June 7, 2010

Buster & Fatty: Out West (1918)

Out West (1918)

Out West is sensational short which is set apart by its beautiful, stark photographic style and sharp and incisive send-up of the Western genre. The film opens with a shot of a train--enough to send a thrill down the spine of any Keaton connoisseur. Fatty plays a drifter riding the rails to no place in particular. He's chased off the train and into the dusty desert by some rough-looking men who don't appreciate him stealing their lunch. In the harsh wilderness, Fatty sees a miracle, a pretty spiffy special effect for 1918. He's chased into town by some very hungry (and anachronistically cannibalistic) Native Americans, where he meets Buster playing Bill Bullhorn, the owner of a saloon so tough, it has a trap door for dead bodies. Our villain tonight is played, as always, by Al St. John as the rough, impetuous Wild Bill Hickup. Rounding out the cast is the lovely Alice Lake as the kind-hearted Salvation Army girl. Fatty and the girl instantly strike up a romance, to which Wild Bill vehemently objects.

The beautiful desert photography is one of the main draws of the picture.

I'm a really big fan of Westerns so perhaps this short appeals to me more than is typically, but I think it really hits all the right spots. Generally, Arbuckle plays it pretty safe. There is some impressive, Western-ish camerawork here and the extras all look sweatily & dustily authentic. I can't help but speculate that Keaton was inspired by the scope and tone of this picture (and the presence of trains) in making is later period films Our Hospitality and The General.

There is one gag here that I think is particularly brilliant and caught me completely off guard. In order to best Hiccup and save the Salvation Army girl, Buster and Fatty must find his weakness. But he's a rugged gunfighter! What could it be? Simple: the outlaw is fiendishly ticklish. That's right. The sight of Buster and Fatty trying not to crack a smile while tickling the heck out of Al St. John, decked out in his sheepskin chaps, well, that's just downright delightful. Several bits comment on the silliness of Western tropes, as when Fatty tries to knock Hiccup out by smashing a bottle on his head. It doesn't work the first time so he tries dozens of bottles, doing nothing but getting him wetter and wetter. The climactic battle is also a commentary on how useless guns are for actually killing people (and guns seemingly never run out of bullets). Buster is engaged in a gunfight with a Mexican and the two shoot at each other for several minutes, the scene cuts to other action and then back, and the two are still shooting. Even after Keaton lands what appears to be the death blow, the Mexican gets up and rides away.

Deadeye Buster.

For me, Out West is a refreshing change of pace from the modern comedies that make up most of Comique's output. Buster actually gets to play a character here and there's not a porkpie in sight. Interestingly, Comique script girl Natalie Talmadge, who would later become Buster's wife, is credited with the story credit.

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