(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)
Buster Keaton said he always began planning his comedies with an opening and an ending, because the middle would take care of itself. The Blacksmith is a funny beginning and a superb ending in search of a substantial middle.
The movie begins as a parody of Longfellow’s famous poem “The Village Blacksmith,” probably more familiar these days to Looney Tunes cartoon buffs than it is to middle-schoolers. (Daffy Duck robotically starts to recite it near the end of Duck Amuck .) Buster, it seems, is the poem’s anti-hero version. (The first shot is of “village smithy” Buster standing under an L.A. palm tree, not the “spreading chestnut” of the poem.)
After a couple more verses, the movie quickly loses in interest in satire and, like Tex Avery’s later Warner Bros. cartoon The Village Smithy (1936 – see what I mean?), is more interested in using the source as a springboard for gags, which here range from great to terrible. The good stuff shows Buster being both a “horse whisperer” and a shoe salesman to a horse in need of new shoes. (Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Buster can pretty well transform himself into whatever the current situation dictates he needs to be. If a horse needs shoeing, Buster goes out of his way to meet the horse’s hoof size and comfort level. Thom McAn never had a better spokesperson.)
The movie’s nadir is Buster trying to do his work while he’s obliviously and systematically destroying a brand-new Rolls-Royce that has been brought in for minor repair work. Keaton biographer Marion Meade posits that this is probably the same car given to Keaton by his much-despised in-laws, which would explain his joy in destroying it. But this joy doesn’t extend to the movie’s audience – especially those in 1922, who probably gasped at seeing such a luxurious car being torn apart.
Beyond that, the gags are hit-and-miss, the best one being where it looks as though Buster is about to get run over by an oncoming train, only to have (through trick photography) the train stop within just a few inches of him. (Joel and Ethan Coen pulled an extremely similar fast one 65 years later, involving a baby and a car, in Raising Arizona .)
And the final gag is a beaut, with Buster pulling down a shade with “The End” written on it, after having shown us that he won the heart of one of his customers who he married on a whim. The problem is that this final scene comes out of nowhere. One minute the woman is snubbing him; just a few minutes later, without even a scene of courtship, she’s running off to elope with him. Could this have reflected Keaton’s mirror-image fantasy of his unhappy marriage to his then-wife Natalie Talmadge?
Granted, maybe one shouldn’t read too much into the final marriage scene and the obliterated Rolls-Royce – but one is tempted to do so only because there’s not much else to reflect upon here. Happily, Keaton’s style would soon evolve exponentially over the gags-for-gags’-sake stuff reflected in The Blacksmith.