Hiding in plain sight – more cinematic magic from Buster Keaton’s Go West

Known only as “Friendless,” Buster finds himself working on an Arizona cattle ranch during Go West. There he meets Brown Eyes the cow when he kindly removes a painful rock stuck in her hoof. Soon after she returns the favor by interceding when a bull comes charging at Buster. Friendless no more, Buster and Brown Eyes are inseparable for the rest of the film.

Above, the touching scene when Buster first realizes another living being, Brown Eyes, actually likes him, has always struck me as perhaps the most sincerely emotional scene portrayed in Keaton’s work. But as we’ll see a bit later below, the scene also contains some cinematic magic, hiding in plain sight.

Now fast friends, Buster later protects Brown Eyes from being seared by a red-hot cattle brand by painlessly shaving a brand mark on her instead. Above, Buster shows his tonsorial handiwork to the rancher.

Next, in a scene that echoes Buster dislodging the rock from Brown Eye’s hoof, the rancher’s daughter, played by Kathleen Myers, beckons Buster to join her beside a well to help remove a splinter from her hand.

Looking closely (click to enlarge), both scenes were filmed in front of a painted backdrop. A prop well was added for Kathleen’s scene, but matching painted details appear in both shots. Very clever Buster!

As first documented in my book Silent Echoes, and in this recent post updated with wonderful color photos taken by dedicated EPA attorney and devoted Keaton fan Marie Muller, Keaton filmed the ranch scenes at Tap Duncan’s Valley Ranch more than 50 miles north of Kingman, Arizona, and the cattle loading scenes in Hackberry, located along historic Route 66 about 20 miles NE from Kingman, and 30 miles south of the ranch. Above, matching views at Hackberry as they prepare the cattle to board the train – photo Marie Muller.

Above, knowing she will be transported by train to the slaughter house, Buster pleads to spare Brown Eye’s life, presented as if filmed at the Hackberry loading dock. Having visited Hackberry in person, and relishing the high definition details visible in the film’s Blu-ray release, I studied the above scene closely, hopeful some ridge lines in the background might match up.

That’s when I realized Buster had staged these two emotional scenes, first meeting Brown Eyes, and later pleading for her life, in front of the same painted backdrop. Another bit of cinematic magic, hiding in plain sight. Very clever indeed.

The same painted backdrop also appears in this publicity still above (click to enlarge), one of a series of stills of Buster posing with regional freight cars staged with appropriate painted backdrops such as northern snow, southern cotton fields, and eastern rolling hills. While I have no access to contemporary records confirming this, logic dictates these painted backdrop scenes were filmed in Hollywood at Buster’s studio, under his complete control, and not at some remote, dusty ranch.

I discovered these painted backdrops preparing my Go West visual essay for the 2021 Eureka Entertainment Masters of Cinema release of Go West, along with Keaton’s Our Hospitality and College. With thanks to Kino-Lorber, the visual essay I prepared for KL about College is also included in the new Eureka release.

Another special effect – the upper floors are painted on glass

Though considered a lesser Keaton film, Go West remains a staggering accomplishment. Think of the logistics. Buster filmed for weeks in the Arizona desert, hundreds of miles from home, while enduring the summer heat. Buster worked with several farm animals, training them to perform on command, and wrangled a herd of at least 100 live cattle on real downtown streets, at 4th and Merrick near the former LA Santa Fe freight yard (above). Buster staged many sequences atop moving trains, presaging the even more elaborate scenes that would appear later in The General. And last, Buster employed many special visual effects so convincingly, including the painted backdrops revealed here, we don’t even notice. It all appears effortless on the screen thanks to Buster Keaton’s incredible talent as a comedian and filmmaker.

Check out the videos (11 now) about Buster, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd hosted on my YouTube Channel.

Below, along Route 66, the Hackberry ridgeline appearing above – zoom in for a closer look.

This entry was posted in Buster Keaton, Go West and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Hiding in plain sight – more cinematic magic from Buster Keaton’s Go West

  1. Carl Russo says:

    Super sleuthing as always, John! Classic Flix is busy restoring a bunch of Our Gang silent two-reelers for Blu-ray release, so I hope you’ll be hunting down those locations, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Carl. I’m hoping they’ll release the early Our Gang silent “A Quiet Street” – I have a very poor copy. It overlaps with many, many unreported scenes from Buster Keaton’s The Goat, lost streets and corners, and so many other sites all demolished long ago. A clean clear copy would be a treasure map, one of the best, broadest time travel movies I’d ever want to see.

      Like

  2. Bob Borgen says:

    Great work by you — and Marie. Lawyers make the best cinematic historians.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jim Dallape says:

    Nicely done as always. Maybe someday you should put all of these in a book…. Happy New Year, John.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. John, my response to this remarkable piece is the same as always when I read your work: “Wow!”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Rena says:

    Great detective work as usual, John.

    I have to say that Go West is definitely not a “lesser” Keaton film to me. (Of course, that’s because there are so many wonderful flicks to choose from) I took my mother to see it at the SFSFF on her old “neighborhood theater” – namely the Castro movie palace. And we laughed ourselves silly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, how wonderful you saw it together, and at the Castro. Repeating the close of this post, it’s staggering all the challenges Buster overcame making this film, that we never notice. Happy New Year

      Like

  6. Donna Strother Deekens says:

    Your “cinematic eye” is amazing, John! Thanks for sharing this fascinating info!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I now realize that the moving background outside the boxcar is just a rotating backdrop. I suppose it should’ve been obvious considering Buster falls out the train door when he’s inside the barrel.

    Liked by 1 person

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