How do movie characters fall in love? Usually they tell each other – we would hope that the preceding action justifies the telling. Even silent films rely on verbal narratives to fall in love, in pantomime: the conceptions and misconceptions between Chaplin and the flower girl in City Lights, the reiteration of wedding vows in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Buster Keaton never speaks, even as people normally do in silents, but his stories almost always contain romance. It’s perfectly logical how Buster accomplishes his goal as a crazy stuntman who also manages to get the girl, even without a story to justify it – by combining his ambitions. These roles of a lover and an athlete aren’t different in Keaton films. For Buster, falling in love always amounts to running around. Of all his films, The Scarecrow (1920) conjures up the most idealized, literal Keaton. It is one of his shortest films, but remember: for Buster, this only means that he’s tuckered out sooner. So are we, in the best possible way.
Keaton comedically fails at all the romantic conventions – even if he brings a girl flowers, he will give them to her so bluntly that they would only be meaningful as a stock exchange. He can blush but can’t be tickled. He falls in love in every film I’ve seen him in, yet I have never seen him smile; I have only seen him fall.
For lack of the pleasantries that make falling in love easier, Keaton makes romance a distance. He reminds us that dating can be exhausting. I think Keaton fell in love in the movies as in real life, and I think he realized it. I think where Chaplin valued sentiment, in that special way that made you wonder how much of it he was aware of, Keaton never stopped propounding a sad and distant dignity, like love was a task he could endure, if only he could run so far.
Keaton’s real wives kept running him ragged, rescinding his visitation rights, bleeding him with alimonies (which bled him of his art – for money’s sake he signed as a bit player in sound films at MGM, which destroyed his image). His stone-face doesn’t even qualify him as a nice guy when it comes to love, which he wins as the result of a gag. It’s no accident that with Keaton, gags are all real. The dimensions of movement and perspective are all audience-centric: anything is possible so long as it takes place in the audience’s view and nothing is real unless it does. Like Jackie Chan, Keaton only puts on screen what can be done without tricks. This logically produces his penchant for long takes, and so his reality becomes silently (truly silently) funny. Even the jokes are often quiet, as they are for Wes Anderson. (I’m not referencing these modern artists unreasonably: the still construction of a gag made of fixed views in The Grand Budapest Hotel, or the exasperated stunt humor in Police Story 3, are all inextricably from Keaton.) Perhaps his insistence on stunts, and then only those that could be done in-camera, is our clue to his idea of love: a gag he wished to make real.
The Scarecrow casts Keaton more intentionally as a man running towards love even than most of his longer features (I would elevate only Steamboat Bill Jr. above it in this way). While Keaton is running from a dog, Joe Roberts is wooing Sybil Seely with gifts, and the sheepish dancing of a fat blushing boy, and a finger stuck in a twitterpated lip (look to Roberts to see the over-acted comedians of the time rolled into one man-sized pastry, and then see Keaton, withered, deeply and hilariously blank, like a man trying to recall what he meant by something he only said to himself). Seely, the farmer’s daughter, plays with Roberts while dancing in the hedgerows (she’s in the dancer’s union, a rare placard informs us). She pirouettes her father (played by Buster’s dad, Joe) right in the patchy neck-beard. Keaton arrives just in time to intervene after the dog chases him up ladders and across walls, through doors and windows and grain threshers and back through the Rube Goldberg machine of a house set up at the film’s beginning (these are some of the best animal stunts ever: Keaton, a notorious dog-lover, shakes his paw in a truce at the end and you feel like he must mean it).
Keaton and Roberts eat breakfast in a house where every fixture has multiple uses: the phonograph player is also an oven and stove, the couch reverses into a tub, the strings that pull utensils from the ceiling also deposit them in a cabaret of mundane amazement, of household chores made into a burlesque through choreography. Keaton shoots stunts without cutting, religiously, not just to make sure you know he really did them (he catches a ketchup bottle dangling from the ceiling in a box whose lid is also on a string, and does so again to make sure you got it), but more so to make them funny through reality. He said once, “Either we get this in one shot or we throw out the gag.” He believed that only things that you could see every second could be funny. As filmmakers today continue to attest with their own take on Keaton’s work – I’m thinking most prominently of Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson – we should know now with no doubts that he was absolutely right.
The Scarecrow is not the film in which he risks his life the most to prove this belief. It doesn’t have the destructive gags of Steamboat Bill Jr. or the hairy chase sequence of Sherlock Jr. or the scenic brilliance of The General. But it is Keaton’s blatant testament to the world he saw, in which people are constantly colliding and bouncing off each other, in which everything feels genuine and nothing is comforting. Everyone’s always moving: on one of those motorcycles with the sidecars, Keaton picks up Seely, and a reverend, and as a final gag gets himself married before crashing at the end. The Scarecrow is 19 minutes long but it could be 2 minutes long and the time would mean the same thing: this is the time Keaton has given himself to run far enough to fall in love. He always just makes it, even though we know it won’t last. He’s comfortable turning all his ideas of romance into a gag, veiled by a stuntman’s ambitious death-wish, but he can never settle down in them. The dining table in his one-room house hangs on the wall, flipped over to reveal the words, “What is Home Without a Mother?” It’s a Keaton movie.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Edward F. Cline
Edward F. Cline
|Truck Driver (uncredited)||Edward F. Cline|
|The Mad Dog (uncredited)||Luke the Dog|
|Farmer (uncredited)||Joe Keaton|
|Farmhand (uncredited)||Joe Roberts|
|Farmer's Daughter (uncredited)||Sybil Seely|
|Motorbiker (uncredited)||Al St. John|