Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Buster Keaton: The Scarecrow Saves the Day

If you need to cheer up a grouchy kid (or maybe a grouchy adult), try a small dose of Buster Keaton. I was in exactly that situation recently, with an eleven-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl who felt like committing mayhem on one another. To restore peace—how I wish this worked as well on world affairs!—I sat them down on the sofa and showed them a 19-minute Keaton short from 1920. The silence was golden, interrupted only by gales of laughter.

 The film was “The Scarecrow.” Set in a rural landscape, it begins with two farmhands, Keaton and a huge hulk of a man named Big Joe Roberts, at home in a tiny one-room cottage. Their living space may be small, but they’ve cleverly engineered it to supply all their needs. What looks at first glance like a living room can quickly be converted into a kitchen: the old-fashioned phonograph cabinet instantly turns into a stove and the bookcase into a refrigerator. With its pillows removed, a settee metamorphoses into a kitchen sink, with the water draining through a pipe to feed a duck pond outside. (The same ingenuity applies to the cottage’s sleeping arrangements: a double bed is also, somehow, a piano.)

 One of many hilarious moments occurs as it’s time to eat dinner at the long table in the center of the cottage. When Joe turns a crank, a host of eating implements (salt and pepper shakers, for instance) descend from the ceiling, attached to long cords. When you’ve finished salting your own food, you simply swing the salt shaker back to your dining partner at the other end of the table. A similar system is handy for removing ice-cold beer bottles from the fridge without having to leave your seat.

 A Keaton film would hardly work without a big chase and a romance. The pretty girl here is the farmer’s daughter, a would-be dancer, who’s quietly sweet on Buster but is also courted by Big Joe. The first big chase (there are several) involves Buster desperately trying to escape from a dog he thinks is rabid because of all the foam around its mouth. (Actually, the dog has just scarfed down a lemon cream pie left on a windowsill to cool.)  And then there’s the sequence in which Buster, with everyone out to get him, manages to pose as a knock-kneed scarecrow—but one capable of taking revenge on offenders who aren’t paying attention.

 It's all good clean fun, but another Keaton short on the same DVD, “The Paleface,” left me more uneasy. In this Wild West tale, the Indians are NOT the bad guys, but they sure aren’t very bright. After they’ve been cruelly swindled by Anglos who are after their land, they vow to take revenge on the first white man who crosses their path. This of course turns out to be Buster, a naïve butterfly hunter. After some amusing confusion, he is duly tied to a stake and a pyre is set ablaze. But when Buster fails to catch fire (you see, he wears these asbestos BVDs), the tribal members fall on their faces and declare him a god. Eventually, the evil white guys get their just deserts, and Buster helps the Indians (played, of course, by overstuffed white guys like Big Joe Roberts) to reclaim their land. And, yes, he wins the pretty Indian maiden too.

 I continue to marvel at Keaton’s skill as a mime and an acrobat. (He also co-wrote and directed.) But making comedy out of the Native Americans’ woes just doesn’t strike me as very funny.


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