Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Goat

Buster Keaton is walking past a jail when he grabs the bars and peers inside. On the other side of the bars is notorious murderer “Dead Shot Dan” who is being photographed. Seeing that Keaton is behind him, Dan ducks out of shot and once he escapes, a photo of Keaton, seemly behind bars is published. As a result of this Keaton is forced to go on the run from various police officers including a persistent Police Chief who just won’t give up.

I watch a lot of Silent Comedy but if I had to ask someone to watch just one short silent picture it may well be this one. The Goat is packed full of wonderful jokes, ingenious set ups and incredible stunt work. I laughed more at twenty seven minutes of this film than I have during probably every comedy I’ve seen so far this year combined.

What makes this film so great is the sheer quantity and quality of gags. While essentially a chase comedy, this is to the Keystone Cops what BBC4 is to ITV2. Sure they have similarities, but one is far more sophisticated that the other. Keaton seems to find endless possibilities in places to hide and ways of escape, only to have them backfire on him. The way that the gags join together feels effortless. Nothing about the film feels forced despite the huge number of jokes and stunts. Keaton never creates a tenuous link from one to another, the whole film feels smooth and calculated while remaining frantic and fast paced.

As well as being incredibly funny, this is also quite surreal in places, in keeping with Keaton’s cannon. Some of the more surreal moments include a clay horse melting under Keaton’s weight and perhaps one of Keaton’s most famous scenes in which a train approaches from the distance and stops immediately in front of the camera showing Keaton, stone faced, riding the cow catcher. This isn’t really played for laughs but you laugh at the audacity of the shot. Perhaps the most surreal scene involves an elevator chase in which Keaton and the Police Chief (Joe Roberts) are involved in a chase through an apartment block. Keaton manipulates the mechanical elevator floor indicator to his advantage (even though this wouldn’t really effect where the elevator was) and by pulling it hard and past the top floor Keaton forces the elevator out of the roof. The scene is like a cross between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and something Terry Gilliam would produce. It’s a wonderfully clever and funny scene.

Something else that stands out, as with any Keaton picture, is the star’s athleticism and gymnastic abilities. It sometimes seems as though Keaton is made of rubber as he jumps, falls, stretches and squeezes with ease both in and out of trouble. Keaton, who once broke his neck during a film (and didn’t realise until years later when he had an x-ray) was never afraid to put himself in harms way and that is certainly true here. In The Goat he can be seen jumping through windows and off vehicles, sliding down elevator shafts and falling of a variety of apparatus. During all of this his expression never changes.   

To call The Goat a masterpiece would be no exaggeration. It is easily amongst the greatest silent shorts of the 1920s and amongst Keaton’s best work. The humour, timing and plot don’t feel out of place today. It’s the sort of film that you’ll be afraid to look away from for just a second or two in case you miss a gag or glance. This is comedic perfection.     


There are various versions of the film online that can be seen for free but if you're interested then watch this version at the end of Paul Merton's Silent Clowns Documentary. The picture is clear and the musical accompnyment works well. The Goat - 1921

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