Legend has it that Buster Keaton’s method for making movies was to come up with a good beginning and a good ending, because the middle would take care of itself. Upon seeing The Scarecrow and similar Keaton shorts, one could be forgiven for thinking that Keaton’s imagined endings consisted of only two words: chase scene.
Along with that hoary chestnut come some other comedy cliches in The Scarecrow, such as the string on the door to cure the toothache, and a dog who gets cream pie on his face and is then mistaken for a rabid dog. Then there’s the house that farmhand Buster shares with his work partner (Joe Roberts), with Rube Goldberg contraptions such as a phonograph player that converts into a stove, a bed that doubles as a bathtub, etc. The gimmicks are cute and sometimes funny, but never are they plausible. In fact, much of the movie has the same mechanical-gag quality – even the subtitles, one of which tells us, “All the rooms in [Buster’s] house are in one room.”
The plot’s main point is that Buster and Joe are both vying to marry the same woman (Sybil Seely), though you wouldn’t know it the way this plot point is buried among the gags. Still, the way in which the preacher is pulled off the street – literally – to perform the marriage is pretty novel and funny. Too bad the rest of the story didn’t show as much imagination.
As usual, Keaton’s acrobatic skills and sheer force of personality make you forget about the plot contrivances, at least while you’re watching the movie. But at his best, Buster’s physicality is an essential ingredient of the plot, not a diversion from it.