In his shorts, Buster Keaton has been a chowderhead, a stumblebum, a naive nincompoop, and even a weaselly rapscallion. In My Wife’s Relations, he was mean, though I would argue that he’s mostly absorbing the meanness of the people around him. He’s more exasperated than actively spiteful.
Here, though, he’s despicable. Seeing a woman embrace a man from a distance, and mistaking that woman for his wife, he shoots the couple dead. Then it dawns on him that, not only has he killed two innocent people, he’s done so because he entered the wrong house. He walks away, and there are no consequences. He then makes his way to his own home, and watches his real wife fall unconscious accidentally. Not only does he not care about this, he actively pretends that she’s still conscious, to fool a mountie who smells something fishy and thinks Buster is a wife-beater. Buster’s dance with his wife’s corpse reminds me of the entire premise of Weekend at Bernie’s, only Keaton’s sequence is—thank God—much shorter.
Buster doesn’t get any better. He opens the movie by trying to rob a saloon in the most cowardly manner possible, and spends the rest of the movie killing, trying to steal other men’s women, thieving, and causing morbid chaos. When his “nice” pitch to woo the other woman fails, he attempts to kill her husband, and then rape her. (He’s thwarted by his wife, who shoots him.) Some of the sequences are indeed funny but in the snide, blood-splattered way of a Quentin Tarantino film. Whereas Buster usually wages havoc accidentally, or at least inadvertently while trying to escape something even worse, here he’s just malevolent. The Frozen North has a black heart.
So, it’s ironic and appropriate that the film is so drenched in white—white suits, white snow, white fur of pack dogs. The pure whiteness counterbalances this sick, dirty film. Buster leaves a stain on the landscape. Actually, the sludge follows him, as he brings the grimminess of the city with him into the Yukon. The movie begins with Buster emerging from the last subway stop on the line—in Alaskan territory. Parodies of the Lincoln Highway, traffic signals, street cops, and taxi all abound in this snow-blinded rural landscape. The effect is surreal, and inventive, caught beautifully (again!) by Elgin Lessley’s crisp photography.
There’s a method to The Frozen North’s meanness. Keaton was parodying the western films of William S. Hart, who—at the time—was vociferously accusing Keaton’s friend Roscoe Arbuckle of murder and rape. Hart was huge, a big star, iconic for his rigidly moral portrayals of western heroes, and his self-righteousness extended beyond the screen. He didn’t know Arbuckle, and he didn’t really know the case, but that didn’t stop him from calling for Arbuckle’s head. Arbuckle had essentially given Keaton his film career, and was perhaps Buster’s closest friend, and there was no way that Keaton was going to take Hart’s viciousness lying down.
So, The Frozen North, Keaton mocks Hart’s onscreen mannerisms, costumes, and demeanor, playing the character as the polar opposite of Hart’s screen persona. It was a big risk. Hart was bigger than Keaton—in popularity, and in influence within Hollywood. Keaton did it anyway. Arbuckle, of course, was exonerated, though his career was ruined, and he worked in cinema only behind the scene, under assumed names, from there on out. For the most part, Arbuckle was forgotten for decades, except as a trivia item about the scandal. So, in a way, Hart won.
In lieu of all this, I think we have to give The Frozen North a pass, even though meanness doesn’t suit Buster, and even though the movie ends with the cheapest, hoariest joke in all of movies. (The gag was musty even by 1922.) After all, the movie’s original audiences apparently rolled in the aisles, recognizing the Hart parody. It did what it was trying to do, and its target was a worthy one. So, in a way, Buster won, too.