Buster Keaton in GO WEST (1925) – Starring a cow as the leading lady


(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.

The Marx Brothers in GO WEST (1940) – Cut to the chase


Go West is a great pair of comedy bookends with a lot of useless filler in the middle. The movie begins promisingly, with one of the best fleecings that Chico and Harpo ever gave to Groucho. Unfortunately, after that, there’s a plot.

Terry (John Carroll), the good guy, wants to sell his land to a railroad company to end a family feud. But the bad guys (including Walter Woolf King, formerly Lassparri fromĀ A Night at the Opera) confiscate the deed to the land, thanks to Groucho’s ineptitude.

Groucho’s ineptitude?? Isn’t this the same guy who used to hold off gangsters with double talk? Here he comes off like the wise-guy grade-schooler who shuts his yap as soon as the bully puts him in his place. After a while, Groucho’s one-liners seem only to amuse himself, and you really wish he’d shut up for a while. (Strangely, exactly this kind of material worked perfectly for Bob Hope 12 years later in his Western take-off, Son of Paleface. For Groucho, it works only as character assassination.)

Chico’s no help, either, whining, “We no wanna no trouble.” This from a guy who earned $70 for his train ticket by using and re-using a ten-dollar bill. Did these guys leave their cheekiness and con artistry at the train station?

Of the brothers, Harpo comes off best here. While Groucho and Chico are getting liquored up by the bad guys’ floozies, Harpo is smashing safes, getting deeds back to rightful owners, and turning whisk brooms into loaded revolvers. Maybe Harpo should ditch these losers and go look for some diamonds to finance a Broadway show.

Turns out that the Marx Brothers aren’t comic anarchists at all. They’re the idiots whom the good guy puts up with because he’s so darned sweet. It’s almost as if MGM was punishing them for having been too funny in the past.

And since there aren’t any black people around (other than some monosyllabic porters in the first scene), the movie stereotypes Indians for a while, getting as much juice as it can out of “How!”-type characterizations. It’s doubly painful to watch the Marxes make fun of them, considering how moronic they themselves have come off in this movie.

Then the movie does a strange thing at the end — it turns hilarious. The elaborate climax involves the Marxes taking over the bad guys’ train in order to beat them to New York (Terry having reclaimed the deed from them). It’s a miracle of comic timing and editing, and it’s so wowing, you can hardly believe it’s done by the same people who put together the previous 70 minutes.

Here’s how to watch Go West: Savor the opening and closing scenes, and then, when the Marxes start to get embarrassing, look away from them, like the people at a party who back off from the drunken guest to show that they aren’t in any way related to him.