“Go West Young Man. Go West.” – Horace Greeley
I had to refresh my memory on Horace Greeley because he’s as much a mythic figure — supreme champion of manifest destiny — as he is a mere historical figure. During the mid-19th century, he was a sometime political statesman and most famous as the founder of The New York Tribune, a purveyor of public consciousness in its day.
Thus, it’s not too big of a hop, skip, and jump into Buster Keaton’s latest feature indebted to Greeley, if only for these very few words. Because the opening image gives a summation of our hero’s lot in life, tugging his heap of personal belongings into The General Store in order to hock them for all they’re worth.
A hunk of bread and a stick of salami are all he has to show for his possessions and armed with such measly goods, he hitches aboard a train to seek his fortune. The Big City isn’t much good to him, where he’s literally trampled by the sheer mass of humanity or almost being run over by automobiles.
So he pulls himself back into his train car with his meager morsel of bread, this time buried in barrels of potatoes all but taunting his cravings for further sustenance. But the cinema fates take control and send him flying down the hillside so he might come face-to-face with The West, no doubt fashioned more by nascent Hollywood than any orations of Horace Greeley.
The juxtaposition of the typically diminutive Keaton as a cowhand is a hilarious image in itself, both mentally and in the flesh. He takes the most hands-off approach to milking a cow, waiting for the gal to do her business only to sit idly by, perplexed by the lack of results.
I couldn’t help thinking of Keaton as the first city slicker, and yet what sets him apart is the fact he’s not quite adjusted in the city either. He’s just universally out of place because every place has new obstacles to handily trip him up. And he makes sure to play them up so we comprehend exactly how inadequate and outmatched he seems compared to his contemporaries.
The greatest piece of inspiration found within the usual western tropes is Buster’s dearest friend, “Brown Eyes,” the lady cow. In actuality, the actor trained with the bovine extensively to build an authentic rapport, and it’s true his love has easily attributed anthropomorphic qualities. After all, as human beings, we are able to do it with almost anything.
She waits outside for him like a trained puppy dog and even wanders into the bunkhouse to look around. The film might even be prefaced as a love story between a man and his cow. Still, it’s not merely a comic point of departure. Is it corny to admit Keaton does honestly and resolutely love that cow? I think not.
He’s dwarfed by everyone, be it man or beast, but he’s got his typical fortitude and surprisingly plucky ingenuity. The little pipsqueak with a pea shooter, perpetually tripping over his chaps, brings his unorthodox form to all facets of livestock and farming. Meanwhile Go West gladly takes on all manner of tropes. You have elements of The Virginian (originally a book from 1902 and a film in 1929), The Great Train Robbery, and undoubtedly a host of other passable references I’m unaware of.
Likewise, the trail of cattle following him into the town’s center predates the brides from Seven Chances. It turns out he’s more of a cow whisperer than a cow wrangler, and the little man takes it upon himself to herd the stock to get them to his boss’s appointment on the other side of town.
The crowning moment occurs when he dresses up in a devil’s suit, even forsaking his beloved pork pie hat, knowing the red will lead the cattle away from the terrified humanity toward their final destination. It’s his final act of sacrificial bravery for his best gal. Staying true to its own internal logic as opposed to genre convention, Buster winds up with his true love — two peas in a pod, driving off into the sunset, as it were.
It’s common to consider the big three of silent comedy in tandem because it provides some litmus for differentiating their individual personalities. Chaplin makes us sympathetic to his poverty, Lloyd to his nerdish looks, but Keaton just might be the most fundamental in many ways. He’s always the slightly-built, mess-up, and outsider. He gains our sympathy by always being physically (and visually) outmatched. To evoke a biblical allusion, he is carved out of the small-but-mighty David archetype.
I won’t say the film is totally without its visual innovations — as per usual — but it probably dips more into the pathos trough than we are accustomed to with “The Great Stone Face.” There’s no confusing Robert Bresson and Buster. Still, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Au Hasard Balthazar. For those who recollect, it’s about the life of a donkey in the French countryside, who almost becomes a Christ-like sacrificial lamb even as he strikes up a meaningful human friendship.
In fact, I’m inclined to think in this case that Buster Keaton never had a better costar. With Chaplin, it’s easy to recall the likes of Paulette Goddard, Edna Purviance, even Eric Campbell, but Keaton always strikes me as a solitary figure. Certainly, there are girls and female companionship (take Our Hospitality or Seven Chances, etc.), but he never feels tied to someone else. Even in these aforementioned offerings, the romance feels more like a function of the plot than actual bona fide romantic drama. Because that is his lot in life.
Thus, when he gets to ride off happily with someone who might intuitively understand him better than any human companion, it’s a surprisingly resonate happy ending, going beyond perceived comic value. Somehow, with Buster Keaton’s conception of comedic narrative space, it makes perfect sense that Greeley’s entreaty to “go west” would manifest itself in a romance with a cow, but in the most sincere manner. This is the key.