(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Go West is the most picaresque and Chaplinesque of Buster Keaton’s features. Normally, Buster just goes through his stone-faced paces, letting the pathos take care of itself and not worrying about whether or not the audience will care about him. But here, Keaton goes out of his way to get the audience’s sympathy. Buster’s character in this movie is named “Friendless,” and the first fifteen minutes seems meant to establish how put-upon he is, literally getting stepped on by an apathetic world. Keaton had just lost his regular gang of gag men — Jean Havez had died of a heart attack, and Joe Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman had been snapped up by other studios — which perhaps explains the movie’s unusually sentimental prologue.
After somewhat meandering adventures in Indiana and New York City, Friendless ends up as a cowhand on an Arizona ranch, and the story gains its footing. Much of the comedy derives from the juxtaposition of Friendless’ stoic resignation versus the rootin’-tootin’ life of a cowpoke. (When Friendless plays in a poker game and accuses the dealer of cheating, the dealer points a gun in his face and commands, “When you say that, smile,” not knowing of Buster’s inability to do so. Friendless puts two fingers to his lips to try and paste a grin on his face.)
Go West gives Keaton his most unusual leading lady: a mourn-faced cow named Brown Eyes, the only friend that Friendless has. She gets a credit in the movie (and even got a salary for her acting — $13 a week), and she deserves it. She’s every inch a co-star.
While Go West isn’t Keaton’s greatest movie (Keaton, typically, said he “didn’t care for it”), it’s hardly laugh-free. It has some strangely touching gags (as when Friendless refuses to hurt Brown Eyes by branding her and instead uses a razor to “shave” a brand onto her). And even when the movie isn’t terribly funny, it’s beautiful and often downright astounding to watch. Keaton’s usual cameraman, Elgin Lessley, captures the Arizona desert on film in a painterly fashion. And some of the scenes — such as Friendless running atop a moving train, and a climax with Friendless blithely escorting a herd of cattle through downtown Los Angeles — leave you almost scratching your head in wonder as to how they got mounted and filmed.
The title Go West, of course, comes from Horace Greeley’s famous command to “Go west, young man,” and fifteen years later, M-G-M copped the title (and even Greeley’s command) for one of The Marx Brothers’ later, weaker comedies. If nothing else, Keaton’s Go West is the funnier one, and while it’s a bit of a take-off on the traditional Western, it nevertheless captures the spirit of the Old West nicely – even when it’s depicting a tenderfoot who falls in love with a cow.