Written and directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline.
Released 22 December 1920.
Starring: Buster Keaton, Big Joe Roberts (his roommate/frenemy) Sybil Seely (The Girl), Joe Keaton (the Girl’s father), and Luke the Dog as himself.
For many of the Keaton/Cline shorts, I can maintain some level of critical distance. But, as with Sherlock Jr., there’s just no way here. I actually think The Scarecrow is the closest thing to perfection that comedy shorts can achieve, and I’ve delayed writing this piece because my critique basically consists of making GIFs of its sequences and saying, “Good God, watch this!” Like the best Chuck Jones cartoons and Tex Avery romps, the film runs headlong through its plot, which is considerable and convoluted. We witness: the domestic routine of two roommates, a rivalry for a woman’s affection, a “mad” dog chasing Buster, Buster getting chased on foot by two men, an accidental wedding proposal, a car chase, a wedding ceremony done while the participants careen through town on a motorbike, and finally a wedding/holy-roller baptism. All this incident, which would fill a melodramatic feature film, occurs in nineteen minutes, and makes more sense. By speeding up the melodrama, The Scarecrow lampoons the genre’s conventions. “Screw this sentimentality,” it seems to say, “and let’s cut to the chase(s).” But it’s still a romantic, lovely film with a soft, fluttering heart.
How much of a softie is The Scarecrow? Consider the ways in which the lead characters all swoon, literally, with love and heartache. Even Big Joe Roberts, all 6’3” and 300 pounds of him, gets giddy and fluttery when a pretty girl (Sybil Seely) smiles at him. Buster nearly faints into oblivion when he spies Roberts making a move on her. And Seely, a steely farmgirl who’s winning and no-nonsense for most of the movie, yearns to dance ballet and twirls romantically in her spare time. Think, too, of all the film’s adorable animals, shot with affection:
This, by the way, is Luke. He’s the Best Film Dog Ever, right up there with Asta. It’s a tribute to the director’s generosity of spirit that he allows Luke so much screen time, because cute dogs always upstage the stars. Luke devours a cream pie—itself a nod to the prevailing silent-comedy trope of the era—and Buster, seeing the dog’s frothy face, makes the natural assumption that the canine has become rabid. Buster makes a break for it, and Luke dashes after it. The “mad” dog just wants to play, which we know but Buster does not. Luke’s playfulness gets funnier and more aggressive as the chase reaches its natural—well, natural in Keaton’s world—conclusion.
And the sequence ends with Buster and Luke as pals. I get the distinct feeling, as he rests in Keaton’s lap, that the dog had as much fun making this movie as the humans did.
It’s not just the animals that get fair attention. The Scarecrow allows all of its supporting actors a showcase for clever gags and incredible stunts. By this point, at the end of Keaton’s first year of directing films, he had already built up a stock company: Cline as co-director, gag writer, and occasional supporting actor’ Roberts as the menacing heavy or hyper-masculine counterpoint to Keaton’s cockeyed pseudo-wimp; Seely and Virginia Fox as the romantic interests who were capable of rough-and-tumble antics; Joe Keaton (Buster’s dad) in the wily grandpa roles. Often, Keaton’s gags involve him interacting primarily with an object or a surface, but just as often the comedy depends on him reacting to someone. So, it was essential that his cast’s sense of timing and gesture be just as nimble as Keaton was. This gag, for instance, depends on the perfect comic rhythm of all three performers—Keaton, Keaton the Elder, and Roberts:
When the “scarecrow” accidentally falls over, the farmer and Big Joe realize they’ve been had. Buster must know the gig is up, too, but he can’t help one last try, in a joke that makes me giggle every time I see it. Every time.
Playing off Keaton may have been especially difficult because the comedy dynamic isn’t, usually, the obvious straight man versus themadman, as with Laurel & Hardy, or Martin & Lewis, or Abbott & Costello, or (on the radio) Scharpling & Wurster. If anything, Keaton seems like the sensible man of action, taking charge directly. Trouble is, everyone else in a Keaton picture think they’re practical, too, even when they’re clearly nuts. Everyone acts like their natural self in The Scarecrow; it’s just that they act so naturally that they can’t bend for anyone else. Their “reasonable” behavior makes everyone around them a little crazy.
Take the opening sequence, which is what made The Scarecrow famous. Buster and Big Joe are bachelors, maybe brothers, living together in a one-room house. Boys being boys, they think they can just will domesticity into being, through sheer force of invention. So, they’ve constructed a home full of labor-saving, space-efficient devices that make life more difficult and tangled than it already is. You have to admit that it’s beautiful, their crazy breakfast made from a phonograph that turns into a (coin-operated) stovetop & oven, their sink that turns into a couch, their bed that becomes a piano, this nutty kitchen that looks like the Transformers toy makers got a hold of it.
This is the great joke of Rube Goldberg’s comics, which had started being published in newspapers about five years before this gag: In the interest of being modern and efficient, we make devices that complicate and confuse our lives, especially confounding the simple things that we already knew how to do. Keaton translates Goldberg’s drawings to celluloid, a homage from a master of cinema to a genius of cartooning.
Goldberg’s crazy contraptions have had a long life, because we endlessly over-complicate life in the interest of saving time. Last week, I texted back-and-forth with a person for 30 minutes and 30 texts, making typos and therefore miscommunicating and then correcting myself, when we could have said what we needed to say in a 30-second phone call. Buster and Big Joe’s breakfast encapsulates everything that remains fresh in Goldberg’s cartoons.
But, then, I realized that I was primed to love this meal, because of another favorite movie of mine.
Yes, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure essentially replicates Keaton’s gag, down to the final joke that—after all this prep work—he eats very little of the food.
As much as I love Tim Burton’s sequence, he cheats a bit with his cuts in ways that Keaton doesn’t. By shooting it mostly in one take, Keaton shows us how talented and in sync he and Roberts actually are. There’s no cutaways and behind-the-scenes adjustments, not even when Keaton lobs a tomato across the table and Roberts spears it with his fork.
Still, modernity has its uses in The Scarecrow. That house of his is pretty cool, even if you’d spend half your life ducking if you lived in it. He manages to get married because he escapes with Seely by motorbike, not by horse. And the movie ends with a merger of old-fashioned life (a river baptism as wedding) and newfangled times (the “baptism” occurs because Keaton & Seely crash the motorcycle into the water). The soaked minister anoints the newlyweds, and they embrace—a happy romantic ending.
Like I said, Keaton’s a softie.