1922 was Buster Keaton Productions’ most prolific year, with seven two-reelers produced and released—more than one every two months. Sometimes, it shows. Cops, for instance, has considerable promise and lots of invention but seems too ambitious for Buster’s filmic abilities at the time. The Paleface has iffy racial politics, and takes too long to build up steam. My Wife’s Relations felt, to me, like the master had forgotten half of what he’d learned about moviemaking.
But then I think: Too ambitious for his abilities? What crack am I smoking? Even great artists make bad works. It happens, especially when you’re churning ‘em out at this time. So, I forgive The Blacksmith for recycling the ending of My Wife’s Relations, which features Buster escaping his combatants by dashing onto a moving train. It’s likely that the studio had access to a train for this period of time, and Buster—being the resourceful guy that he was—said, “welp, we better milk this cow for all it’s worth.”
Besides, no apology is necessary, when The Blacksmith improves on My Wife’s Relations in every conceivable way. It returns the cast & crew to single-location shoots (well, mostly—there’s a ramble in the countryside and on the railroad tracks) of 1921. Buster and company make as much use of that blacksmith’s shop as they can, and it’s to the immense credit of sumptuous Elgin Lessley’s cinematography that the place seems vital and dynamic, despite the short being basically a single-location one-act play.
Buster is a terrible blacksmith—don’t be shocked—but his boss (Big Joe Roberts) is a terrible person, and their clientele ain’t much better. The customers are snooty, eccentric, and so enamored with their beautiful horses and obsessed with the cleanliness of their beautiful cars that they fail to treat the people working on them with any semblance of respect. Even the neighborhood kid is a brat who gets in the way. You sorta understand why Roberts is perpetually angry. When Buster manages to systematically ruin every job he’s handed, I can’t help but think it’s partly on purpose. I mean, c’mon.
Each of these situations is funny. Buster can’t help being funny, just as his persona can’t help fucking things up. No one should ever hand him a power tool and blowtorch. Ever. It’s not that he’s not handy, exactly, but that his mind works so weirdly that he’s using his tools in ways so inventive that he’s forgotten how to use them for their intended purposes. Often, disaster is the result. Occasionally, though, it’s movie magic, as when he figures out how to jack up a car he’s trying to fix and get an annoying kid out of his hair at the same time.
Sometimes, okay usually, it’s his own body that’s the unorthodox tool, as here, when he and Roberts use unbelievable timing to show Buster escaping being clobbered.
There’s a choreography, to this chaos that was missing in My Wife’s Relations. Even when things get explosive, the madness is of a piece, largely contained to the physical environment and the things that occur naturally within it. When Buster swoops Virginia Fox off of a runaway horse, as he’s being chased by the townspeople he’s messed with, this motion flows smoothly, despite its exaggeration. When they jump onto a caboose1 at the movie’s end, of course Fox steps onto the train lightly, while Buster tumbled and is dragged. And of course that motion is beautiful, somehow.
That train gag is glorious, because it upends our notions a bit. Like the cowboy riding into the sunset, the newlyweds on the rails is a time-honored traditional ending of early cinema, especially Buster’s. But The Blacksmith then immediately shows the train falling off a bridge—a prediction of Buster’s The General. It turns out to be a toy track that Buster’s building for his infant son, showing that he’s got no more aptitude for miniature automobiles than he does for the full-size versions.
Anyway. I initially called The Blacksmith essentially a one-act play, but its closing reminds us, intentionally, that Buster is fully aware that he’s making cinema, and that he’s self-aware of its (and theater’s) conventions. I’ll close this post with how Keaton ends his short, because it’s perfect.
1. Back to trains. Jesus. Maybe I love Buster Keaton because he loves trains as much as I do. ↩