Sunday, May 21, 2006

Buster Keaton and the Rise of Modernism in America

I love silent movies for many reasons. Not least among them is that they are a window on their time in a way that talkies never quite managed to be. Silent movies just laid society bare, whether it is Fritz Lang savaging the loose morals of Weimar Germany in "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler," Lon Chaney playing a Chinaman, or D.W. Griffith's Reconstruction revision.

Buster Keaton's films are a look into early 20th century America as much as any other silent movie figure. For instance, take "The General." The book it was based upon had the hero being a Union soldier. Keaton figured that the hero would be more sympathetic if he was a Confederate and so he changed it. A little-known fact but interesting.

More directly, many of his films reflect the challenges that Americans faced during the early 20th century. This was a time of intense change in the United States. In 1880, the United States was most Anglo-Saxon (at least among its European immigrants). It was mostly rural. Large swaths of the West remained virtually unsettled by whites. The doctrine of separate spheres held more or less and middle-class women generally worked out of the home if they worked at all. Although the Civil War had begun transforming the American economy, it was still a nation of farms and small towns. By 1920, all of this had changed. Millions of immigrants had come from eastern and southern Europe, challenging both what it meant to be white as well as what an American was. The Industrial Revolution had completed its sweeping changes of the American economy and American society. Women increasingly worked outside of the home and even lived alone. In 1920, over 50% of Americans lived in cities for the first time. The automobile had changed spatial patterns in the United States, gave individuals more freedom, and brought the world closer together. The West was fully settled by whites and this supposed traditional outlet for American problems had gone. Technological innovations were coming at a rapid pace--refrigeration, airplanes, radio, washing machines, etc., etc.

Many of Keaton's films deal directly with the challenges the individual faced in this crazy new nation. I just finished one of fine DVDs Kino has put out of Keaton's work. The feature of this DVD was "Go West," while "The Paleface" and "The Scarecrow" were shorts that Kino also included. To a greater or lesser extent, all 3 of these films deal with this issue of modernism.

The most striking of the three is "Go West." Here Keaton is a poor vagabond who ends up working a cattle ranch in Arizona, despite his lack of any cowboy skills. He also makes friends with a cow, which pretty much provides the plot. You might say this sounds pretty lame. But it's not. Keaton starts out in Indiana. He has to sell everything he owns. He thinks he should head to the city for a fresh start. When he gets to the city, he is run over by the sidewalk crowd. He struggles through the hordes of people going the other way, falls, and is trampled upon. He scrambles into the street where he is hit by a car. How many people got this joke in 1925? Nearly everyone I would guess. With an audience that no doubt contained many urban migrants, this joke would have hit home.

Keaton quickly realizes the city is not for him and he hops a train heading west. He falls off that train while inside a barrel in front of an Arizona cattle ranch. Here is the life Keaton is looking for. He's a loner and he can be lonely here, except for his pet cow which he spends the rest of the movie trying to save from slaughter. Incidentally, you can really see from the film how bad cattle farming destroyed the vegetation in the Arizona desert, even by the 1920s. Eventually, the cattle are to go to Los Angeles for processing (and when was the last time LA was a beef center?). Keaton hops the train in a last ditch effort to save his cow. But a rival farmer is trying to raise prices for all the local cattle ranchers and he refuses to allow Keaton's boss to sell the cows. There is a shootout and the engineer is forced off the train. Keaton takes over and when he gets to LA he lets all the cows out. This is a big mistake. The cattle start roaming the streets of LA, entering boutique shops and scaring all the urban dwellers. Here is another clash between the rural and urban. Of course, the cows are there to provide beef to the local population but that population has no desire to see that beef, particularly within their barber shops and clothing stores. Buster ends up saving the day by dressing in a devil outfit to attract the cows with the red and running away from them while leading them to the stockyards. This movie took place in the present, but it is so old that it seems like it was talking about a day long ago. But the rancher has a car, even if his ranchhands use the old ways and ride on horses. Buster and his cow get a nice ride back to the ranch in the car.

The first short, The Scarecrow, is less about modernism than the other two, but even in its 20 minute running time, it says quite a bit. The first gag is these 2 bachelors living together who have managed to turn their apartment into a sort of marvel of gadgets. All the appliances turn into other appliances (the phonograph is a stove for instance). All of your kitchen accoutrements hang from the ceiling for easy access. The point of this film is the 2 guys going after the same woman. Buster wins her. What's interesting is the use of transportation technology. Horses are still around but so are cars. Buster and his girl get married by basically running over a preacher standing in the middle of the road. He gets picked up in their open motorized vehicle. Buster is driving, his girl is in the sidecar, and the preacher is marrying them in between. Stealing this vehicle gives them an advantage over the transportation options of the girl's father and her other beau, who have horses as well as other motorized vehicles.

More interesting from our standpoint is The Paleface. Here Buster plays a butterfly chaser who helps protect a tribe of Indians from having their land stolen by the oil industry. Again we have a western where modernism is intruding upon life. The Indians are minding their own business but are under attack from oil barons. The Indians (played to all the stereotypes you would expect, though they are sympathetic at the same time) decide to kill the first white man they see, which is butterfly-chasing Buster. He gets away long enough to hide in a settler cabin and create a fire-proof suit out of asbestos he finds there! The Indians then burn him at the stake but he lives because of his asbestos suit. Nothing in the movie on how long it took him to get cancer from the suit. Anyway, he is then accepted into the tribe and he helps them get back at the oil men and of course they win the day and Buster gets to hook up with his favorite squaw.

Of course, Chaplin (among others) touched upon many of these same themes in his early work. But Keaton's films seem to exist in that borderland between the modern and pre-modern America that millions were crossing over in the early twentieth century. These films are worth watching for many reasons, the first of which is their sheer quality. But they also have great value as a window into history and I strongly recommend them for that.