Spock and the Humor of Buster Keaton

Gloria Wickman
Oct 10, 2018 · 8 min read
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Still from the 1922 short film, “Cops!”

Stoic, supremely logical, and often at odds with an alien and hostile environment, there is more than a passing similarity between Star Trek’s Spock and the porkpie wearing staple of the silent era, Buster Keaton. Both characters hid a surprising athleticism. Spock could knock a man unconscious with a nerve pinch to the shoulder. Keaton’s stunts are legendary even today. But it’s the characters’ worldview more than anything else that makes them similar.

If there were a form of humor the race of highly logical Vulcans could appreciate, it would certainly be Keaton’s. Each gag is built on a solid chain of cause and effect and works with its own internal logic. While he may end up in surprising places, the audience is left believing it couldn’t have happened any other way. Nowhere is Keaton’s love of cause and effect and logical consequence better seen than in his short film, The Goat.

Long held to be one of his funniest works, in The Goat Buster Keaton plays a luckless man twice framed for crimes he didn’t commit. Much of the film involved Buster running from the police, which he would push to the extreme in another of his short films, Cops. The pace is relentless, with each gag leading directly into the next.

Film analysis of Keaton’s work often focuses on the theme of alienation. Keaton is presented as a man struggling against a hostile and mechanical world. Shorts such as One Week, The Electric House, The High Sign, and The Scarecrow all incorporate mechanical devices into the humor. While these gags can be attributed largely to Keaton’s love of Rube Goldberg devices (He used a miniature train to carry food to picnickers at his house), there is a consistent theme of modernity running throughout his works.

Enforcing this modernity, The Goat has a subtle theme about the danger of superstition. In the opening of the film, Keaton is introduced as a man standing in a breadline. The title card preceding his introduction humorously places him as being on “Millionaire’s Row.” With this scene establishing Keaton’s character as impoverished, the audience is left to wonder how he will change this state.

The next scene sets up events that happen in the second reel. Dead Shot Dan, a known murderer, is being photographed in the jail. In an unfortunate bit of timing, Buster peaks in the window as Dan pokes a hole in the camera and causes him to be unknowingly photographed. Buster moves on, unaware of what’s taken place and Dead Shot Dan escapes.

For Keaton, his goal is still to find some money, or at least some food. Like Spock, Keaton’s character is presented as a rational individual. When he sees a horseshoe on the ground, he ignores it. He then watches as another man picks it up and throws it behind him for luck. A few steps later, Keaton sees the man find a wallet full of cash. After observing this, Keaton comes to the conclusion that the horseshoe must be lucky after all and begins searching frantically for it.

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Keaton examines the rewards of horseshoe throwing in “The Goat”

Keaton finds the horseshoe, but he would have been better off if he hadn’t. He throws it behind him and straight into the face of a policeman. While the first man’s good luck was coincidental — finding a wallet has nothing to do with throwing horseshoes — Keaton’s bad luck is a direct result of his actions. His character is one tied to logical consequence rather than chance. The rest of the film, including its many chase sequences, derives from Keaton dealing with the consequences of this action.

The incident is also a critique on the dangers of relying on luck. While Keaton’s character has benefited from fortuitous timing, it is always up to him to solve his own problems. There is a running theme of agency in all of Keaton’s films. He may be placed in a hostile world, but his character always works against it and frequently finds success.

After temporarily evading the police in a number of increasingly elaborate gags, Keaton encounters the girl of the picture, played by Virginia Fox. In this scene, Fox is walking her dog when another man becomes entangled in the leash and begins threatening her and her dog. Keaton sees this and steps in. His effort is rewarded with a punch in the face from the man. Keaton staggers forward and flips the man to the ground, knocking him unconscious in a maneuver that looks as graceful as it does accidental. Before Keaton can do anything else, the police show up and Keaton goes on the run again. This time he hops a train to the next town.

The second reel of the film begins with an iconic shot of Keaton riding on the front of a train into the next town. The implied time jump sets up a few important things for the next film. First, Keaton has finally escaped the cops after him for the horseshoe incident. Second, news of Dead Shot Dan’s escape has spread. The newspapers and signs in the town offer a reward for Dead Shot Dan’s capture, dead or alive. But the face in the newspapers is Keaton’s instead of Dan’s.

Keaton walks the town in confusion for a while, unable to understand why all the townspeople run from him in fear. He even checks his reflection in the mirror, trying to figure out what’s wrong.

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Still image from “The Goat”

Eventually he comes across a sign with his face as that of the murderer, Dead Shot Dan. Seeing it, he thinks back to the incident with the lady and the man he knocked unconscious. The only logical explanation Keaton can find is that he must have accidentally killed the man.

As Keaton reflects on his circumstances, two workers are arguing about mixing mortar. One worker pushes the other into a trough of the stuff. When the other man emerges, he is covered in white and storms off through a hidden doorway in the sign Keaton is contemplating.

Keaton never sees the door open or close, but is startled by a man appearing from seemingly nowhere. Taking in this white figure, Keaton assumes it to be the ghost of the man he killed. He runs away in fear and collides with the town’s Chief of Police, played by frequent Keaton collaborator Joe Roberts. This is the second incidence of superstition being harmful to Keaton’s character. Had Keaton not believed in ghosts and recognized the construction worker for what he was, he would have avoided much of his later trouble.

Bumping into Roberts got Keaton the wrong kind of attention and things only get worse for him. As Keaton attempts to obscure the sign showing him as a murderer, an assassin hides behind him and takes a shot at Joe Roberts. The assassin misses and runs off, leaving Keaton holding the gun. Keaton briefly tries to explain what happened, but gives up after he accidently shoots the gun. This starts a chase between the two men which only ends when Keaton drops a large pile of rocks on top of Roberts.

In a repetition of the first reel, Keaton’s momentary escape from the law is followed by another encounter with Virginia Fox. At this point in the film, Keaton begins to adapt to his situation. Having previously seen people run in fear when they recognize him, Keaton covertly shows a driver who is harassing him his wanted picture in the newspaper. The driver hurries off and Keaton is free to continue talking with the girl.

Fox invites him up to her family’s apartment for dinner and Keaton is eager to accept. Unfortunately, her father turns out to be none other than Joe Roberts who has escaped the rock pile and is more than a little angry. After sending Fox and her mother away, he locks the door and bends the key.

Escape would be impossible for anyone less athletic and unconventional than Keaton. He springs off the ground and uses Roberts as a stepstool to jump through the window above the door. The sequence that follows is a series of gags involving Keaton being chased across multiple floors of the building.

Keaton hammers a nail to stop the elevator between floors in one of the “impossible gags” from “The Goat”

The central element of this chase is a collection of “impossible gags” involving an elevator. While Keaton believed that these gags worked fine in shorts, he refused to use them in his feature films because he believed that the audience wouldn’t go along with them in longer films.

Despite their impossibility, all of the elevator gags are built on one logical premise. The elevator car must be wherever the outside floor dial says it is. Each of the “impossible gags” present a logical consequence of this premise.

The first gag sets things up. Keaton is waiting for the elevator with Roberts closing in on him. In a panic, he pushes the arrow on the dial to his floor. Like magic, the doors open and he gets into the elevator.

The next few gags are all plausible as Keaton continues to outwit Roberts just long enough to get to the next crisis. Eventually, Keaton manages to get to the first floor with the girl. He knows Roberts is following behind them in the elevator. In the next “impossible gag,” he hammers a nail between the second and third floors. A quick shot of Roberts confirms that this has caused the elevator to get stuck between floors. As before, this gag reaffirms that the elevator must be wherever the dial says it is.

The final “impossible gag” occurs immediately after this. Keaton takes the dial and pushes it far beyond the top floor. The elevator is shown shooting out of the building and collapsing on the roof. When Keaton and the girl walk outside, they have to avoid some of the fallen debris.

While the final gag is the most impossible of the bunch, it still follows the same premise. If the elevator had hovered above the building, it would have been adding new complications. The fact that it broke when going through the roof shows that it is like any other mechanical device. It only does what its operators tell it to do and breaks when those instructions are impossible.

Even when portraying the impossible, the world of Keaton’s films is firmly rooted in logic. It might not have quite the same rules as our universe, but the success of Keaton’s character in the story depends on him discovering the rules of his world and using them to his advantage. His character’s attempts to approach each situation rationally and his stoic demeanor earned Keaton the nickname “the Great Stone Face.” But underneath the slapstick and humor of Keaton’s work is a logical and mechanical mind that is simply…fascinating.

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