Buster Keaton #10: The Paleface (1922)

Paleface (kiss)

The Paleface ends, so far as I can tell, with Buster Keaton’s first kiss. And it’s with Virginia Fox, his loveliest and most nimble-footed foil up to that point. So, it’s got that going for it.

It’s weird that it took him over ten shorts to smooch a girl, given that 1) most of Keaton’s shorts are romantic comedies at their roots; 2) Keaton was rather handsome with that long face, soulful eyes, and sharp cheekbones, and routinely played men who—no matter how prone they were to pratfalls—knew who they wanted and went about getting her, in the rough-and-tumble manner of Clark Gable; and 3) that the women (Fox, Sybil Seely, Bartine Burkett) were equally rough-and-tumble, knew what they wanted (Buster, usually), and were less shy about getting it than most romantic-movie dames at the time.

Then again, maybe not. Even by the boy’s-club standards of slapstick’s creation, Buster’s shorts are oddly sexless. In a Keaton short, finding love largely means finding someone who will slap you around with affection instead of animosity—in short, someone who’ll put up with your bullshit. The possibility of fucking seems incidental to Keaton’s sense of romance.

So, it’s jarring (in a good way) to see, at the end of The Paleface, Keaton swing Fox around for a swooning kiss. He must have known it, too, for he immediately makes the moment ironic, putting it in quote marks. He kisses her hand, and then the swoon-kiss… and then this title card:


And then cut to:


Boy’s held it in for so long—ten shorts, three years—that he doesn’t know what to do but keep going. It’s a silly gag but an apt one, too. Think back to your first kiss, your first lay. (OK, your second lay, because the first likely was clumsy, fumbling, and over way too soon.) You wanted it to go on forever, right? Because everything else in your world keeps plummeting into your consciousness while it’s happening but you realized that everything could stay out, too, so long as you kept that pleasure and intimacy going. Onward! says Buster’s face and bodily determination—he just never got to say it with his body so juicily until then.

Of course, that two-year kiss is a poke at rom-com sentimentality. Even back in 1922, people were sick of it, and that’s before sound entered the picture, and the strings could swell movingly.

Buster’s sick of other conventions in The Paleface, of course, namely that of the “Noble Savage.” And it’s here that we get into trouble, because The Paleface doesn’t handle this very well. Keaton & Crew mean to jab at the pretensions of white folks thinking themselves superior to American Indian primitivism, by having the whites be as ravenous land-grabbers as the Indians are, um, ravenous tepee lovers? Devotees of feathers and stone axes? It’s not clear what Keaton’s going for here. And the waters are muddied further by the fact that the “Indians” are just white folks (Big Joe Roberts, Fox) in brownface and that they act just as cartoonishly and simple-mindedly as white folks of 1922 thought that Indians did. I mean, you’re not exactly flying the United Colors of Benetton flag when you’re doing this:


Would it have killed the studio to actually hire some bona fide Indians? Or to not have them be so goddamn gullible?

All this being said, Keaton’s commenting on the fluidity of race of America, however awkwardly. Buster gets initiated into the tribe only after a considerable trial—he gets put up to broil in a fire, and survives because he surreptitiously put on a fireproof asbestos suit beforehand; don’t ask—and is dubbed “Little Chief Paleface,” echoing the Ward Churchill controversy eight decades later. He passes from white to red, culminating in That Kiss. He’s gone native but not in a way that gives full respect to the natives—again, the brownface, the buffoonery, the White Savior, the fake-ass “Indian” dialect. It’s as sophisticated as you’d expect a white guy born at the tail end of the 1800s to be but, from Buster, I’ve grown to expect better, to expect the complex play of Neighbors.

Oh well. There’ll be more tries with Keaton and race, some good, some not so. At least there’s a phenomenal kiss at the end of this one.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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