Buster Keaton loves an underdog. Most of his protagonists are down on their luck, or vastly underqualified, but succeed anyway — or fail valiantly. Go West leans even harder into this trend than most of his films, crediting Buster’s character only as “Friendless” and introducing him dragging his entire worldly possessions into town on a wheeled bed, where a shopkeeper offers him “a dollar sixty five for the whole business.” Friendless then manages to spend or lose all of that money before he’s even left the store.
In fact, Go West leans so hard on the protagonist’s sad little life in these early scenes that it seems to take a little while before Keaton remembers that he’s making a comedy. He heads for the city, only to find the New York crowds so boisterous that he can’t even make it down the street, quickly retreating back to the train yards. Horace Greeley’s famous slogan — “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country!” — spurs him to try heading in the other direction, but a barrel-related accident dumps him out of the train car into an expanse of empty desert where his only company is a rattlesnake. Honestly, it’s all a bit much. Ten minutes in, all we’ve had is misery and misadventure, and I can hardly blame any chuckle-seeking comedy fans for switching off before this movie really gets into its stride.
However! Like Friendless, we must persist. Because when he stumbles onto a cattle ranch, quickly managing to secure employment even though it’s unclear whether he has actually ever seen a cow before, things pick up very quickly. Gags start to flow — unlike the milk from any cow attended to by our hapless hero — and the supporting cast finally fall into place. But Go West is short on Keaton regulars. Brief cameos from his dad and the still-canceled Fatty Arbuckle are the only real familiar faces. And Arbuckle is in disguise as a woman.
Go West does have a promising new star to introduce, though. You see, Buster’s leading lady this time around is named Brown Eyes…and she’s a cow. Friendless might not have had much luck with other humans, but one act of simple kindness — removing a rock from her hoof — forms an inseparable bond. And while there are no shortage of movies that team up actors with animals, this one takes an unusual approach, offering an almost romantic chemistry between Friendless and Brown Eyes, soulmates from different species who have finally found each other.
Once they’ve teamed up, Friendless starts turning things around and manages a series of small victories — he successfully herds bulls into a pen (blithely putting his life at stake in the process), finally manages to arrive at the table in time for a meal (making sure he’s the first to finish, with a wonderfully spiteful little flourish) and his sensitive side means that he’s the one the ranch owner’s daughter turns to when she needs a splinter removed from her hand. But just as he’s starting to find his place in the world, he finds out that his beloved Brown Eyes is to be sent to the slaughterhouse and, suddenly, a sense of urgency enters the film.
Most Keaton films build to a big finale, and Go West is no exception. Friendless stows away on the train taking the animals to the city, but after an attempted train robbery he ends up in charge of the whole vehicle. Knowing that he’s the only person who can keep the ranch in business, he’s forced to deliver the cattle on his own, on foot, through the streets of the city — and as it turns out, unleashing a hell of a lot of cows on the city streets is every bit as impressive as Steamboat Bill Jr.’s stormy finale or the rockslide in Seven Chances. There’s a genuine sense of “how did they film this?” and the answer’s probably “lax 1920s safety standards,” but it makes for a thrilling and very funny climax. All that remains is for Friendless to accept his reward, in a sweet closing scene that works as well as it does because of that first ten minutes when we were shown in detail how miserable his life had been. What’s the line? Comedy equals tragedy plus time?
Go West is probably Keaton’s sweetest film, the “one man and his cow” plot being even more charming and wholesome than the innocent romances that drive most of his films. But it is also very funny once it gets going, with that wonderful mix of large setpieces and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gags that made his name. One of the smaller jokes might be my favorite moment in the whole film — Friendless loses his hat to a gust of wind, but reaches up to pluck it from the air and place it back on his head without a thought. It’s the kind of perfectly timed moment that could have been sheer chance…or taken hours to get right. Either way, it’s a perfect microcosm of what makes Keaton one of the greats, and Go West shows that there’s plenty of gold to discover in his less-celebrated films.