July 4, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1922--The Blacksmith

The Blacksmith (Keaton & Mal St. Clair)

Buster is working at a hybrid service station of sorts, as a blacksmith who fixes cars as well as horses. The film opens with a clever series of jokes playing on Buster's inadequacies. His inflatable muscles are a far cry from the ideal. In one example, the "village smithy" is supposed to be standing under a chestnut tree, but Buster's leaning against a small, thin trunk. The camera pans up and up and up--all the way up to the top of a palm tree. It then cuts to an extreme long shot of the tree, with Buster's tiny five feet and six inches dwarfed even more by the lanky palm.

To compound Buster's physical inadequacies, he's also lousy at his job. In the film's major sequence, he screws up not once but twice. An equestrienne (Virginia Fox) comes in with a beautiful, spotless white horse who needs new shoes. Buster pantomimes an entire shopping routine, complete with mirror for the horse to check out how she looks in her new shoes. At the same time, Buster is also trying to fix the oil on a beat-up jalopy and every time he switches from the car to the horse, he's sullying the steed with his oily handprints. In a parallel scene, a snooty, well-dressed man comes in with a spotless, white car. Buster behaves quite the same way.

When Buster's boss (Joe Roberts) comes back, he and Buster get in a giant fight and the car is caught in the crossfire. Buster manages to break its windows, collapse its roof and set it on fire before escaping. Buster tries to run away on a horse carriage but the carriage stays still as the horse gallops away, leaving Buster hanging on for dear life at the end of the reins. The horse leaves him on the train tracks, Buster's foot stuck between the rails. Trying to pry his foot from the track, a train is barreling down behind him, this unbeknownst to Buster but plainly in view of the audience. The tension is unbearable, as it appears there are no diverging tracks or other tricks to divert the train. At the last possible second, the train merely stops. The engineers jump out and stare at Buster with disbelief. Buster, still struggling to free his foot, looks up, startled, and dashes away.

Next, he runs into Virginia Fox again, unwittingly saving her from a horse run amok. She rewards him with cash, but being the noble Buster he is, he rejects this offer and proposes marriage instead. Unbelievably, she agrees. They hop onto the departing train for marital bliss. But the film doesn't end there, but with this sly coda. An intertitle: "Many a honeymoon express has ended thusly," and then a shot of a train derailing. A-ah!, thinks the audience, just as I suspected. But no! We see Buster walk up to the train, in bathrobe and pipe, revealing the train to be a toy set. The shot irises out and it becomes clear we're in the couples' nursery, their baby rocking in its mother's arms. Buster walks towards the camera and pulls down a window shade, obscuring our view. The shade reads, "The End."

It's a clever ending that almost wasted on such a frivolous, slapstick premise. The Blacksmith is a disjointed series of gags, some clever, but most not. It relies too heavily on the kinds of humor found in Arbuckle-Keaton shorts like The Garage, but is hindered by the lack of inventive set pieces (cars and horses just don't cut it anymore).

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