Buster Keaton delivers a slice of demented wackiness in this snow-bound comedy. Keaton is a lusty would-be bandit with a large dose of William S. Hart mannerisms. It’s definitely one of his darker short films and is interesting in its own right but, as usual, the story behind the scenes is just as fascinating.
What does Buster Keaton mean to you? Elaborate stunts? Immaculate gags? Comical trains? Deadpan humor? Well, today we are going to look at an aspect of Keaton’s comedy that is a little more rare: the spoof.
William S. Hart was an ideal performer for Keaton to send up. Spoof comedy works best when the target is very popular (so that more people will get the jokes) and successful (making fun of a struggling actor or film can be mean if the comedian is not careful). Hart had both qualifications and he had a very distinct set of mannerisms and plot devices that were ripe for parody. As the icing on the cake, Keaton’s stone face proved to be be ideal for reenacting Hart’s Wrath of God scowl.
The Frozen North is set in the, well, frozen north. Keaton is a ne’er-do-well who starts things out by attempting to rob the local saloon using a cardboard cutout of a bandit. Hart had used a similar ruse in his 1914 film The Bargain, which had been re-released in 1920. Some critics have suggested that the cutout was used to symbolize Keaton’s view of Hart’s wooden acting. Actually, Keaton’s opinion was the opposite. He described Hart as a ham. He’s right. A two-decade veteran of the stage, Hart was one of the most shameless scenery-chewers in the business.
Of course, the saloon wises up quickly and Keaton is ejected. As he has failed at robbery, he heads home only to discover… His wife in the arms of another man!
Devastation. Tears. Then, holy wrath.
Keaton shoots the offending couple in the back, makes a tragic pose and then notices something. It’s not his wife. It’s not even his house.
Keaton spends the rest of the film dealing with snow forts, snowshoes, dog sleds and assorted north of the North Pole complications. No direct spoofs, just fun with props and stunts. The closest thing the film has to a plot is Keaton’s insistent wooing of a young wife every time her husband has his back turned. (He briefly launches into an Erich von Stroheim impression during one of these scenes.)
The short ends with Keaton’s wife shooting him, Keaton shooting the young couple… and then waking up in a movie theater. He fell asleep during what was apparently an Erich von Stroheim/William S. Hart double feature.
I almost wish that Keaton had not taken the “it was all a dream” path but perhaps the world was not ready for comedy in such a dark flavor.
The Frozen North gets a solid “good” on my scale of Keaton shorts. It’s not his finest but it is definitely a lot of fun. The darker comedy and the surreal aspects are a plus but I find its lack of focus to be a big drawback.
But here is another plus: Keaton’s imitation of Hart is devastating. He captures the western star’s stompy way of walking, his swaying mannerisms and his manly tears. As I mentioned before, Keaton’s deadpan comedy style is the kissing cousin of Hart’s stark dramatic manner. Other stars had spoofed Hart (notably Mack Swain, Douglas Fairbanks and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle) but Keaton was close enough to the genuine article for the humor to bite.
This bite has led to a few misconceptions as to just what Keaton was targeting.
Silent film historians are sometimes placed in the uncomfortable position of passing judgment on films they have never seen. They can’t help it. The sheer number of lost silent films makes it a necessity. Unfortunately, this fact has given rise to a rather regrettable habit among a few in the silent movie research field. They seem to have grown so accustomed to extrapolating what a film might have been like from stills and contemporary reviews that they feel comfortable doing so even when the films they are covering still exist.
Remember, these are highly educated, professional film historians and journalists. They do a lot of good but they can also do a lot of damage if they do not get their facts right.
As you may recall from my review of Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen, biographers of silent comedians sometimes fall down in one respect: They may watch the films of their subject but they do not watch other movies that were released at the same time. Even comedic geniuses did not create in vacuum, they gathered inspiration from pop culture in general, as well as other films and actors.
By not watching these other films and performers, biographers risk creating a flat, misleading book. Suppose fifty years in the future, some historian wanted to write a book about Saturday Night Live. Would you trust their writing if they refused to watch the films that SNL spoofed or the politicians and public figures who were impersonated? Of course not.
Which leads me to some Buster Keaton biographies.
When I review a film, I like to read through biographies and autobiographies of the movie’s personnel to see if there are any additional tidbits I can add. This time, though, I fell down the research rabbit hole and ended up just a little upset.
There is a passage in the book Keaton: Cut to the Chase by Marion Meade that I must address. Meade’s biography is not well-liked by Keaton’s devoted fans (as the book’s GoodReads score proves). The work is infamous for claiming that Keaton was illiterate, which seems odd given that the man kept a date book from the age of 13. He was also trained as a Morse code operator during his army days. My word, that kid writes and codes awfully well for being illiterate!
I do not claim to be a Buster Keaton expert, just a fan, but I do know a thing or two about William S. Hart and, well, I am a bit annoyed.
The offending passage:
“Hart always played Dudley Do-Right characters, but Keaton plays Hart as a thief and a bully, a seducer and a murderer.”
That sound you heard was me snorting my tea. And it was hot!
Has Meade ever seen a Hart film? I think perhaps not. Hart played bullies, thieves, killers, rapists, gangsters, hitmen and bandits. And those were his good guys. Yes, he would go down the path to redemption but usually not before indulging in just a little more murder and/or banditry for old time’s sake.
Hart took his role as storyteller of the west very seriously and I think it is entirely likely that he was annoyed at Keaton’s rambunctious send-up. (Later in life, Keaton stated that Hart did not speak to him for either one or two years, depending on which interview you read.) However, as for the bad man behavior, Keaton did not really exaggerate all that much. In short, Keaton spoofed what Hart did, not what he didn’t do.
Dudley Do-Right indeed!
There is no excuse for a film historian not to see Hart’s work. His pictures have a rather high survival rate and they are comparatively easy for the general public to obtain from major retailers. Meade’s book was published in 1995, well into the home video era.
“Bill Hart had cleaned up the rowdy, roistering frontier and made it fit for women and children. He virtually originated the sexless ascetic, he-man sort of horse opera. He never kissed the girl, though he threatened to up to the last moment, keeping her and the audience in suspense as he fought the battle with his baser self. Perhaps that is why he always lost her and never did graduate from his lone bed on the lone prairie. And, of course, he never stole, so he could hardly have enjoyed Buster’s holdup of the Klondike saloon.”
Not a single word in that passage is true.
Oh, all right. Hart was “Bill” to his friends. But that’s it. Hart’s characters were frequently psychotic, invariably vengeful, often lusty and always violent. They also got the girl, more often than not. Oh, and he played a bandit dozens of times so I don’t know where this “never stole” business comes from.
So, according to Keaton’s biographers, Mr. Hart never did this:
(Maybe someone ought to tell Mr. Hart about these rules. He doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo.)
If you want an easy shorthand description of Hart’s persona, the sound actor who is most often compared to him is Clint Eastwood, particularly his Man With No Name character. See why the descriptions of Hart as safe, monk-like and law-abiding are so ridiculous?
I think that some of our esteemed authors are mixing up Hart’s onscreen persona with the legendarily well-behaved Hopalong Cassidy, as played by William Boyd. I love both Hart and Boyd but their favored characters have very little in common other than deep devotion to their respective horses. Here is a handy chart that should prevent further confusion:
The best examination of the Hart vs. Keaton issue that I have found to date is in the book Buster Keaton’s Silent Shorts by James Neubaur and Terri Niemi. The authors clearly have seen Hart’s work and recognize what Keaton is spoofing (though they do label Hart as a wooden actor).
The book also addresses a few of the rumors that have attached themselves to the film, namely that the spoof was Keaton’s revenge for Hart publicly condemning Fatty Arbuckle (when the latter was accused of murder) or that it was meant to expose Hart’s alleged domestic violence. (Hart went through a very acrimonious divorce with actress Winifred Westover, who was said to be friends with Keaton’s wife, Natalie Talmadge.) The authors acknowledge that there is no direct evidence for either theory and they merely reference them because they are so widely discussed.
If Keaton himself is to be believed, he never meant for The Frozen North to be anything more than a friendly spoof of an actor whose films he enjoyed. When he discussed the short in interviews, Keaton seemed genuinely hurt that Hart took offense. After all, he wouldn’t have bothered to satirize Hart if he was not a fan himself.
According to Keaton, “If I imitated him it was only because I admired him so much that I wanted to be Bill Hart for a little while on the screen.”
I personally do not buy the vengeance angle. As we have already seen, Keaton’s Hart behavior was only slightly exaggerated and if he lied, cheated, killed or stole… well, Hart had already done those things a dozen times before. If anything, The Frozen North on the mild side for a spoof. If Keaton really meant to take revenge against Hart for Arbuckle’s sake, I think he would have sharpened his comedic darts in a more deadly manner. In fact, Keaton gives up the Hart impression for much of the short and throws in a parody of Erich von Stroheim for good measure.
Plus, that so-called motive is murky. Meade’s book states that Keaton purchased some ideas for The Frozen North from Arbuckle, who, the author claims, bore a grudge against Hart. (Keaton’s alleged purchase of story ideas does not really prove much as Arbuckle already spoofed Hart in his 1918 short Out West.) While many book and online resources state that Hart condemned Arbuckle, the books all seem to lead back to Meade and the websites lead back to Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia article cites the Marion Meade book (which we have already established as unreliable) and Buster Keaton’s Silent Shorts as the references for Hart’s supposed Arbuckle condemnation. However, according to the latter work, Hart is merely quoted as saying that if Arbuckle were guilty, he should be punished. It further states, “Keaton was said to have felt that Hart was helping to convict Hart in the press.” So, in short, we are dealing with rumors and hearsay.
The 2003 biography William S. Hart: Projecting the American West by Ronald L. Davis wrote that Hart was concerned about the Arbuckle scandal and what it would mean for the movie industry. As a biographer, Davis is rather antagonistic toward his subject but even he does not offer any particularly juicy quotes. Hart: “The time is fast approaching, however, when this honorable profession will be forced to clean house.” That’s pretty generic, as statements of condemnation go.
(Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat also discusses Hart’s condemnation of Arbuckle but uses Meade’s book as its source.)
And this, dear readers, illustrates another pitfall of research: Check your sources and then check the sources of your sources. There are many cases of works on silent film referencing a source to support their argument when it does no such thing.
I’m not saying that it is impossible that Hart spoke out against Arbuckle. What I am saying is that I need dates and direct, confirmed quotes from Mr. Hart before I can write further on the matter. The Arbuckle scandal and trials were the subject du jour for Hollywood and everyone had an opinion. Was Hart’s take on the matter worse than that of other stars and directors? If so, how? I actually consider those last two questions to be the most important. For example, Miriam Cooper and Lowell Sherman both thought Arbuckle was guilty of rape and murder (as discussed by Cooper in her bitter memoir Dark Lady of the Silents) but they are rarely mentioned in connection to the case. When did Hart make his statements? How many statements did he make? To whom did he make them? How do we know Keaton blamed Hart? Who said so? When did they say it?
It would be one thing if the mention of Hart was just a throwaway bit of trivia but theories as to the very meaning of The Frozen North have cropped up based on Hart’s comments.
As it stands, all the sources I have tracked down either make use of indirect quotes or use direct quotes that are not particularly negative. However, even if I did succeed in chasing down evidence of Hart saying Arbuckle was a monster, it still does not prove that Keaton intended some sort of revenge.
You see, there is a huge difference between Keaton and Arbuckle deciding to tweak Hart’s nose a little and Keaton melodramatically shaking his fist at the gods and setting out on a campaign of destruction and revenge, which is, frankly, how some biographies make it sound. I also find it odd that the humor of The Frozen North does not really touch on sanctimony or hypocrisy, which a revenge film would likely have done.
(The most reasonable approach to the revenge theory that I have found so far comes from Buster Keaton: The Persistance of Comedy, which claims that Arbuckle suggested Keaton parody Hart’s mannerisms because he was annoyed with his statements. Keaton then took this kernel of an idea and expanded it, sans malice. A fair assessment, if you really want to believe the revenge angle.)
Now for the second rumor. The exposing-spousal-abuse angle only makes sense if Hart was an utter boy scout to ladies in his films and Keaton was uncovering his violent ways. Well, Hart wasn’t a boy scout. There’s no other way to put this: Hart’s characters sometimes hit girls. Not all the time but it happened enough for an astute comedian like Keaton to notice. Keep in mind that Hart was extremely popular and his films were often re-issued. And, just so you know, sometimes the girls hit (or even fired) back.
So Keaton shoving around the ladies (and getting shot himself) does not prove a darn thing about Hart’s married life. It just means that Keaton, an admitted fan of Hart’s westerns, watched a lot of Hart movies. Quite a revelation, that.
As for the abuse allegations themselves… To be honest, I really do not enjoy digging into the private lives of actors looking for dirt. When reading biographies, I tend to skip over all the love affair stuff to get to the behind-the-scenes movie production details. I will say, though, that I find it best to be particularly cautious about believing rumors that stem from nasty divorces, custody battles, paternity suits and alimony hearings. I think fans of both Keaton and Chaplin will understand my viewpoint and my meaning. And with that, the matter drops.
I mean, I could say that Keaton spoofed D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (Keaton’s sister-in-law, Constance Talmadge, was one of its stars) with Three Ages because he was angry that Griffith had replaced Lillian Gish as his leading lady or to expose his skirt-chasing ways. He got the gossip from his wife, I tell you, and decided that he was going to do something about it! But if I did claim such a thing, readers would ask (quite correctly) for proof. You know, telegrams, production notes or journals that back up my claims.
In my opinion, both the revenge and abuse theories completely collapse once someone takes the time to actually watch a William S. Hart movie. You mean watch the source of a comedy to understand its humor? Why, it’s so crazy it just might work!
Keaton’s dark spoof is well-done and it is not essential that you see Hart films to enjoy it. However, your appreciation of this comedy will increase tenfold if you do take the time to see Mr. Hart in action. You will recognize the behavior and mannerisms that Keaton is imitating and get more of the jokes. Definitely worth the effort, wouldn’t you say?
Fans of Hart will enjoy the dead-on parody but the short stands on its own merits because it is not truly a spoof from beginning to end and there is plenty of Keaton goodness to go around.