(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Heeding the expansionist call of Horace Greeley, a hapless young man (aptly named “Friendless”) idealistically hops a freight train westward to meet his destiny, first in a teeming metropolis (where he is roundly trampled by rush-hour foot traffic) then into the ranchlands of Arizona. In the side-splitting course of his attempts at bronco-busting, cattle wrangling and even dairy farming Friendless finds himself enamored with Brown Eyes, a particularly affectionate bovine beauty from whose hoof he removed a painful pebble. Setting traditional ideas of romance and masculinity on their ears, ‘Go West’ is uniquely graceful and characteristically hilarious – especially in the film’s dynamic finale.
– From DVD Production Notes
What can I say? I’m less than halfway through reviewing the Keaton films I own, and the more I do the more I’m convinced his films resonate with me at the most unexpected times.
Go West is at heart a straightforward and simple story. What makes it universal is the way it addresses (and eventually defeats) loneliness, namely the times where you fail to fit in, go with the flow, or hell- even get noticed. Watching this film couldn’t have come at a better moment. I’ve recently moved after a three-year stint on the west coast, which in the most polite terms I can describe as “a mixed bag” or “character building.”
To say the least, I identified with Friendless during certain scenes. And I have the feeling I’m not the only one.
Venturing out on your own and trying to make something of your life can be a difficult and disappointing enterprise. Things haven’t changed much since 1925.
In Keaton’s universe the only thing that can preserve you is straight-up resilience. The way he plays this is subtle and brilliant, but sometimes easy to miss. Coincidentally I happened to watch a conversation with Richard Ayoade this week and he mentioned Keaton’s influence on his latest film, The Double. He noted Keaton captured “someone acknowledging that everything bad that happens to them shouldn’t come as a surprise.” That’s true but only sums up part of his genius. As I noted in my review of The Navigator (1924), what’s entertaining is watching him find a clever workaround to his problems.
West does this by placing Friendless in the unlikeliest of situations. The world of ranching, cattle wrangling and milking cows is something he hardly understands, but he tries his best. In the course of things he meets the first creature that recognizes and appreciates him as a friend, the loyal and gentle Brown Eyes. The scene where he realizes that she has attached herself to him is both sweet and sad.
On the other hand, it takes longer for his fellow human beings to realize he exists or can bring anything of value to his work. He shows interest in the ranch owner’s daughter (Kathleen Myers) but she quietly rebuffs him. His interactions with other ranch hands mainly result in intimidation or teasing. In an iconic scene one of them tries to make him smile at gunpoint.
Not surprisingly Keaton wordlessly tells him, “I can’t.”
Ironically it’s Friendless’ attachment to Brown Eyes that gets him noticed by everyone else, culminating in a mind-boggling sequence featuring 1,000 cattle wandering through the streets of Los Angeles. Hijinks with rollerskates, an elevator, a devil costume, several cops and at least one barber riding around on a bull ensue.
The comedy in West might not be as memorable as gags in other Keaton films, but they’re enjoyable nonetheless. I watched it with a two-year-old who immediately understood and responded to what was happening onscreen. Aside from pointing and saying “cow” or “ears” whenever Brown Eyes appeared, he reenacted a moment where Keaton gets hit in the head.
Or marveled at this cartoonish bit here:
I found myself looking forward to the ending, but not because I wanted it to be over (it is, after all, only 78 minutes long). West may have the distinction of having my favorite ending to a Keaton film, in particular when Friendless has a sentimental “negotiation” with his boss (Howard Truesdale) for a reward. To say the least he gets what he wants and no longer has to hitch a ride anywhere.
Overall revisiting Friendless and his journey was a lighthearted and welcome experience. Watching Keaton affirms my belief in holding steady during times of doubt and unpredictability. Sometimes all you can do is shake things off and keep trying.