Buster Keaton in THE FROZEN NORTH – Putting William S. Hart on ice

FrozenNorth

The Frozen North was Buster Keaton’s revenge on a contemporary of his: Western star William S. Hart. Hart always portrayed insufferably pure Western heroes; in real life, Hart was one of many celebrities who hypocritically attacked Keaton’s dear friend Roscoe Arbuckle during Arbuckle’s famous sex-scandal trial. Thus, Keaton’s parody of Hart killed two birds with one stone. (Apparently it worked, as Hart didn’t speak to Keaton for years after the movie’s release.)

And over eight decades later, Keaton’s parody still has some sting to it. Keaton is surprisingly content to play unsympathetic here. His first few gags – emerging in the Frozen North from an underground subway station, using a villainous-looking cardboard cutout to thwart some illicit gamblers – are benign enough to make you think this will be a good-natured satire. But further on in the movie, Buster shoots, drinks, and womanizes – and just as in the early Arbuckle/Keaton comedy Out West (1918), Keaton is such a convincing actor (even when he’s seducing a woman several inches taller than him) that the “it’s all just a joke” pretense doesn’t entirely wash.

Mel Brooks has acknowledged that Buster Keaton was a major inspiration for his movie comedies. Maybe the line from grim-faced Hart parody to Brooks’ earthy Blazing Saddles, 50 years down the road, is shorter than one might have expected.

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