when Friendless, looking for something red to wave in front of the cattle so they’ll follow him into the stockyards, settles on a Mephistopheles costume complete with a tail and horns—then ludicrously decides to wear it instead of simply dangling it behind him. The image of hundreds of cattle stampeding after Buster in a red, skintight devil costume is one of the most hilarious sights in all of silent comedy. Keaton always had a touch of surrealism to him, and certain elements of Go West’s ending almost seem to presage scenes in Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or five years later.
From 1920 to 1929, Keaton had an astonishing run of masterpieces, which cumulatively position him as one of the greatest actor-directors in all of American cinema. Go West might not reach the same heights of brilliance as One Week (1920), Sherlock Jr. (1924), or The General (1926)—it lacks their meticulous puzzle-like construction, their groundbreaking visual effects, and the jaw-dropping peril of their stuntwork—but labeling a Buster Keaton comedy as slightly inferior still places it among the era’s finest films. The timing of these sight gags is both hilarious and graceful, revealing Keaton’s prowess as an editor as well as physical comedian; witness the early scene in which Friendless is trampled by an urban crowd on a city sidewalk, or the perfect buildup to a joke in which Friendless rolls out of a train car in a barrel. Though Keaton’s aesthetic innovation may not be as astounding as in Sherlock Jr. or The Navigator (1924), there is still ample evidence of his mastery over cinema’s visual elements—not only the aforementioned bull-POV tracking shot, but also a number of superimpositions of a Horace Greeley statue and a beautiful high-angle shot through a broken window, the likes of which were incredibly rare in 1925.
Finally, though Buster’s stunts don’t appear as lethal in Go West as in some other films, that’s part of their brilliance—he makes them look effortless. Friendless rolls down a vast hill in a rickety barrel and strolls over a moving train as though it were a wide boulevard, all while wearing his inimitable Stone Face. Keaton was neither better nor worse than Chaplin, but he was one-of-a-kind—a stylish, absurdist Looney Tune in human form. The Old West to which Friendless ventures appears to be a euphoric alternative universe, one in which unique laws of human resilience seem to apply.
Go West screens at the Trylon microcinema July 25-27, with live accompaniment by The Rats and People MN. The 1921 short The High Sign will also be screened.