July 5, 2010

The Keaton Shorts: 1922--The Frozen North

The Frozen North is essentially a parody film, the target of ridicule being silent era superstar cowboy actor William S. Hart. As such, the film works well (too well--Hart refused to speak to Keaton for two years after seeing the film!). The only problem for modern audiences is that Keaton is infinitely more well-known than Hart, so those unaware of the parody might be shocked (as I was) at the despicable, melodramatic antics Buster is up to in this short.

The film begins bizarrely and never lets up. In the first shot, two-gun Buster emerges from a New York City subway station...into the middle of the frozen tundra. It's an inexplicable joke that doesn't pay off until the very last scene--a bold move to expect audiences to stick with you for the full twenty minutes, but it works. Buster trudges into town and immediately kicks off some mischief. He wants to hold up the local saloon, but he's only one man--what to do? Spotting a poster for Bull's Eye Ammunition, Buster cuts out the cowboy mascot (recalling his appropriation of Harry Lauder's kilt in The Garage.) Buster props up the fearsome-looking cowboy and robs the saloon. Only when a drunk knocks over the cut-out do the patrons realize they've been had and exact their revenge accordingly.

Keaton's cut-out cowboy and the "real" thing, William S. Hart. 

The Frozen North offers a sly but incisive commentary on the nature of authenticity in film Westerns, which is further complicated by Buster's own insistence that they film on location. Buster chose Truckee, California, a rustic spot on the Nevada border most famous as the sight of the notorious Donner Party. Keaton would later revisit to shoot Our Hospitality and Charlie Chaplin would use it in The Gold Rush. Keaton manipulates his authenticity as he sees fit, a careful auteur making sure he isn't parodied in the way he's ribbing Hart.

Fleeing the scene of the botched crime, Keaton commits a series of dastardly deeds in quick succession. Returning to his home, he sees a man and woman embracing--his wife and another man! Overcome with emotion, he guns them both down...only to realize he's got the wrong house! Oops. Arriving at the real thing finally, he and his wife instantly take to bickering, she screams and a passing mountie hears. Something accidentally falls from a shelf onto the wife's head so Buster, to avoid a domestic abuse charge, puts on a record and pretends to waltz with his unconscious wife. True to the implausibility of the entire short, the cop buys it. This scene marks the last appearance of Sybil Seely (the wife) in a Keaton picture, which is sad as she has nothing to do but get knocked unconscious in the entire thing.

Tough guy Buster

His wife of no use to him now, Buster gets changed into a fancy suit and goes looking for tail. He finds it in another man's wife (Bonnie Hill), who attempts to woo with a flower (which promptly catches on fire.) The wooing of the neighbor takes way too long and includes a chase (what else) on horse-drawn carriage, snowshoe and makeshift snowshoes (two guitars with Buster's feet smashed through the strings.) All in all, it's not too interesting but I imagine it would have been more prescient and enjoyable to a contemporary audience. The shorts' main fault is that it hasn't aged well, which is strangely not its fault, but merely the whim of film history.

The film ends lamely, with a reveal of Buster sitting in a movie theater, having dreamed the whole thing. He got caught up watching a Hart Western (although not too caught up seeing as how he managed to fall asleep!), and dreamed himself into the action. This accounts for the strange New York City gag, which is just Buster conflating the way to the movies with the way to adventure. This narrative structure attempts to say something grand about the transportive power (or perhaps impotence) of film and the germ of an idea is there, but it would be two more years until Keaton perfected his message in Sherlock, Jr.


  1. Also Buster Keaton becomes Erich von Stroheim in a clear parody of FOOLISH WIVES.

    1. He sure does! Seems von Stroheim was a frequent target of parody; Chaplin dressed up like his character in FOOLISH WIVES, too.