JB: It's so hard to figure out the rise and fall of Buster Keaton's career. All of the books I've read have his classic THE GENERAL as the turning point. Regarded as a masterpiece today, THE GENERAL was a critical and box-office failure in 1927, and audiences didn't really return to Keaton's films until he moved into sound movies in 1929. The box office figures for GO WEST are not really that impressive compared to what Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd pulled in, but they were respectable for a Keaton film.* It seems those who liked Keaton had no problem with a slow-moving film with relatively few gags and a love story between a man and a cow (a platonic love, of course!), but a few years later, they turned their noses up at what was possibly the greatest silent movie of all time.
There are not many gags, and when Keaton does do gags, so many of them aren't much different from what any ordinary comedian might do - he has trouble walking in cowboy boots, he doesn't know how to milk a cow, he is inept at using a lasso. There are a couple of great Keatonesque moments, but only a couple, and they go by in a flash. The ending, which seems to be Keaton's attempt at creating another grand sequence such as the cop chase in his short film Cops or the Bride Chase / Avalanche sequence in SEVEN CHANCES, is more surrealistic than funny. Cows walking through the streets, even hundreds of cows walking through the streets, are not very frightening, no matter how much everybody in the film tries to convince us they are. Keaton probably conceived of this sequence with a stampede in mind, but these cows are just too damn polite.
There's a gag in the film which helps explain the quirkiness of Keaton. He is collecting eggs that have been laid by chickens in a shack at the ranch he is working at. There in one lone chicken at the end of the row, and when he checks under her, he finds no egg. So he sits down and waits, stoically. He does nothing else but sit and wait, but if you are a Keaton fan, it is funny (like Stan Laurel doing nothing but eating an egg in the Laurel and Hardy short County Hospital). Chaplin would have probably found the whole matter of looking under a chicken distasteful and let us know about his feeling with a sour look to the camera. Lloyd, always the go-getter, would have probably blown up a paper bag to scare the chicken into laying an egg. Keaton sits and waits. Is it funny? Yes. Why is it funny? Because it's Keaton.
This story was conceived and directed by Keaton. Even if it did do well at the box office, it's not hard to understand why Keaton's superiors were buying stage properties such as SEVEN CHANCES and BATTLING BUTLER for Keaton to film. Lloyd and Chaplin were doing bangup box office with solid stories. They might have become friends with a cow (well, Lloyd might have) but there would have been something more to the film, some goal they had to achieve, something that would give the audiences a reason to get emotionally involved for an entire feature.
Now think of this: Buster falls in love with a cow - in a two-reeler. Suddenly it's an idea that might have made a classic film ½ - JB
* Many decades after all three men passed on, Buster Keaton became the most admired of the three great silent movie clowns and remains so today. It was rather shocking to discover that in his time, Keaton was basically an also-ran. Chaplin and Lloyd films were usually blockbusters, Keaton's did decent box office but nothing earth-shattering. According to Tom Dardis in his book Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock, the total world wide box office returns of both of Keaton's 1925 features GO WEST and SEVEN CHANCES, did not match the returns on Lloyd's single 1925 film THE FRESHMAN and was nowhere even close to the returns on Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH. Chaplin and Lloyd were crowd pleasers, while Keaton was an acquired taste.
|The Gold Rush||$4,000,000 (estimate)|
|Both Keaton Films Combined||$1,179,784|